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Forza Horizon 3 review: the unofficial Fast and Furious video game

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Forza Horizon 3

Officially, Forza Horizon 3 is a spinoff of Forza Motorsport, the arcade side-route to the franchise’s hyperrealistic main drag. Unofficially, though, the game has more in common with the last decade’s trend of motorhead movies, like The Fast and the Furious, where cars aren’t vehicles, but action heroes in their own right, capable of practically everything — from jumping between skyscrapers to downing a jumbo jet.

After a superlative 30-minute intro, that is like test-driving every car in the lot at the speed of light, you choose a driver — Forza Horizon developer Playground Games offers a diverse set of playable characters, not just bald white beefcakes — and begin taking over Australia through good-spirited road races, that leave a paradoxical wake of joyful onlookers and destroyed property. Nobody ever gets hurt, and damaged fences, shredded yards, and obliterated vineyards are repaired within minutes, as if by a set decoration team prepping a second attempt at a film’s big stunt sequence. And even coming in last place accrues followers in your quest to convert the island into a never-ending party sequence that starts every Fast and Furious film. (In one respect, it bests the Fast and Furious films by not sexualizing car culture and providing a full wardrobe for all female characters, not just the ones driving the cars.)

This freedom, the notion that cars should navigate the world as freely as humans on foot, has more in common with car cinema, than the traditional racing game.

Video game racing has been, from its inception, a mostly linear experience with cars zipping around tracks hewn by impenetrable, often invisible barriers. Horizon 3 takes an alternate route, one largely charted by 2008’s Burnout Paradise, which loosed racers inside a fictional West Coast city. The Horizon series has since expanded further, making playgrounds of a state, Colorado; a European landmass, Southern France and Northern Italy; and now the nation of Australia.

Like traditional racing games, Forza Horizon 3 also offers paved roads and glowing lines that connect the starting point and finish line, but directions are often just recommendations. You could follow the preordained path, but the fastest route is as the crow flies, which will take you off the road, into caves, through verdant wineries, over mountains, and in and out of forest.

The resultant sense of freedom is both macro — in many races you can chart any route you’d like — and micro. Which is to say, an off-road route may take cars over a sparkling beach, a muddy creek, desert dunes, overgrown fields, or smooth highway pavement. Each surface feels different from another and handles differently depending on the vehicle.

With limited real-life experience in or near exotic cars, I can’t say if an Alfa Romeo in Horizon 3 feels like an Alfa Romeo in real life. But I can say the way its wheels churn sand on the beach or how it slashes through the impossibly frothy waves, is everything I’d expect from taking a million-dollar sports car on the actual beach.

The game’s creators have boasted about the 350 car roster, but plenty of recent games in the genre also feature practically endless garages. The real boast to be made is that every car feels unique in Forza Horizon 3. The developers have seemingly retained all the nitty-gritty details of how a car feels from the more serious Forza games, and dropped them into a laboratory full of ways to experiment.

And so, when I race, I find myself with a choice: I could choose the fastest car, obey the road, and ride the glowing path from starting point to finishing line. Or I could choose the car that turns my bad habits into advantages. I habitually veer off the road, so it should be all terrain. I take sharper corners too fast, so it should sacrifice top speed for better brakes and launch. If I’m racing near the forest, I want handling so I can thread shortcuts between the brambles. If I’m on the dunes, I’ll take a buggy. And sure, if the race is a straight shot on a fresh blacktop, I’ll consider the supercar.

But I don’t like shortcuts. What Forza Horizon 3 has helped me realize is that I don’t like racing games that force me to master the perfect path. And that is perhaps the big difference between Horizon 3 and the main Motorsport series. It’s not that the cars are more arcade-y (they feel real), it’s that the rules are scrapped. The Horizon series is a joyride simulator.

More so than its predecessor, Horizon 3 embraces its freedom. A "blueprint" mode lets you heavily modify races and vehicle customization — a selling point of the Forza series — and they are even more dense, from the kit to the livery to the sound of the horn. The artificial barriers scattered across the maps of previous games, like an impenetrable gated train track that bisected its predecessor, are largely gone. And while both Burnout Paradise and a handful of Need for Speed games have long encouraged exploration, they largely kept their players on roads, trailers, or allotted open spaces. Forza Horizon 3 isn’t one of the best open-world racing games; it’s one of the best open-world games.

The key story moments, the races you must complete to progress, are the game’s most linear races, and yet, even with reduced freedom, they aren’t dull or hackneyed. Perhaps the game’s creators, realizing they are taking control from the player, compensated by creating set pieces worthy of the films that inspired it. None of this would be possible without restraining you within an invisible prescribed path. Within the first 15 minutes, you race a jeep hanging from a military transport helicopter; within the first few hours, you basically re-create the opening sequence of The Fast and the Furious, pitting a car against a train. This is a silly thing to say about a racing game, but I hesitate to include more about the biggest races for fear of spoiling them. What other racing game has spoilers?

While Horizon 3 is very much its own thing, it’s indebted to a decade’s worth of arcade racers. I’ve mentioned Burnout Paradise, but you will taste notes of Split/Second, Blur, MotorStorm, and of course, Need for Speed, the racing equivalent of Madden. Despite their excellence, most of those franchises have been abandoned, their studios shutdown or assigned to more traditional fare. Forza Horizon 3 is racing on a track without competition. It would have been easy to coast to the finish line, but Playground Studios has taken the opportunity to take a joyride. With no rush to reach the finish line, and thus no obligation to take the best route, they’re seeing what new paths they can discover. How fortunate they’ve invited us to ride along.

Forza Horizon 3 will be available on Xbox One and Windows 10 on September 27th. The Ultimate Edition will be available on 23rd. Forza Horizon 3 is part of Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere program, so purchasing the game on Xbox One or Windows 10 will make the game available on both platforms. For the purpose of review, the game was played on the Xbox One. We will test the Windows 10 version when it becomes available.