Forza Horizon 3 is the current pinnacle of open world racing: a caringly crafted ode to the joy of having a heavy right foot, and a technical titan to boot. It’s not Microsoft’s highest-rated exclusive by accident; it’s the game against which other open world racers are currently judged.
One of the best things about Forza Horizon 3 is how much it continued to improve after it was launched. Outside of the new cars freshening up the garage each month there were two high-quality expansions: Blizzard Mountain, a terrific, snow-covered new map that brought a drastically different new dimension of driving to the Forza Horizon experience, and Hot Wheels, an intoxicating departure from the largely-grounded world of Forza Horizon that gave us a glimpse of what an eight-year-old’s bedroom floor would look like brought to life by a multi-billion-dollar budget.
With these two expansions under its belt, Forza Horizon 3 went from class-leading to downright essential. It’s absolutely not too late to get on board if you haven’t already. Arguably it’s a better time than ever, especially since the Xbox One X enhanced version arrived last month.
I’ve returned to Forza Horizon 3 since the update and I’ve fallen in love with it all over again. For me, there’s no finer reason to own a 4K TV. The already fantastic image quality has soared to absurd new levels.
“Something I've loved about owning an Xbox One X since launch is not just the new games coming out, but the older games which have been enhanced to take advantage of the power it brings,” says Fulton. “I think we were always going to want to give Forza Horizon 3 the same treatment, but the thing which made it essential is the sheer number of people who are still playing the game.”
After receiving an Xbox One X kit it took the Playground team less than a day to get Forza Horizon 3 up and running in 4K. According to Fulton it’s a result of both the way the Forza games are developed and the Xbox One X itself.
“ForzaTech, which both Horizon and Motorsport titles are built on, is a scalable engine designed to meet the needs of both console and PC,” explains Fulton. “Of course, the fact that it has been architected primarily for the Xbox One family of devices makes it particularly suitable for this kind of upscale.”
“But it can't be understated how great a job the Xbox platform team have done in building Xbox One X, and the hardware team have done a flawless job developing it to be compatible with Xbox One and One S. They deserve huge credit for this – it's not just players who are enjoying the Xbox One X experience, I guarantee developers are too.”
According to Fulton one of exciting parts of the process was discovering just how much extra headroom they had with the hardware, even after getting the game running in native 4K.
“We had a fairly good idea before we started because we were familiar with the technical specifications of the console, but we were thrilled to find we had more than we expected,” says Fulton. “In that situation, as a developer, you have a lot of choices in how to spend that budget.
“We took a holistic approach, considering the elements of our game which were most important to the final frame and which would give the best ‘bang for buck’ for the player. In a game like Horizon, the three most important visual elements are the car, the road, and the sky, so we focused our improvements on these key areas. These included increased resolution in our car reflections to make them sharper and clearer, increased resolution in our environment shadows, smoother motion blur to improve the sensation of speed, and better anisotropic filtering which greatly improves texture detail, especially on the road surface in front of the car.”
I’ve actually achieved very little in Forza Horizon 3 since returning to its warm embrace. I think I’ve done a handful of races, but really only as a means of changing up my car class and subsequently refreshing the NPC fleet of other racers hooning through the world around me. The rest of the time I’ve spent joyriding around the map, blowing the cobwebs out of some cars that didn’t get much tarmac-time the first time around and gawking at the new level of detail.
It’s still a brilliantly-designed game, from top to bottom, but the recent update really knocks it up a notch.
“For me, the 'wow' factor in this enhanced version is the image quality of the whole frame,” says Fulton. “That's obviously a great deal to do with the true 4K resolution – we don’t do any resolution scaling or checkerboarding so the image is always 3840 x 2160.”
“However the 4xMSAA anti-aliasing solution we use in the game, and the improved motion blur we've implemented with this update also contribute to the enhanced quality. The combination of these elements is what makes every single frame smoother and sharper and as I've been playing the game since the update, it's given the world a really crisp, fresh feeling as I explore. As someone who has driven around Australia in-game a great deal over the last few years, that's a pretty impressive feat!”
Back when I reviewed Forza Horizon 3 I said it was the racing game I’d been waiting for, and there wasn’t a shred of exaggeration in that statement. In the late ’90s, when all my free time was devoted to the original Gran Turismo, I remember making handwritten lists on scrap paper of the cars I wished we could get in future games in the series, because I was a colossal nerd. I never held much hope for the Australian cars I listed; I figured as a small, geographically-isolated auto industry the chances of this sort of stuff popping up on the radar of an overseas developer would be slim.
It took nearly two decades, but in one fell swoop Forza Horizon 3 made most of my silly, teenage scrawl a reality. Forza Horizon 3 wasn’t just an edition of my favourite open world racer set in my own backyard; it was also packed with metal that actually meant something to me. The fact that it arrived in the same year the sun was officially setting on Australia’s 90-year history of building cars was especially serendipitous.
You don’t need to be from down under to fully appreciate Forza Horizon 3 – its reception and reputation worldwide prove that – although it does help, slightly. And, again, I’m not the only one.
“There is a dedicated and passionate Forza community here in Australia and we find that all Forza titles, most recently Forza Motorsport 7, get a fantastic response,” says Jeremy Hinton, Xbox Business Lead for Asia at Microsoft Australia. “With Forza Horizon 3 on Xbox One and Windows 10, the local setting for the game was extremely unique and special.”
“It has been amazing to watch the passionate Forza community jump into the game on day one and continue to play in massive numbers today. Not only was Forza Horizon 3 the most played game on Xbox in Australia in 2017, but it is also the best-selling Xbox One game in Australia since the launch of the console in 2013.
“It’s also the top four game of all time for Xbox in Australia, which highlights the overwhelming response from long term fans and new players alike.
“It has certainly been a unique experience to bring Australia to life in a video game with such detail, and to see fans just as excited as the team here at Xbox was incredible. In particular, seeing the work and attention to detail for the terrain and capturing the unique Aussie car culture has shone through in the success of the game locally. There was a lot of passion from the local Xbox team to bring this game to market in Australia and seeing the joy it brought to gamers across the nation has made everything worthwhile.”
I visited Playground Games in the UK back in 2014, prior to the release of Forza Horizon 2 later that year. I boarded a plane home with six hours of interviews, a mild headache from staying up all night watching darts on TV before the flight, and a T-shirt with the studio’s logo on the front.
A little over a month ago I wore it to the beach over the summer break, partly because it’s a loose fit and wears well over my rash vest but mostly because the sun was especially fierce and it was the first T-shirt I encountered in my stash that wasn’t black. I was on the way back with an armful of buckets and spades and novelty plastic boats when a bloke flashed me a hearty smile. I thought he was motioning towards my cargo; some kind of unspoken dad solidarity at the sight of another man burdened with a load of dollar-store trinkets that his kids didn’t want to carry back from the beach themselves. He wasn’t. Rather, it was the shirt that had caught his attention.
“Hey; do you work for those guys?” he asked, earnestly.
I replied no, but that I knew some folk who do.
“Mate, tell ’em,” he started, “Horizon 3; mate, f---in’ best game ever.”