Strewth mate! When I first caught wind Playground Games was making a dog's breakfast of the Aussie map for Forza Horizon 3 I was bloody outraged! But now I've had a good gander ya gotta give 'em a fair shake because it turns out they've made a corker that really does get the Aussie vibe of the thing. Go 'Straya!
Translation: If you know the reality, you'll know Playground has done some very weird things with the Australian map for its Forza Horizon 3 setting. But what the game lacks in geography lessons it makes up for in sheer driving pleasure, while still capturing the spirit of what it means to make a racing game with an Australian backdrop.
Driving games love their stats, so here's a few: Over 350 cars, twice the map size of the previous Horizon game, 12-player online multiplayer, four-player online campaign co-op, new events and car types galore. If you want more, Forza Horizon 3 gives you more. Case closed.
The cars all feel wonderfully different too. It's not just that they handle differently. The sounds they make are unique to each make and model. After performing upgrades the sounds change too. There's no mistaking the difference between a BMW RLL Z4 GTE, a BMW M4 Coupe or a BMW Isetta 300 Export. Turbos pop violently, V8s thunder and race engines roar.
But there's something else here. The game feels more open than ever. Forza Horizon games are about enjoy the open driving experience, this time around the game lets you really go wherever you want. Take shortcuts across fields, through forests or even off clifftops. Drive through the surf. There's less of a sense of being hemmed in by invisible walls than ever before.
Your first mission in the game sets quite the tone. It's you in a buggy versus a Jeep that spends most of the race being flown through the bush under a helicopter. It's dumb, it's crazy and it's a lot of fun as you chase it through bush terrain on your way to your first Horizon Festival location.
The game is also notably not just fun, but funny. Beauty spot commentaries, radio announcers (my favourite is the classical community radio station -- nothing like doing burnouts to some Beethoven) plus banter with your festival assistant (you're now the boss, by the way). Little touches that make you laugh rather than cringe at the idea that real people with the kind of money to enjoy cars like these are sometimes jerks and, to use the Australian vernacular, wankers.
The race events are fun and a good mix of styles and locations, with environments like beaches, coastal roads, city streets, forests and the outback. But I'll happily argue the best of the game is found out on the open road. Nothing is too gated either. Yes, you must unlock events by gaining fans to open up more festival upgrades and new venues, but the world itself is made to be explored.
The game again features "Barn finds" as a way to discover 15 classic cars hidden out in the world. It really should have been renamed "Shed finds" for the Australian setting, but the fun of the hunt lets me overlook that faux pas. There's danger sign jumps for doing particularly crazy stunts and bucket list objectives with races and events that are even more over the top than usual. But the best of the new additions has to be Convoy.
With Drivatars of friends still a big part of the game, you can now beep your horn while driving past Drivatars to form up in a convoy of racers heading wherever you want to go. Suddenly the basic act of driving through the open world feels like you are racing along with friends, without worrying about actually winning a race. If you go off-road your convoy will still follow along, making for some particularly fun times bouncing through the scrub in search of a hidden barn.
This was the highlight in my household, with everyone from this grown man to the younger kids all loving the fun a convoy brought to driving across the world. Now and then you can trigger a convoy race with a tap of the X button.
With Convoy, it feels like "just driving" is now something you can do for hours with a genuine sense of thrill as you and a team of cars weave through traffic, barrel through gorgeous locations and see all the beautiful work the designers put into this recreation of what it feels like to drive through the amazing Australian landscape.
As an Australian I can categorically state on behalf of my entire country that the game captures the classic flavours of Australian car culture. I beg you to choose the HSV GTS Maloo "ute" as your starter car. It's all muscle in the front, pick-up utility vehicle in the back and Aussie as all get out. It's also incredibly powerful and loads of fun to drive.
Also, don't forget, you're in Australia now, so keep left on the roads.
Through the rest of the game you'll find other Australian classics. The Sandman, the Torana and other friends of classic local car culture are in the line up. The accents are put on thick (Playground swears it didn't ask the Australian voice actors to lay it on) but the spirit is authentic.
The world itself is captured beautifully. It looks and feels Australian. At one moment I saw beautiful blue skies but turned a corner to see black clouds rolling in off the ocean, looking just like the nasty thunderstorms you get here that crack down on the end of a summer's day. Gorgeous pink-red sunsets with dappled cloudy skies are sunsets I know. Post boxes, road signs, parking meters and bins (both household wheelie bins and beach-side public bins) show all the little details lovingly recreated to nail the Australian experience.
I visit Surfers Paradise in Queensland every year. I drove along the Great Ocean Road for a Forza preview event to the Twelve Apostles location that appears in the game. These places aren't street-for-street or turn-for-turn recreations, but there are certain intersections, corners, buildings and landmarks that I absolutely recognise. I stop and double check buildings from time to time to see if that's a specific place I stayed in for a holiday.
Everything feels like I'm there, even if the streets aren't exactly where they are on the map. Or even if Surfers Paradise is just a 12.5 km drive from Byron Bay via the Great Ocean Road (seriously, look up where they really are on a map, it's hilarious).
Microsoft has struck a great balance across what different kinds of racing fans want from the core Forza games and Forza Horizon. If you want excellent track racing, stick with Forza. If you want to have the most fun possible behind the wheel of a pretend car out on the open road, Forza Horizon is a winner, and Horizon 3 is a worthy successor to the series.
Translation: Crikey! It's a corker! Fair dinkum, it's a bloody ripper, mate!