Car Games and Apps

7-ish awesome new details about Forza Horizon 3

The open-world driving game blasts back onto the Xbox One next week with the launch of the third in the series.

In many ways, Forza Horizon 3 is more of the same -- a stylized arcade racer with the bones and physics of a hardcore racing sim -- but developer Playground Games has tuned, modified and polished almost every part. I've been playing a pre-release copy for a few days and, so far, it's purring like a kitten.

Here are seven things you need to know about the third installment of the Forza Horizon series.

Livin' in a land down under

This time around, Forza Horizon is set in Australia, which is important for one specific reason: it's got utes! Short for utility vehicle, this awesome hybrid of a pickup truck and a sports sedan is one of the coolest classes of vehicles specific to the Land Down Under. The Ford FPV and HSV GTS Maloo (sadly, the only utes I spotted in the list of launch vehicles) can now run alongside the Chevy El Camino Super Sport on their home turf.

Part truck and part sports coupe, utes are the coolest thing about Forza Horizon 3's Australian setting.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Australia is a continent of varied ecosystems and Horizon 3 will take players through many of them. There's a lot of emphasis on off-road environments including the Outback, rainforests, beaches and plains. This means there's plenty of areas to play with the many SUVs, rally cars and (my new favorite category) buggies. Buggies were, I believe, introduced as part of DLC for Forza Horizon 2, but I'm glad to see vehicles like the Polaris RZR XP 1000 EPS and Ariel Nomad among the launch vehicles this go-round.

Horizon 3 features beauty spots that teach players about the wonders they'd normal whiz by in a blur, giving them an opportunity to check out the beach of the Twelve Apostles or Surfers Paradise.

There's also the matter of the Australian NPCs who, via radio broadcasts, cutscenes and voice over, add much character to the environment and the fictional Horizon Festival. So far, my favorite is Warren, the mechanic. Shortly after I meet him, I had to challenge him to a race through the jungle. I was in a race-prepped buggy; he was in a Willys Jeep...swinging beneath a helicopter. (Warren doesn't swear nearly as much as any Aussie that I've personally met, but ESRB ratings must be considered, I suppose.)

I should also note that I've probably spent about 10-15 hours playing now and I still haven't gotten the hang of driving on the left side of the road.

4K video, 12K skies

Forza Horizon 3 launches on Xbox One on September 27 (September 23 if you preordered) and will support 1080p HDR video when played on an Xbox One S with a compatible TV. I'm still rocking my 2013 Day One edition and a non-HDR-ready TV, so I can't testify to what that adds to the experience.

Even with my basic setup, Horizon 3 features new lighting tech driven by an authentic in-game skybox. Playground Games didn't just generate the game's sky out of thin air. The developers used a 12K HDR camera rig to capture actual Australian skies to get the most realistic looking atmosphere in-game. Now, I don't spend a whole lot of time looking up in racing games (in fact, I'm not even sure that you can), but Playground assures me that this crispy sky is part of a new "voxel-based global illumination" system that makes vehicle reflections look better and improves shadows. This, along with other improvements in rendering, means that Horizon 3 should look significantly better than its predecessor Forza Horizon 2. And it does look very good.

Forza Horizon 3 will also be available for Windows 10 gaming PCs, where it will support 4K video resolution if you've got the hardware to push the pixels.

There's finally character customization...sort of

Not long into Forza Horizon's campaign, you get to choose what your driver character looks like. This is, literally, a feature I've been bugging Playground and Turn 10 for since the first Forza Horizon launched on Xbox 360 in 2012.

Although it's not really character customization: Rather you choose from about a dozen predefined avatars of varying race and gender. All are 20-something hipster types and you can also choose from a list of about 500 names. Want to play an Asian woman named Master Chief? Horizon 3's got you. How about a black male named Twinkletoes? You're covered. I chose the name Juggernaut because I can't be stopped, but there are regular names, too.

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Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The avatar appears in cutscenes but never speaks. The names are used by in-game characters and the voice assistant, Anna. Anna's a very cool feature that debuted in Horizon 2 that sort of works like Siri does on an iPhone. You can either say "Anna" into your headset or Kinect mic or tap inputs on your D-pad and a pleasant female voice will guide you to the nearest race, event or stunt. You don't have to stop driving to use Anna; I was actually able to play for hours without ever entering a menu.

It's not an extensive character creator, but you spend so little time looking at your avatar that I'm just glad to see its addition and will take whatever diversity I can get.

Upgrade Heroes and vehicle customization

Of course, the cars are the main characters here and Forza Horizon has a massive cast. Horizon 3 will launch with over 350 vehicles on its roster, significantly more than the approximately 200 for Horizon 2. If the previous entries into the Forza Motorsport and Horizon series are any indicator, that 350 will be joined by a dozen of DLC cars in the months following the launch.

Horizon 3 now features a subset of vehicles called "Upgrade Heroes." These 45-50 cars feature unique customization presets that instantly transform a stock car into something more, well, heroic. Examples include a fully tricked out BMW M3 with race-ready mods and a Rocket Bunny body kit, a widebody Nissan Silvia drift car or a 1,000-plus horsepower 1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 drag racer with a massive hood scoop.

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Upgrade Hero cars feature preset customizations that change the performance and appearance of the car.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Vehicle customization has been vastly simplified on the surface. When you purchase or win a car in-game, you'll be presented with very simple options for visual customization and basic performance upgrades like wheels, tires and suspension. This should make it easier for casual players to jump in and start driving without having to worry about a massive list of options.

Speaking of easy customization, vanity plates are now built into the game. In every Forza title before this, you had to hack together a license plate manually in the vehicle customizer (and even then it was nigh impossible to get the letter properly spaced). Now, just pop into the menu, fill in up to nine characters that you want and hit the road. Horizon 3 also features customizable horns, most of which are pretty silly. Fortunately, there's an option to mute horns during online play, so you don't have to listen to "La Cucaracha" 9,000 times during a race.

However, the same deep level of tuning customization that I've come to love and expect from a Forza title is still there, just sort of tucked away in the attractive, but busy Festival menu. I didn't notice the Upgrades tile until almost an hour into my playtime. Now that I know where it is, I can spend hours fiddling with every bit of my digital dream cars from full engine swaps to minute suspension tweaks.

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I'm sure Rays Wheels doesn't actually forge a 24-inch version of its TE37 rims, but it does in the fictitious world of Forza.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Even the Horizon Festival is customizable

The canon of the Horizon games takes place around the Horizon Festival, a massive celebration of cars, racing and music. For Horizon 3, the player is put in charge of building the Festival.

Along the way, you can expand the festival to unlock new areas, hubs and racing series. With the new Horizon Blueprint tool, you can even create your own race types, tailoring the game to your tastes. Beyond the early tutorial races, the game doesn't force you to follow any specific track and you're free to ignore game types, events, classes and challenges that you don't like and to create more that you do.

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The Horizon Blueprint system allows players to dream up their own races, events and challenges and then share them with the online community.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Theoretically, Horizon Blueprint's ability to share custom races with the Horizon online community means there's almost limitless content to explore, but in practice, the tool's simultaneously clunky to use and not very flexible for creating truly custom races beyond the standard types. However, I'm also sure that the hardcore of the community will create some interesting races for everyone to enjoy, so I'm OK with Horizon Blueprint not being my jam.

Drone mode

The Horizon series has always had a feature called "Barn Finds" which challenge the player to explore the map and find unique classic cars hidden off the beaten path. But one annoyance that I have with all open-world racing games is that it's really hard to look around for things like this.

Horizon 3 introduces a feature called Drone Mode that allows the player to take control of a quadcopter drone in-game to get out of the car and see the world. Points of interest that you discover with the drone are marked on the in-game map and the extra mobility (and altitude) makes finding Barn Finds so much less frustrating. Playground Games tells me that it envisions the drone being useful for content creators who want to make their highlight videos more dynamic.

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I enjoy using the Drone mode to spy on Forza's weird looking NPCs lining the streets of the in-game world.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Microsoft Groove integration

Music has and continues to be one of the better parts of the Forza Horizon series. Horizon 3 features eight in-game stations that feature mixes of genre-specific music and DJs that provide commentary on the in-game world. I wish the Future Classic station was a real radio station that I could continue to listen to in my actual car when I was done playing.

It's possible to get bored with hearing even over 140 songs across eight stations, so Horizon 3 features integration with Microsoft's Groove music service to bring your music library into the game. So any music stored in your OneDrive account and accessible by the Groove service should be accessible via in-game controls. Sadly, I never actually got the system to recognize my Groove account, but that may be because I've been playing prelaunch.

If all else fails, the Xbox One's ability to natively play Groove media in the background works just as well.

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"A playback error has occurred." I never got the in-game Groove Music integration to work properly.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

More evolutionary tweaks

OK, this is getting to be more than seven things, but even so, most of the changes to Forza Horizon 3 are evolutionary. At the core is the same Forza Horizon that I've seen in two previous titles, from the cold-open tutorial that thrusts you straight into the hero car on the cover (this time, it's the Lamborghini Centenario) to the Barn Finds and Bucket List challenges. And mostly, that's a good thing. This is a solid arcade racer with a healthy dose of style that captures the fantasy of a fast-and-furious lifestyle better than most racing sims that I've played.

Some may see the further simplification of the interface and customizations as a bad thing, but I like the lower bar to entry. It may help me to convince my non-racer friends to join me in FH3's social elements, such as the ability to play all the way through the campaign in four-player co-op or the expanded car clubs system.

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After years of teasing, you can finally drive the Halo Warthog in Forza!

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

I'm also enjoying the way Horizon 3 brings the same level of customization and sharing that the previous games offered for livery and vehicle tuning to user-generated races, which hopefully will help keep my interest months down the line.

Forza Horizon 3 lands on the Xbox One console and Windows 10 PCs on September 27. Part of Microsoft's Play Anywhere program, ordering a digital copy gets you both the Xbox and Windows 10 versions of the game for one price.

The Forza Horizon 3 Standard edition will retail for $60 in the US. A Deluxe edition includes 15 additional cars and VIP Membership in-game bonuses for $80. Finally, the Ultimate edition adds the first six monthly DLC car packs (a total of 42 extra cars) for $100.