I understand we’re extremely late with our review of Forza Horizon 3, as the game has been out for almost an entire month, but this isn’t due to our own laziness. At launch, none of us actually had the Windows 10 operating system installed on our PC’s, neither James nor Maple wanted to take the plunge on a controversial package that had been routinely making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and I personally had an exam that quite simply deserved a significant portion of my attention. When I finally did get around to purchasing Forza Horizon 3, both for my own enjoyment and to review on PRC.net, two consecutive patches released by Playground Games turned Forza Horizon 3 into an unplayable mess, to the point where the task of finishing the game felt more like a chore.
I really wanted to enjoy what Forza Horizon 3 has to offer, but Microsoft, Turn 10, and Playground Games have pushed out an unreliable piece of software that coughs, hacks, and stutters its way through a beautiful rendition of Australia’s Gold Coast – an experience that is simply unacceptable in 2016, and does not reflect the traditionally polished product one could expect when purchasing a Forza title in the past.
Landing simultaneously on both the Xbox One and Windows 10, Forza Horizon 3 was introduced to the gaming public on September 27th, 2016; the first time a major Forza release has been offered to PC gamers, as the franchise has spent the past decade operating solely as an Xbox exclusive. On Windows 10, Forza Horizon 3 cannot be purchased through retailers or in any third party online shops such as Steam, requiring you to install or upgrade to Windows 10, open the Windows Store app, navigate to the Forza Horizon 3 store page, and purchase the game through the dashboard. Horizon 3 is massively over-priced in the European Storefront – going for a whopping $76 US after currency conversion, whereas the North American version is the standard $59.99. I tried going the route of purchasing Horizon 3 through various other countries’ stores, but the application continued to give me an error message that said they could not process the payment, and I was forced to come to terms with the fact that I was paying a lot more than anyone else outside of Europe.
Downloading and installing Horizon 3 was a pain in the ass, as we’ve documented in detail here at PRC.net. The only way to download Horizon 3 was through the Windows store, which as an application is prone to frequent crashing, freezing, or randomly aborting downloads. It doesn’t display at what rate the files are transferring, nor does it inform you how much time it’ll take to finish the download. Sometimes the store is in the process of downloading an app – visible through the task manager or your Ethernet driver – but the progress bar is frozen, leaving you extremely confused. Choosing a simple install location is more or less impossible as well; you’re only allowed to choose the hard disk drive you want to download apps, and nothing else, which results in three or four different folders suddenly appearing in your home directory. Windows 10 doesn’t even create a folder in which it puts the different sub folders. Quite simply, it’s a mess.
Forza Horizon 3 immediately lets you know that Microsoft and Playground Games have no idea what the fuck they’re doing on the PC, as the game opens in a windowed, borderless state – as do all Windows 10 games downloaded from the Windows Store. It is still currently impossible to run Forza Horizon 3 in true full screen mode. Now despite the automatic options analyzing my system and recommending me to select High visual settings, in reality this meant that I’d be subjected to a below-average 30 frames per second; less than ideal for a game intended to show off what my PC can do through the backroads of Australia.
Initially, the performance of the game was quite good, apart from the weird, rubber-banding feeling you’d get through Horizon 3’s frame smoothing option when you arrived at a particularly detailed area within the game world. On highway segments and in races through the countryside, Horizon 3 remained locked at the 30 frames per second I told it to remain at, as unlocking the framerate would make the game feel like chewing gum. It was as if Horizon 3 was slowing down in order to compensate for the fluctuating framerate, and it was all sorts of fucked up to watch in motion.
The first of the three major patches seemed to increase performance and eradicate most of the framerate drops I had been experiencing – even getting rid of the weird rubber-banding effects in high traffic locations – but the two most recent updates turned Forza Horizon 3 into an unplayable mess for myself and many others. The second major patch introduced a bug that would break my explorer.exe process every time I launched the game, rendering the task bar absolutely useless and limit my ability to bring up the Start menu. The only way to fix this was to restart my PC, as simply shutting down the process and restarting it wouldn’t rectify the issue. The third update, which didn’t drop too long ago, was the final straw for myself, as the performance took a drastic nosedive, barely reaching 30 frames per second, stuttering all over the place, and reaching single-digit FPS values. I had to massively decrease my visual settings in order to make the game playable, which I find totally unacceptable given the game worked relatively okay after the first update.
The game also intrusively pushes something called the Groove Music Service on you during normal gameplay, trying to bait you into a free 14-day trial via the way of annoying pop ups, but thankfully in my experience I was able to click away from these and never had to deal with them again. Other people haven’t been so lucky.
After several patches, Forza Horizon 3 finally has decent wheel support, however this is one of the few racing games on the market that performs perfectly fine with a standard console controller as well. The application automatically detects both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers, so you aren’t even required to use a third party plugin like Input Mapper or DS4Windows as Matt Orr has talked about. You can change all sorts of deadzone values for your wheel, select the steering ratio, and a whole bunch of little oddities that are typically found in hardcore racing simulators – which was really nice to see. Horizon 3 also offers multiple sets of driving physics, but I found the Normal settings to be more realistic than the Simulation selection, as the latter suffers from an artificial decrease in tire grip that makes catching most simple slides almost impossible.
With the settings you see above, Horizon 3 actually drives incredibly well for a casual-oriented mass market racing game. It feels extremely close to the Codemasters DiRT series prior to the ultra-Hardcore DiRT Rally, which in this case is quite the compliment. You can provoke slides and drift as long as you want provided you’ve got enough horsepower, different tire compounds make a tangible difference on how your car handles at the edge of the tire, and when it rains, there is a massive change in your driving style required to be successful. Horizon 3 packs an abundance of the almighty Simulation Value we often joke about here at PRC.net into what on the surfaces is a decidedly lighthearted package, and I really appreciate the overall direction this title is aimed in.
There are several kinds of surfaces in Horizon 3, such as wet sand, desert sand, gravel, tarmac, mud, and grass, and your car always behaves differently on each of them, but never in a way that’s canned or unrealistic. When going from tarmac to sand, for example, it becomes much harder to accelerate or corner, but at the same time, drifting becomes extremely easy. Unfortunately, the AI doesn’t appear to play by the same set of rules compared to the player car, as they’re virtually unbeatable on tarmac thanks to an excessive amount of assisted grip and the way Horizon 3 consistently places you far from the front row on the starting grid.
Gaps between yourself and the AI cars on Unbeatable difficulty are almost impossible to make up fairly, requiring you to smash and bash your way to the front – which doesn’t do any favors for the mentality of the average virtual racer when they test out online races. However, when the AI takes a trip off road, they’re absolutely fucking horrible, especially in lower class cars. You can easily stomp them by two or three seconds per lap, an insane amount of real estate compared to how they decimate you on tarmac, and this is really noticeable once you start fooling around in the numerous Hypercars and dedicated race cars offered in Horizon 3.
Despite Horizon 3 offering a mammoth version of Australia’s Gold Coast to explore, the game doesn’t actually require you to do a whole lot of driving compared to other open world racers such as Test Drive Unlimited or Need for Speed Underground, as you’re given the ability to warp to the game’s festival sites – which serve as your garage, paint shop, aftermarket performance tuning center, and overall central hub at any given time. It’s a bit of an odd design decision; Horizon 3 gives you a sweet open world to roam at your desires, but couldn’t care less about you exploring it. The game also allows you to spend a lot of time messing around with in-depth tuning and upgrade options, but many “Quick Upgrade” buttons exist to simplify the process and really discourage players from diving deep into what Horizon 3 has to offer on that spectrum of the game. The livery marketplace returns from previous Forza titles, allowing you to apply a pre-made wrap from the community almost immediately after purchasing your car, though the entire customization process – whether we’re talking about the livery screen or upgrading your vehicle – is plagued by performance issues which make navigating these menus extremely painful and time consuming.
The story of Horizon 3 is almost non-existent, but as this is an open world racing game, I don’t mind it at all – especially considering titles which have experimented with heavy narrative elements like The Crew and Test Drive Unlimited 2 haven’t been received very well. Unlike the previous games, where you’ve been competing in this sort of Soundwave-like street racing festival, Horizon 3 now assumes you’ve played the previous two entries and allow you to assume the role of organizer thanks to your veteran status, and for the first time in the series you’re able to customize your identity. Along with traditional circuit and point-to-point races, the offshoot events from previous Horizon titles focused on drifting, destruction, scoring style points, and competing against random gimmick vehicles have all returned, making for a very familiar experience. You essentially are given free reign of the map to complete events, purchase cars, and earn experience points – which the game calls “fans” – giving you the task of upgrading the numerous festival locations around the map in the way you see fit. It’s not a linear form of progression by any means, but it’s not a complete sandbox, either.
Australia as a game world is a lively one, with pedestrian traffic cars and fellow racers populating the world, though what really stuck out to me was the total lack of diversity in the traffic cars I was whizzing by in my travels – according to Playground Games, everyone in Australia owns a BMW X5, Abarth 500, or Holden Ute. This lack of diversity is also reflected in the “drivatars” – virtual representations of real players that roam around as AI vehicles in your campaign. I’m not sure whether it’s due to the abundance of teenagers playing Horizon 3, or if it’s a poor algorithm calculation, but nine out of every ten drivatars I run across are piloting a Koenigsegg when you’re sitting in a hypercar. The drivatars can also be quite scripted at times, as when you’re competing in an offshoot event like the aforementioned speed challenges or drift competitions, there’s a sharp increase in the number of AI traffic vehicles. You can circumvent this issue by going into a private online session – removing all drivatars from the game world – though it’s a pain in the ass on the end user.
Visually, Australia is absolutely beautiful, and I’m really pleased with how diverse the map in Horizon 3 is compared to Colorado and Europe in the first two games. It consists of several different biomes such as the outback, the rainforest, a suburb, and even a major city, meaning there isn’t a central theme surrounding the game compared to the original Horizon’s reddish-brown hue that was present at all times. I personally wish a bit more effort had been put into fleshing out the game world in terms of fauna and Australian citizens roaming city streets away from the major festival sites, though I’m sure the lack of pedestrians is one of those things that had to be omitted for licensing reasons.
For the time I was able to invest in Forza Horizon 3 before my game became crippled with technical issues that shouldn’t appear in a flagship Microsoft product, I’m able to confirm that this is one of the best arcade racers ever made, and really brings me back to the days of Need for Speed Underground 2, where top to bottom the complete package offered an extremely enjoyable experience. The same enthusiasm I felt for Underground 2, and how perfectly the car physics had been massaged back then to appeal to multiple crowds, is how I feel about the raw driving experience in Horizon 3. Events are short, sweet, and enjoyable provided you stick with an AI difficulty level that doesn’t outright cheat, and the introduction of incredibly diverse biomes finally justifies the extensive roster of cars you accumulate throughout the campaign mode. Had the horrible patches not broke Horizon 3 for me, I’d feel comfortable giving this game PRC.net’s equivalent of a perfect score, but those who are on the fence about this game should continue to monitor the community message boards and Forza Motorsport Subreddit until there’s a unanimous consensus that everything has been fixed before taking the plunge.