When Forza Horizon first launched four years ago as a spin-off of Forza, many of us were pleasantly surprised by how it was able to tone down the seriousness of the main series while still making an extremely competent racing game. As time has gone on and we’ve fallen into an annual cycle of Forza followed by Forza Horizon, what once was a spin-off has now turned into a series all its own—one that now rivals its parent in every way. And, with the release of Forza Horizon 3, it may even surpass the mainline series in key areas.

For those who might be unaware, the Forza Horizon games are set up around a traveling fictional festival called Horizon that’s like a cross between Woodstock and Top Gear, and this year’s game is headed to a land down under. Whereas the original saw you rise up the ranks to dominate the event, and the second one had you as king of Horizon from the start, Forza Horizon 3 basically just makes you the festival’s God this go around.

From what radio stations can be heard at the festival’s hubs throughout Australia, to what part of Australia Horizon will expand to next, all the decisions are yours. You can even customize your license plate and what your assistant will call you via a list of names. Yes, I admit I enjoyed the fact that my assistant actually called me Ray and all my cars’ license plates said “Carsillo” on the back—it’s a little thing, but that added hint of personalization was a nice touch. Unfortunately, it also made the fact that you can then only choose from a dozen or so generic, hipster-looking avatars to represent your “face” just as disappointing as the license plate customization was fun.

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These are only minor details, however. The heart of Forza has always been the cars, and Horizon 3 does not disappoint. Over 350 cars are available at the game’s launch—the most in Forza Horizon history—and, as always, plenty of car packs will be coming in the future. The game also maintains the series’ high standard of stunning car models that contrast terrifically against the picturesque backdrops inspired by an amalgamation of Australia’s coasts, forests, and deserts. The big additions this time around aside from the usual list of new supercars are dune buggies. Since a quarter of Horizon 3’s mashed-up rendition of Australia is the Outback, dune buggies are great for crossing the desert terrain at high speeds and pulling off crazy stunts to fill up your score meter.

At first, the buggies took some time to get used to, because they handle completely differently from any other car in Forza’s long lineage. By the time I was done with the game, though, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough races inside these off-road masters, bobbing up and down through the countryside, and was actually disappointed when I was placed back in a luxury car or sporty speedster depending on what race I was doing.

Speaking of racing, it remains at the core of what you’ll be doing in Horizon 3. There are 63 tracks set up across the game for you to unlock and play through, with more unlocked by expanding and growing the festival. This is done by earning fans, which you can do through winnings races, completing one-off special objectives in 30 brand-new bucket list courses, winning showcase events against unusual race opponents like speed boats and fighter jets, and completing “PR stunts” like daredevil jumps and burning rubber through drift and speed zones.

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Each individual race location not only has the standard single race, but later you can also unlock three-to-five race championships with new themes for each course. For example, a single exhibition race in the Outback might have you racing off-road trucks like the Ford F-150 Raptor, but the same course’s championship might be themed around rally legends like the Suburu Impreza, giving each track more replayability as you race different vehicles.

If that wasn’t enough, Forza Horizon 3 also introduces the new Blueprint feature to both racecourses and bucket list events, which allows you to set your own stipulations that you can then share with the Forza community. You could create a perfect storm of racing nothing but high-end supercars like the Lamborghini Centenario along the curving coastline, or punish people by sticking those same sports cars on an off-road track in the rainforest and see if they can’t maintain their traction. The same goes for the bucket list Blueprints, but like most other games where you can create your own courses, you have to be able to beat your own challenges before uploading for others to play. In theory, you could have an endless stream of fresh content coming into Forza Horizon 3 long after this initial launch window.

Another major addition to Forza Horizon 3 comes in the form of its online multiplayer. You’ve always been able to take on friends head-to-head, but Horizon 3 adds it so that you can now experience the construction of a Horizon festival from the ground-up together. Campaign co-op, which is also available in cross-platform play, allows you to join a friend’s game or vice versa in order to help each other complete objectives or find hidden bonuses like landmarks or barn finds to fill out your worlds. Any progress made in each other’s games carries over to your single-player game as well, so there’s no need to do something twice if you don’t want to.

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The emphasis on co-op doesn’t end there, however. Even if your friend isn’t online, the new Convoy feature means their Drivatar can ride with you and help you, too. By winning street races against specifically marked Drivatars, you can add up to three Drivatars to your Convoy. And if you want to replace someone in your lineup, simply street race another person and fire one of the old drivers. Having and riding with a full Convoy means not only a better chance for you to find hidden secrets and earn more credits, but your friends will be earning credits even while offline.

Of course, more online-driven endeavors has meant more server strain that normal in the Forza community. Even a week after launching, there are still occasional connection issues in regards to things like leaderboards, some of the Blueprints, and finding strangers online to race with or against. Groove Music—Microsoft’s digital music streaming service that has been added to the game to allow players a chance to finally have custom music playing while driving—works only about half the time, too. I’m driving a million dollar car, and the damn radio is broken.

These online hiccups aside, Forza Horizon 3 is a racing lover’s dream. The insane stunts and off-the-wall challenges remain hugely entertaining, and being able to incorporate your friends more into that has only added a new wrinkle of replayability to the game. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete racing experience than this one, and in many ways has possibly eclipsed the mainline Forza series in terms of fun and enjoyability.

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Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Playground Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.27.16
9.5
Forza Horizon 3 pulls out all the stops to provide one of most fluid and enjoyable racing experiences out there. A must have for casual car fans and hardcore gearheads alike, Forza Horizon 3 may even surpass the mainline series in terms of fun with this effort.
The Good Gorgeous looking, excellent handling, and more content than ever before in one package.
The Bad Occasional issues with connecting to people and features online.
The Ugly Constantly forgetting that Australians drive on the other side of the road and getting into lots of head-on collisions because of it.
Forza Horizon 3 is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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