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Review: Race at your own speed in big, beautiful ‘Forza Horizon 3’

Forza Horizon 3 lead
“Forza Horizon 3” lets you take your Lambo to the beach.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. We won’t want them, either, because “Forza Horizon 3” is at its best when we’re doing 187 miles per hour through the wilds of the Australian outback in a tricked-out Lamborghini Aventador.

And really, that ridiculous image – driving a car you will never afford at speeds you will never experience in vaguely realistic places you will never travel to – has been the crux of the “Horizon” series since Microsoft first launched their open-world racing spin-off in 2012. It’s a good formula that trades “Forza Motorsport’s” obsessive automobile fetishism for a gritty, enormous environment and a gaudy number of things to do in it.

So what makes this “Forza Horizon” the best yet? Technology, for one thing, and a scarily good balance between realism and drivability, for another. While it doesn’t steer the franchise in brave new directions, it handles well and goes really, really, just embarrassingly fast.

Story? What story?

The setup is on par with the prior “Horizon” games: a few million beautiful car nerds have once again taken over a land mass – this time, a chunk of Australia – to throw a sprawling festival celebrating good vibes, thumping beats and totally reckless driving. It’s the gasoline-addicted lovechild of Burning Man and an energy drink.

This has never been a particularly cool idea, and thankfully, “Forza Horizon 3” ditches any pretense of a story in favor of a simple premise: you, once a lowly gearhead climbing the circuit, are now the boss. Not that it means much. You still drive mundane and exotic cars in order to earn more cash to buy more rides, compete in more races, gather more fans and ultimately open up more and more festival spots.

Mustang in the outback
Take your Mustang for a drift in the outback.

There are four regions to unlock, each of which has a loose theme corresponding to its geographical location (one’s near the beach, another’s in the outback) and each stop offers a stunning assortment of activities. There are standard lap and checkpoint races, but most racers will gravitate towards more playful bits like burning through speed traps, skidding through drift zones, leaping off danger signs, hunting down rare cars secreted away in hard-to-find barns and much more. Completing events gains you fans and levels up regions, unlocking even more events. In “Forza Horizon 3,” the more you do, the more stuff there is to do.

Wasting time has never been so rewarding

Better yet, not doing much of anything can also advance your game. Driving fast, driving clean, driving crazy – these all feed into a points system that yields perks in a skill tree. So while powersliding across a cornfield in a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona Hemi might seem, relatively speaking, like a waste of time, it’s not. You’re accruing points for that pointless drifting. Despite its impossible size and overabundance of activities, “Forza Horizon 3” joins the ranks of the legendary “Burnout Paradise” as one of the least wasteful racing games ever created.

Forza Horizon 3 burn rubber
Burn rubber.

It’s got something for everyone. While I prefer to launch my Lambo around Australia like a vastly overpriced Matchbox car, you might opt to head into the plethora of standard race types. These yield the biggest fan rewards, and while they’re pretty conventional, developer Playground Games smartly included the option to build your own blueprint. You can take on any race as it was created, or you can tweak the car class and name and share it with the world. Starting a race only to lose yourself scrolling through the ridiculous names and options provided by the community is shared content done right.

Friends for hire

The Drivatar system, “Forza’s” fancy way of handling AI by creating computer-controlled opponents based on your and your friends’ driving styles, is back again. I’ve always loved the idea that the game is populating my world with cars powered by the driving habits of my friends, but once again, it seems that every Drivatar drives the same way: like a jerk.

Maybe all of my friends are jerks, or, more likely, we all just play racing games fairly aggressively, and therefore the computerized versions of us turn out to be a bunch of angry drivers. At any rate, I didn’t notice a significant difference in driving styles, but if Microsoft wants to keep trying this, so be it.

The social aspect of “Forza Horizon 3” runs much deeper than Drivatar AI, however. You can also race against friendly Drivatars in head-to-head competitions. Win, and you can recruit them into your game to earn rewards. There’s leaderboard integration for just about everything, too, so you can quickly see how your times stack up. As an asynchronous multiplayer affair, “Forza Horizon 3” delivers in spades.

Yeah, this game is pretty. Really pretty.
Yeah, this game is pretty. Really pretty.

It also goes bigger with its online component than in previous years, now boasting the ability to co-op through the single-player experience in addition to tons of different online races. It’s cool, though I think most folks will ignore online play since there’s just so much to do here already.

In its own privileged way, that’s an issue. “Forza Horizon 3” goes so big with its content, cramming its huge world with so many activities that occasionally you get a little lost and lose track of the core point. Every so often your new onboard nav system (her name is “Anna”) will remind you of an event somewhere, but it never feels like any one race is more pressing than another.

Ultimately, though, that plays to “Forza’s” strengths by encouraging you to just get out and drive. There are a billion cars here and you collect them at a nice, steady pace. After about 10 hours you’ll have a good two dozen insane rides to paint, tune, and smash through the underbrush with. They handle marvelously, too, as Playground has refined their impressive engine so that every car straddles that crucial line between simulation authenticity and arcade accessibility.

A real beauty

And, naturally, it all looks incredible. “Forza Horizon 3” is in the vanguard of Microsoft’s HDR efforts. If you own an Xbox One S and an HDR-compliant TV, it’s, well, amazing. The colors are screamingly bright; there’s so much happening onscreen at once, it’s a bit of an overload, really. But even if you don’t have the right gear (and let’s face it, you probably don’t), this remains one of the best-looking racing games in the world: it’s smooth, it’s shiny, and it rarely hiccups despite its enormity.

Forza Horizon 3 friends
Rolling with the homies.

Really the only place “Forza Horizon 3” skids out is in its lack of ingenuity. It’s packed, over delivering on what was already plenty of content in the previous game, but it comes up a little short in terms of innovation. Racing through a gorgeous field, foliage crumpling under your tires, the sun gleaming off your dented roof – it’s a sight, but one that I recall seeing countless times in “Forza Horizon 2.” Much of what you do in “Forza Horizon 3,” you have likely done before.

Still, it’s never looked this good, been this big or done its job with as much confidence. In the race for your holiday dollar, Microsoft’s open-world treat should sit near the front of the pack.

4 and half stars
4 and half stars

What’s Hot: Big, fast, and pretty; tons of stuff to do; wonderfully balanced controls; deep social roots

What’s Not: Lots of small tweaks, few big changes; sometimes feels like a souped-up “Forza 2”

Platform reviewed: Xbox One

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Ben Silverman hereby apologies to Lamborghini for what he did to that poor Aventador. He’s on Twitter at ben_silverman.