Forza Horizon 3 Review: Gorgeous Skies, Open Roads, Aussie Landmarks

From huge, recognisable set-pieces like Apostles Beach to small touches like the red- and yellow-topped bins out the front of stilted houses, Forza Horizon 3 nails its Australian setting. The driving game's huge map acts as a kind of mix tape of our country's nicest landscapes, building large, evocative regions out of Byron Bay, the Yarra Valley, the rainforest, the outback and more, and linking them with wide freeways and country trails. Filled with fine details — the little reflectors by the highway, the colours of the unmistakably Australian sky — the terrain is also littered with opportunities to race, test your skills or hunt for hidden goodies.

It doesn't get much more Australian than this.

Horizon 3 is a lot more like a sprawling adventure game than a traditional racer in this regard. It can be a little off-putting at first, especially for those used to a more directed, linear experience, but the freedom of the open world design actually makes for a joyfully meandering game.

The Horizon festival — dozens of rich kids descending on a region, or in this case an entire country, for an endless party of cars, music and optimism — is back again, and this time the player is in charge. While last time you could pick and choose different car categories to suit your tastes, your promotion this time around gives you unprecedented control to make the game you want.

For example, while scouts will go out and mark the routes for races, the details are yours to decide. Want a marathon circuit race in the desert with only classic rally cars? A Ford versus Holden showdown at sunset? Beach buggies in the rain? Whatever you feel like when you roll up to the starting line, you can mandate it. Each event also has a default if you don't feel like deciding, and events created by your friends and players around the world are also pulled down as options.

Winning races brings more fans to the festival, which in turn spreads your scouts out across the land by opening or upgrading Horizon 'hubs' wherever you choose. You also win credits, which you need to upgrade all your shiny machines, but this is supplemented by a random "wheel spin" when you level up, meaning if you're unlucky it could take a bit longer to cash up.

Every race can be run to your specifications, or somebody else's if you choose.

Outside of racing to earn fans and expand the festival, you can buy, tune, modify and paint your cars, take part in illegal midnight street events, test your skills with crazy stunts and challenges, or follow rumours to uncover rusty old abandoned classics ready to be restored. You'll also, trust me here, spend an awful lot of time in your favourite cars just driving around really fast and taking in the scenery.

And speaking of cars, more than 350 of them are up for grabs in the game, and there's truly something for everybody. I went straight for the classics (once I could afford them), polishing up a 1953 Corvette, stripping the bumpers, adding a retro-style fin and capping off the passenger seat to reduce drag.

Old meets new: my '53 Corvette alongside the GTS HSV Maloo.

I was disappointed there's no way to outfit your avatar with a set of driving goggles (by the way, you can choose from a range of drivers this time, not just the generic white male), but you can't win them all.

If classics aren't your thing you'll find everything from current top-of-the-line performance cars, Japanese tuners and exotic European roadsters to dune buggies, track toys, SUVs and heaps besides. Every car sounds and feels unique, and it's a lot of fun to test out each new ride and make little tweaks in the workshop to work out the niggles.

Classic Australian cars are included in the more than 350 models present.

If you really want to see how distinct two cars can be, take out a big Australian muscle car and then try the Tesla Model S P90D. The Tesla is near-silent and doesn't so much hug the road float around it, just as you might expect. As always, you can spend heaps of time designing vinyls and paint jobs for your car, or you can just grab one somebody else has made over the internet.

Did I mention that everything, not just the cars, in this game looks and sounds impeccable? The lighting effects alone are a wonder, shooting lasers of sunlight through the tree tops in the forest or blasting it down in one huge sheet out in the desert.

'Barn finds' are classic cars hidden abandoned on the map, just waiting to be found.

At night the streetlights project big pools of yellow, while skyscrapers in the distance refract off the surf and the headlights of other racers cast streaks of bright green or red off the finish of your car.

Meanwhile the environments themselves are vast but also filled with character. Especially for Australians, it's endlessly fun to blast through country crops and see something recognisable on the otherside, be it something big like Parkes Observatory, or something small like a green plastic Bunnings chair on a porch or an orange-top Telstra phone box.

Clean up a barn find, apply a great design downloaded from another player and it might end up looking something like this.

Authentic touches like the roadside reflectors and black and white diagonally striped railroad crossing signs at times actually tricked my brain into thinking I was looking at a representation of a lake or a country railroad crossing I remember from real life. Of course I was never racing a train in an Aventador at the time.

This is a fantasy, Australia, of course. A super-saturated, hyper-condensed version of Australia even. But it's very convincing.

Just racing a train in an aluminum dune buggy. As you do.

The theme goes beyond visuals too, with the game including plenty of Australian music amongst the very decent mix of dance, punk, metal, electronic and classical tunes (you can also stream in your own music if you have access to a Windows PC and Microsoft's OneDrive). The game also includes some highly suspicious Aussie accents.

Horizon 3 is filled with too many things to do to list them all here, and on any given play session you might find yourself chalking up wins at your new base in the outback, competing to jump the furthest distance off a bridge, or heading online to go on a road trip with up to 11 other people (in a first for the series, you can also play the full game concurrently with up to three friends online).

In short though, this is a fast, gorgeous, fun racing adventure, and the brilliantly executed Australian flavour makes it even better.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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