Editor's note: This is an early impressions piece on Forza Horizon 3 based on a weekend's play on Xbox One - our full review will be going live early next week, after we've tried fully populated online play and tested the PC version.
Well, this is a pleasant surprise. Heading into Forza Horizon 3, I'll admit to being, if not quite apathetic, then a little blasé about the whole thing. I absolutely adored Playground Games' last two Forza spin-offs, but after the excellent Mediterranean adventure of 2014's outing it was hard to see where the series could head next. This was surely set to be an iterative sequel - not a problem when you're iterating on something as fine as Horizon - but what's truly exciting about Horizon 3 is how it doesn't just build on Playground Games' prior work. It folds all that's good about a particular, fun-loving strand of the racing game genre into one incredible feast of a game.
Catch it in the right light - preferably that glinting from a set of ludicrously enhanced wheel arches - and Forza Horizon 3 is the best Need for Speed game in years. Its customisation options are deep and, in a real boon for any enthusiasts of tastelessly engorged cars, authentic. Here you can get a Ferrari 458 and adorn it with a Liberty Walk bodykit for an eye-popping, ear-splitting bastard of a ride, and here you can take a BMW M3 and splice it with a little help from Rocket Bunny to create an extraordinary mutant. This is a game where you can revel in the kind of custom cars showcased by Speedhunters - EA's own site, rather embarrassingly, given the relatively lacklustre customisation options of its last game - as Horizon beats Need for Speed at its own game.
Catch it in another light - maybe that from a sun sinking over the city, Surfer's Paradise, that sits shining in the distance while you catch languid slides somewhere deep in the countryside with a Ferrari F12 TDF - and it's the OutRun sequel we've all been waiting on for well over a decade, where fine-tuned handling is matched by blissful beats and the serotonin-swelling rush of XP that meets each of your endeavours behind the wheel. Horizon 3 is a relentlessly upbeat experience, and while the Forza tag and its nuanced handling belies a sim underpinning, its heart seems to really be in a Hastings arcade circa 1996.
Catch Horizon in another light - that cast from a thick blanket of stars, perhaps, as you drive overnight from one end of the map to the other - and this is an exemplary open world game. Horizon 3's patchwork impression of Australia is stuffed with things to do: head-to-head races with roaming AI drivers, barn finds nestled deep within the country where rare cars can be procured, point-to-point races and championships that spread out across a region, or billboards and stunt jumps that lend it all something of the brilliant Burnout Paradise. The number of distractions you're met with when going from A to B has long been the measure of success of an open-world game, and Horizon 3 is a triumph in that regard.
Those treks across the map from one point to another end up being relished, and it's a reflection of Horizon 3's confidence in its own world that fast travel is discouraged, with a small price attached every time you want to teleport somewhere in an instant. Instead, you're encouraged to drive, and find pleasure in the simple business of taking a car into the wild and getting lost in whatever you find out there. A gymkhana skit in an abandoned building site, perhaps, or an off-road jaunt that recalls the heady days of Dirt 2 (or even an exemplary homage to Halo that manages to capture that series in its pomp with more purpose than 343 has managed to date).
So yeah, I'm fairly smitten with Forza Horizon 3 at this point. Problems? There are a scant few - I'm prudish about taking low-slung exotica off-road lest an exhaust is scraped off, so I'd love to be able to set my GPS to stick to tarmac while heading from A to B, and elsewhere there's so much going in Forza Horizon 3 I'm still a little lost within its menus, some 10 hours in. I'm also not wholly sold on AI that's yet to hit the sweet spot for me, with races either too chaotic or too easy - though I'm still tinkering with difficulty levels. And for a game that allows you to drive on the left, I've come across hardly any right-hand drive cars so far - a bit of a nuisance if you rely on the cockpit view. Oli will be along early next week once we're able to fully assess the online and spend a little more time in the outback. Until then, though, know this: with Forza Horizon 3, Playground Games has managed to plunder some of the greats - games such as Burnout Paradise, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and OutRun - and in doing so it's conjured something that's worthy of such esteemed company.