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Forza Horizon 3 at 4K 60fps is simply breathtaking

Digital Foundry on the thoroughbred PC experience, plus impressions on Xbox One S HDR and 4K upscaling.

It's extremely good on Xbox One, but with the right hardware, Forza Horizon 3 is breathtaking on PC. Building on the DX12 foundation of the excellent Forza Motorsport 6 Apex, Playground Games has assembled a technological masterpiece for PC owners - one that I was eager to test out at 4K resolution at a fully unfettered 60fps. A Core i7 6700K paired with Nvidia's Titan X Pascal mostly does the job with minimal tinkering and it's an absolutely phenomenal experience.

Forza Horizon 3 on PC appears to be based on three solid foundations. Firstly, it's down to just how impressive the 'base' Xbox One version of the game is - the undoubted quality of the car models is match by a rich and varied, animated environment, beautiful skyboxes and sublime lighting. Secondly, there's a sense of scalability to the assets and the quality presets: detail pops at 4K on PC, view distances are pulled out, pop-in is reduced and effects work is more refined.

Motion blur is smoother, shadows and reflections are more crisp and more detailed, and obviously, there's the big one: the ability to run at 60fps. The final pillar is the quality of the core engine itself: Forza Motorsport 6 Apex is a fine piece of work, but Horizon 3 adds more ambition technologically and visually - as you would expect when the console version has double the render time available to produce each frame.

Forza Horizon 3 is a game I've been dipping in and out of all week, mostly on Xbox One S, as I was eager to play the game in HDR. However, I actually came away a little disappointed by this experience. Connecting up Microsoft's latest console to our 58-inch Panasonic DX750, the game instantly switches into HDR mode when the game boots, but while there does appear to be more range, the deep richness to the title's palette seems missing. It almost looks washed out, in stark contrast to the game's loading screens.

It's something I'll have to return to later, but in the meantime, I banked a bunch of Xbox One S footage with the game running via 4K upscaling, mostly because of an email I received a while back, pointing me to this German blog, which paints a highly unpleasant picture of the new console's 4K upscaler. We noted that our Panasonic 4K TV did a better job of upscaling than the Xbox One S in our hardware review, but I've been spending a fair amount of time behind the scenes working on our HDMI 2.0 4K capture workflow, so this seemed like as good a time as any to put the kit through its paces. The scaler looks ever-so-slightly softer than a Photoshop upscale of native 1080p captures, but seems to be performing fine.

Holy crap, this is quite an experience. A Core i7 6700K and Titan X Pascal take on Forza Horizon 3 at 4K with as close to a fully locked 60fps as possible.

The video paints a highly compelling picture of Forza Horizon 3 performance but it's safe to say that my results are at the upper end of expectations, as you might expect bearing in mind the top-tier hardware in play. Many users are reporting streaming issues for the open world, and on initially booting my Xbox One S save, there were definite glitches in traversing the open world. By and large, these were resolved simply by deactivating multi-sample anti-aliasing, dropping back to FXAA. This is actually a downgrade from the Xbox One version, but with 4K's extreme pixel density, there's little impact to the game's visual integrity. Secondly, we found that dense forest scenes could still hit frame-rate - this was overcame by overclocking the Titan X Pascal's GDDR5X by +700MHz. With these settings in place, the vast majority of Horizon 3's open world is a glitch-free experience, with only one area we tested - the northern city causing minor stutter.

There are similar challenges as we scale down and attempt to run Forza Horizon 3 at 1080p60. We'll be looking to test the game with a range of GPUs in due course, but as things stand, GTX 970 on high settings - even with MSAA disabled, shadows on medium and an overclock in place - still has issues in the most dense forest areas. The new GTX 1060 is far more stable even on ultra settings, while AMD's RX 480 seems to be on par, if not slightly better.

There's the sense that this is a 30Hz engine at its heart though, and lots of horsepower is needed to lock at 60fps - the recommended spec is a Core i7 processor, and slower, older quads may struggle. It's a good thing that the game still looks beautiful at 30fps because for many users, it may make sense to ramp up the quality presets and lock at half-rate refresh as opposed to chasing a locked 60. At 4K, locking to 30fps may also offer more of a sense of what to expect from the game running on Project Scorpio hardware - it's a treat.

Xbox One S 4K Upscaler
Xbox One S 1080p Photoshop Upscale
On first impressions, Xbox One S scaled up from 1080p appears to hold up rather well. Of course, it's generally blurrier and blockier, but the overall impression isn't bad. However, intricate detailing on the car and far-off detail blends away. The motion blur is also far more heavy-handed in removing detail on Xbox One. Note that the Xbox One S 1080p upscale shots were taken using another capture device, which seems to shift the colour balance a touch.
Xbox One S 4K Upscaler
Xbox One S 1080p Photoshop Upscale
Xbox One's meshwork alpha transparencies hold up rather well on the left here. However, all foliage elements have more detail, ground textures are hugely improved and looking at the decals on the bonnet, PC obviously has access to improved, higher resolution art assets.
Xbox One S 4K Upscaler
Xbox One S 1080p Photoshop Upscale
Look into the far distance around the mountain and you'll see the PC version resolving far more in the way of detail - view distance is pushed out significantly. This shot also highlights the importance of anisotropic filtering - we've got that set to 16x on PC.
Xbox One S 4K Upscaler
Xbox One S 1080p Photoshop Upscale
Edges scale up to 4K better than expected on Xbox One, owing to the utilisation of 4x MSAA. However, road and car detail is on another level on PC, while there is additional precision to shadows and reflections. It's worth noting that we're only using FXAA on PC - MSAA is sheer overkill at this extreme pixel density.
Xbox One S 4K Upscaler
Xbox One S 1080p Photoshop Upscale
An engine-driven cut-scene dramatically showcases what ultra-level motion blur does for the presentation - many more samples gives a cleaner look, while less detail is blurred away in the process. One explanation for the heavier blur on Xbox One may be the differing frame-rate - the simulated camera exposure will be twice as long.

It's early days in our testing but as things stand, Forza Horizon 3 is a simply beautiful PC release, but the quest to run a 30Hz engine at 60fps is daunting - and it seems Playground Games still has some work cut out in optimising the streaming of data in its open world. We would love to have to have brought you more detail impressions, but once again Microsoft's Windows Store demonstrated in spectacular fashion that it's simply not good enough for the task at hand. Forza Horizon 3 actually arrived on Wednesday for those of us with review code. However, it actually took me well over two days to successfully download the game.

First of all, the title demands that you upgrade to the Windows 10 Anniversary Edition, a process that seems to take way longer than it really should, but not a deal-breaker as such. More of an issue was the fact that the Forza Horizon 3 download initially errored out, seemingly with no means to delete the apparently corrupt data, or to restart or resume the download. Deleting the contents of c:\windows\software distribution appeared to solve that, only for me to encounter another problem - a completely random crash for the Store app that could occur at any point across the multi-hour download. Of course, the resume option completely failed to work - and to add to the frustration, restarting the PC would restart the download.

One hundred wasted gigs later, the best solution available was to grab the Windows 10 Anniversary Edition ISO from Microsoft, perform a clean install on a second SSD and restart from scratch. It worked first time, and with a consistently higher download speed to boot. Perhaps something went wrong with the Anniversary Edition upgrade, but the point is that downloading a game, or indeed resuming a broken download is such a basic feature that it's hard to believe that Microsoft can't do it properly.

In the end, it was worth it - at its best, Forza Horizon 3 is absolutely phenomenal on PC, as the video above demonstrates. While my experience thus far has mostly been trouble-free, it's clear that the background streaming systems are causing issues for many users though - even those with Core i7 processors meeting or indeed exceeding the base spec are experiencing stuttering problems, and even at 1080p60, it's clear that some hardware is struggling. To get the top-tier experience is going to require some meaty hardware. We'll be looking into this and of course stacking up Forza Horizon 3 on PC against the Xbox One game more comprehensively in due course.

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About the Author

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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