It’s remarkable how little driving games have changed in the past decade. Beyond that, even. For all the guff we give Call of Duty and Madden about releasing the same rote package of bullets and balls every year, we never say anything about how driving is still pretty much just turning left or right. Hell, that is basically any racing game, not just the ones with cars.
That, of course, is a tad unfair. That’s just, like, how it works. It’s like how you can’t really get mad at a platformer for making you jump, but it is indicative of the challenge of making something so well known a success. Among an abundance of games that do what you do (and well), how do you set yourself apart?
I certainly don’t know if or believe that there is a single answer to that question, but I do know that Forza Horizon 3 has managed to do precisely that. And that thing it does isn’t something you would necessarily expect, though it isn’t surprising, either, once you think about it. It’s not that the driving itself isn’t superlative (it is) or that it isn’t one of the most visually stunning games of the year (it is), but it actually does something much more important and far more rare that makes it worthwhile.
But that’s not to say neither of those things don’t play a part in the bigger picture. The fine and refined tuning of the steering and the slightly hyped acceleration of these vehicles are exceptionally pointed toward making sure you enjoy your time behind the wheel. It employs the usual modern tricks of a racing line and rewind feature, but the simple act of driving is a joy.
And it’s easy to just say that Australia is beautiful, so obviously the game is going to be beautiful, but it goes far beyond that. This is a wide open game that, for the first time in open world racing, feels naturally free, and thanks largely to the graphics. It doesn’t look like someone selectively placed trees to cover sparse patches or crowds to engage the passing player. It’s a forest because there’s a forest and you just sort of believe it.
Like I said, however, neither of those are the best part about Forza Horizon 3. That is—and I can’t believe this isn’t a given in a medium founded on the very idea of it—that this game celebrates fun. It’s not happy unless it is doing what it wants, and what it wants is for you to like playing the game. It’s a bit desperate in that way, but it’s a desperation I can get behind.
The first 30 minutes says it all, really. It eschews the modern oeuvre of racing and almost completely excised the mass human element from it. It only focuses on your incredibly charming assistant and your especially helpful mechanic. No drama, no narrative. They only ever encourage you to be you. That alone merits a thumbs up in the contemporary dearth unfettered happiness.
And then it takes you on a ripping tour of the game itself, only gently applying the pressure of racing. You’ll zip in and out of a couple of cars with no goal other than head that way, flying by and through lush greenery before soaring over sandy dunes and along the water’s edge. It’s driving for driving’s sake, leaving you to steep in what it has to offer before going any further.
Hell, the game just seems glad you’re around. And excited! Almost every objective ends with an exclamation mark, as if it can’t wait for you to try it out. Drive to the new festival site! Hell yeah! Race to the destination! You bet! I’m just as happy as the game is at this point.
The game simply revels in doing fun stuff. You sign a radio station, which seems like a wholly necessary system but it’s still somehow deeply satisfying. You get to change your license plate with an oddly compelling and chunky interface. Oh, and you race a jeep being hauled by a helicopter as it narrowly avoids houses and trees.
It’s the sort of refusal to banality that sets a game apart, and Forza Horizon 3 has it in spades. It feels a bit Fast & Furious in that way, a blend of the unabashed celebration of the form of the early years and the similarly unabashed desire to go fucking nuts in the later films. If you’re wondering what the best part of Forza Horizon 3 is, it’s that. It’s the idea that a game can love existing just so you can love it right back.