Forza Horizon 3 review: Playground Games drifts off at the wheel of Xbox's latest racer

A woodland area in Forza Horizon 3Microsoft

Playground Games seems to be bored with Forza, and who could blame it? Evidently a talented studio, by now Playground must have its collective mind on different projects. Such an ambitious game-maker, the one to transform a stalwart racing franchise into something so colourful and fresh, surely doesn't want to make Forza forever.

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Forza Horizon 3 would suggest so. It's a game brimming with straining, burgeoning ambitions, all of which are in the way of complete, enjoyable racing. Between its new management mechanics, its various stunt modes and its overwritten, talky script, the last thing Forza Horizon 3 seems to care about is challenge.

At first glance, one may be tempted toward sympathy. After so many years of video games refining and reheating driving simulations, is there anything left to do with mere cars? Perhaps nowadays perfunctory bells and whistles like Horizon's are the best and most we can expect from a racing game. But then DiRT Rally, released earlier this year by Codemasters (literally Playground's closest competitor since both studios are based in Warwickshire) demonstrated just how possible it is, even in 2016, to make the supposedly exhausted racing game still feel complex and exciting. DiRT Rally gave its full attention to cars, race tracks and the thrill of driving. Forza Horizon 3, by contrast, with its superficial and jarring extra features, is an attempt to shore up what Playground seemingly regards as a dead genre.

The game is desperate to keep you satisfied; it's insecure. Complete a race and it will shower you with points and money. Almost every half an hour, you're awarded a free car, and it's usually something high end like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.

The overarching goal of Forza Horizon 3 is to attract more fans to the eponymous festival, hosted this time in Australia, and almost everything you do is applauded and rewarded. For something as simple as driving fast through one of the game's many speed zones, you earn literally thousands of fresh admirers. "Great work, boss," your assistant, Keira, beams down the phone. "You want a car recommendation from me?" asks your mechanic, Warren, utterly incredulous. "I've waited so long for this day!" Such sycophancy isn't just patronising, or trying to cover up what seems to be an awareness, on Playground's part, that perhaps after three games Horizon isn't as fun and fresh as it once was – it's also deadening.

Forza Horizon 3 is the third Forza game developed for Xbox OneMicrosoft
The setting includes woods, coastal stretches, cities and desert areasMicrosoft
Off-road vehicles are a big introduction in Horizon 3Microsoft

The other Forza Horizon games have thrust: to reach the festival finals, you must win races and collect better cars. Forza Horizon 3, since it panders to you so obsequiously and allows you to choose how the festival will expand, what races it will host, even which radio stations will feature, feels like a dead, video game world, designed above all to massage your ego. It looks nice, and all of the cars are shimmering and enjoyable to drive, but like culture which it's fighting desperately to capture, Forza Horizon 3 is very superficial.

Not enough of a racing simulation for car fans and too fussy a game for people wanting a real open-world (having to drive precisely through checkpoints during races and constantly return to the mission hub to expand the festival are a real drag), apart from the simple driving mechanics Playground already perfected years ago, it's hard to say what Forza Horizon 3 does well.

Of course, all the features from the previous games, like stunt jumps, Showcase Events and Barn Finds make a return, but given Horizon 3's 'make it rain' approach to things like experience points and in-game cash, they often feel beside the point. Inside the opening hours, you're already a millionaire. Your garage probably contains a couple of hyper cars and all the engine modifications cost a pittance.

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It's like a motor racing Valhalla. Day after day, you choose your weapons, fight and feast, win and lose, and in the morning it's all reset for you to do it again. You're the boss in Horizon 3. The festival goes where you want. The cars and money appear with a click of your fingers. With a single button press, you can rewind any and every mistake you make while racing. It's presented as a limitless, joyful, pure driving game, where if you want to do something, you can, and it's perfectly functional. But with no stakes, no sense of challenge and not enough boundaries, Forza Horizon 3 – especially as it's the third Horizon game in four years – lacks drive.

Forza Horizon 34 stars

Massive, full and with a list of things to do which borders upon incessant, Forza Horizon 3 is a driving game both without direction and made by a studio seemingly – understandably – bored with cars. It isn't wholly different or worse than its predecessors, but after four years of these games, and with titles like DiRT Rally rediscovering the fundamental, basic thrills of racing simulations, Horizon 3 feels tired.

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