I don’t think I’ve ever been good at racing games.
Not even Mario Kart. I wouldn’t say I’m bad, I can win my fair share of 150cc cups but I tend to eat the dust of my friends when we get together for some co-op. The racing simulation genre has been one I’ve admired from afar until I picked up Forza Horizon 3.
That’s because the Horizon series isn’t your typical racing game. The emphasis is on exploration, driving around a huge open world completing stunt jumps, street races and various missions. Horizon 3 brings the action to the Australian wilderness and I found myself completely enthralled by touring around the Outback in all my luxury cars.
There’s a strange sense of laid-back nonchalance in Forza Horizon 3. The mini-map and in-game characters present me with a ton of objectives and collectibles but never tell me that I have to do any of it. It’s just me and the huge map, with endless options to explore, and I’m in the driver’s seat.
Another aspect that lends to a commendable sense of immersion is the impressive amount of customization that the Horizon Festival offers. Taking the role of the festival’s manager, I get to decide where the next events will take place, depending on if I’d rather explore a vibrant city or the lush rainforest, for example. Racing games often present their courses in a linear, exhibition style, but Horizon 3 does away with any sense of convention.
I’m tempted to call Forza Horizon 3 more of an open-world RPG than a racing simulation. Sure, the controls are tight, responsive and realistic, but so much of the focus is on my volition to explore and build my reputation as a driver. I pick my cars, my opponents, and my destination and I’m never forced to a different objective.
The competitive racing hook of gameplay is well-realized and integrated flawlessly into the exploration mechanics. If I drive fast enough behind another car, I can engage in a low-stakes street race. These moments contribute to the air of freedom that keeps me coming back to the Australian back country. I was pleasantly surprised with Forza Horizon 3, and have come to love the relaxed, almost meditative freedom it affords me every time I pick it up.
For twenty minutes at the end of a long day, I can cruise around the coast, or dedicate an entire afternoon to trying to beat my friend’s high scores. As someone who doesn’t have much experience with racing games, I find myself along for the ride on one of my favorite games of the year.