At the E3 games conference two years ago, the creative director of Forza Horizon, Ralph Fulton, was trying to communicate the visual beauty of the game’s sequel. During a demo session for journalists, he explained how road surfaces in the game would gather rain water after a storm, and that the resulting puddle would be truly reflective, mirroring the chassis of passing cars, and reflecting sunlight.
It was a teeny detail but it spoke volumes about developer Playground Games and the studio’s obsession with sleek aesthetics. For the third title, which takes the open-world driving festival to Australia, they’ve rather outdone that boast, which now seems rather quaint in comparison.
“Look at the sky,” says the art director, Benjamin Penrose, during a demo at this year’s E3. “That is a genuine Australian sky. A bunch of our guys actually went out on location with a custom-built 12k HDR camera rig – they camped in a field for the entire summer taking images every second of every day. They brought all of this amazing photography back to the studio and fed it through a custom process that streams the data into our system, producing the most dynamic, evolving skyscapes you’ve ever seen in a game.”
So as you drive through this vast, geographically varied country, the sky above is a sort of weather cinema: clouds form and flow in real time, storm fronts gather, showers come in, drenching the road surfaces. It is rather special.
But of course, it’s what’s happening on the roads that’s important. Forza Horizon 3 is twice the size of the previous game and offers twice the geographic diversity. From the rain forests at the tip of Queensland, through the endless outback, to the sun-drenched coastlines, Playground Games says it has explored and represented every ecological quirk of the country. Among the 350 cars, several new vehicle classes have been added to reflect these varied landscapes, including class 10 open wheel buggies and extreme offroaders. There are classic Aussie models too such as the ubiquitous Holden Ute and the classic 74 Sandman, as seen in the original Mad Max (I have it on good authority that you can also select a 1973 Ford Falcon, paint it matte black and fit a blower on the front to recreate Max’s classic Interceptor).
In our hands-on demo, we, of course, tried the new Lamborghini Centenario, the special edition Aventador variation designed to celebrate the company’s 100th birthday. Unsurprisingly, this V12 monster is also the game’s centrepiece vehicle – and considering the real thing costs £1.65m and is already sold out, it’s as close as we’re going to get. Rattling it through a forest roadway and then along a slither of golden beach feels strange, but also ridiculously fun. The Forza Horizon handling model has always prioritised accessiblity over authenticity, and that’s still very much the case. Acceleration, turning and overtaking are all smooth and controlled, the tyres gripping to pretty much any surface with only a touch of oversteer. The gamefeel gives you so much information, frankly it’s your fault if you spin-out on sharp corners.
Structure-wise, the game is still an open map that provides hundreds of challenges each contributing toward your progress though the festival rankings. This time, however, the player is the festival boss, deciding when and where to set up new sites, tweaking event types and even selecting the music. Through the new Horizon Blueprint option, you can go in and customise each event, altering the route, the weather, the time of day, the cars involved and any other restrictions. You can then give your new variation a name and share it with friends. Playground has also brought back the Bucket List mode, allowing you to create a custom checklist of challenges to attempt and share. Playground reckons the campaign is over 100 hours long, but if players start to build and distribute their own events, that’s just the beginning.
Sharing, it turns out, is a key theme this time around. Forza Horizon 3 is a “Play Anywhere” title so it’ll be available on Xbox One and Windows 10, allowing cross-play between friends on either platform. There’s also a new four-payer campaign co-op option: “We’ve wanted to do this from the beginning but now we can do it properly,” says Penrose. “It’s ‘no ifs no buts’ co-op - everything you can do in the solo campaign, you can do here. You can drop in and out, everything just works.” It’s an interesting addition that’ll provide further impetus to explore and progress, and vitally, anything you achieve while in co-op is transferred over to solo play.
The drivatar system – which lets you locate and drive against AI representations of your friends’ cars – has also been updated. A new feature called Drivatar Line-Up lets you go out into the world, track down your mates’ cars and recruit them to your festival as star drivers. From that point, any achievements earned by your friends go toward your own advancement as a festival boss. However, you only have four star driver slots so if one of your choices isn’t performing up to scratch you can sack them. Yes, in Forza Horizon 3 you can sack an artificially intelligent version of a friend. This is gaming in 2016.
There are other neat little additions scattered around the game. 15 new jump challenges let you track down some ridiculous ramps and then get as much air as possible. A new Groove Music radio station allows you to upload your own music MP3s to One Drive them stream them as you play (if you’re a Groove Music subscriber, you can also access tracks and playlists from the music service). There are new rally parts and rim types to buy and customise your car with, and Playground has added wide body kits for the first time, with Rocket Bunny and Liberty Walk kits available. The auction house is back, letting players sell cars to each other – there’s even an option for you to follow car sellers who produce interesting custom kits and liveries.
So yes, Forza Horizon 3 is very beautiful. Running on Xbox One S it supports the new HDR feature, for richer colours and luminosity; its vehicle modelling is superlative; its understanding of Australia’s diversity (not just in terms of scenery, but the way that sunlight completely transforms outback and beach settings) is pretty much spot on. Our experience with the handling model has so far been restricted to a quick race along the beach, but it sure was fun.
The arcade racing genre seems to have become somewhat dormant over the past few years, so it’s great to find a title still flying that flag. Indeed, there is something in Horizon’s aesthetic obsession that harks back to the great work of Yu Suzuki. This series is a sort of Out Run for the 21st century – as much about experience as it is about competition. That’s good. That’s a beautiful thing to aim for.
Forza Horizon 3 is out on Xbox One and PC on 27 September
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st June 2016 13.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010