You step in the car--a Ford Mustang GT, white with blue racing stripes--and hit the gas. The engine roars; you peel out and hit the road. Cookie-cutter suburbs with picket fences and sedans pass by in a blur; other racers speed past, going in the opposite direction.
You pick up speed, entering a series of windy roads through a jungle, lush palm trees and vegetation casting shadows. But soon, the jungle ends--trees turn to shrubs, and the green jungle turns to orange dirt. You crest a hill and far in the distance you catch sight of snow-capped peaks, tantalizing glimpses of water as you enter the scorched desert of the Australian Outback.
As you drive, clouds billow and build into gray storms. Gales lash your car with rain, and the roads become perilous and slick. Then they fade away, and rainbows stretch across the sky.
This was what I experienced during my demo of Forza Horizon 3. I raced, I jumped, and I completed events, but mostly I just drove through the Australian countryside. It's gorgeous, with lovingly rendered environments almost as diverse as the massive selection of cars you can drive. Developer Playground Games has gone to some pretty ridiculous lengths to make the in-game Australia as near to photorealistic as possible, and it shows. I got distracted watching the skies more times than I care to admit, entranced by storms and clouds that are based on actual Australian weather patterns.
This impressive attention to environmental detail helps make Forza Horizon a blast to play. While Playground nailed the feel of the driving with the last two Forza Horizon games, hitting a good combination of Forza Motorsport simulation and arcade-y controls, Forza Horizon 2 especially never felt like it fully liberated you to drive anywhere. Although you could drive cross-country, inconveniently placed environmental obstacles could turn an exhilarating race across fields into a frustrating and abrupt halt within seconds.
Forza Horizon 3 fixes this by letting you simply drive through most obstacles and making it more clear which ones you cannot break. You still can't burst through houses, but smaller trees, telephone poles, and posts now are no match for your car. This makes exploration in Forza Horizon 3 feel effortless: countless times, while driving toward an objective, I'd simply veer off the road and start hurtling over the terrain, launching my car off hills and ripping through fields full of crops ready to be harvested.
If you even needed it, the game gives you more reason to explore than just seeing the sights. Occasionally, you get notified that a rival racer is out cruising the streets or a beat-up old classic car has been found, and your map will be highlighted accordingly. You can find the classic cars covered with dirt and rust in barns or fields, and discovering them will unlock them for use after they're repaired. If you track down your rival, you can race them around the world. Beating them will give you experience, money, and another member of your Horizon Festival.
You have additional reason to beat your rivals, because it's your Horizon Festival in this game. The past Horizon games all made you a participant in one of the festivals, which are massive in-game celebrations of electronic music and car geekdom that serve as the series' framing device. The festivals bring all sorts of racers in from all over the world, which is why you'll find so many drivers racing down urban streets at 200 miles per hour without any police in sight. However, in Forza Horizon 3, you're not just another one of the racers. You run the Horizon Festival, building it up and making it as big as possible.
This is one of the major changes in the third entry in the series. As the boss, you interact with the festival in a way reminiscent of base-building features in the Assassin's Creed franchise. It's limited--you won't be setting the price of concessions, for example--but it's novel for a racing game. While I didn't get to see if this feature gets fleshed out later on, my first impression was that it provides a fairly interesting progression system: improving your festival is how you unlock new radio stations, cars, and events. I also found it hilarious when characters would refer to my character by his absurd nickname: "You're the boss, Bantasaurus Rex."
More significantly, part of your role as boss is that you have the ability to customize existing races. You're able to create race blueprints at any of the race locations along the way. You can't change the track or route, but you can modify the time of day, weather, car class, and other parts of the race.
I tried my hand at designing a race and managed to create an incredibly difficult cross-country competition. My car of choice was the Ariel Atom, a small race car with notoriously challenging handling, and I set the race at night with heavy rain. It was also over dirt roads. Far outmatched by the computer racers, who drove jeeps and other off-road vehicles, I ended up high-centered on a rock while rain poured down around me. But it was still fun to try this out and control the way my race was set up--and it will undoubtedly be really fun to create custom races to play with friends.
This race builder, the Horizon Festival, and other events are fun additions on top of the core of exploration and discovery. Some races have spectacular set-piece moments, like the one shown in the E3 demo where you jump past a jeep hanging from a helicopter. But even these scripted, high-octane moments can't compete with the immense satisfaction of finding a massive ramp hidden out in the country, or gunning past a speedtrap at 180 miles per hour.
There's a reason why Playground spent so much time lovingly crafting Forza Horizon 3's world. Whereas Forza Motorsport emphasizes the feel, look, and performance of racecars on a track almost to the exclusion of other parts of the game, Forza Horizon 3 wants to break you out of the hyperfocus of driving around a course. It dares you to look out at the mountains and at the sky while you drive. It wants you to lose yourself in the storms, the forests, and the ocean.
It has enough emergent events to keep free roaming throughout the world interesting, too. One of the more entertaining parts of my demo came when, as I listened to the radio, the DJ suddenly announced that the next track she would play was a Skill Song. During this specific Skill Song, drifting granted me extra Skill Points which can be used to unlock new perks and abilities.
You can also find danger signs which mark giant ramps throughout the world. Landing one of these jumps nets you greater notoriety and more fans, which you need to unlock bigger and more venues for your festival. You can also race or make convoys with other Drivatars, Forza Horizon's computer-controlled racers based on your friends' list. As a result, you have plenty to do even if you don't want to do actual races.
Throughout my demo, I never feel frustrated when I got distracted by the ever-changing sky and veered off the road, because that's how I ended up cruising across the Outback and discovering farms, sheds, and secrets. While I spent a lot of time attempting to get first place in the races and championships scattered throughout the game, I enjoyed just as much taking advantage of the open world, whether that be by pushing a sports car to its limits on the country roads or carving paths all over the beaches in a dune buggy.