Review | 9/27/2016 at 9:00 AM

Forza Horizon 3 Co-Op Review

Get your motor running

Cooperative racing games are incredibly rare. Besides The Crew and Burnout Paradise, you just don’t see many games that let friends team up on the road. That’s what makes this year’s Xbox and Windows 10 exclusive Forza Horizon 3 so special. Horizon has always been a fantastic open-world racing series, and now racers can finally work together with friends in the online co-op campaign.

Forza Horizon 3 is an open-world racing game set around the fictional Forza Horizon festival. Previous installments have taken place in Colorado and Europe. Horizon 3 cruises south of the equator to Australia, the home of Crocodile Dundee. It’s not a 1:1 recreation, but the distinctive landmarks and diverse biomes do a great job of making it feel like you’re actually driving around exotic Australia.

This time, the player actually runs the festival on top of participating in it. You start by selecting from an assortment of characters, including people of color and women. That’s a major improvement over Horizon 2, which cast all players as the same bland white guy. A greater selection of characters and customization options would still be welcome, but Horizon 3 sets its customization sights on the cars rather than their drivers.

After opening your first Festival location, you’re ready to hit the open road. Each Festival expansion unlocks a new set of races and events to complete, so the options are a bit limited at first. Completing races and events wins you fans though, with certain milestones unlocking Festival expansions and features. As the boss, you even get a choice of where to open new expansions, which locations to level up, which radio stations to sign first (Epitaph, of course), and more.

Horizon 3 offers numerous races and events. All of the race types from Horizon 2 return, as do the street races from the first game. Convoy races take advantage of the new ability to form convoys by honking your horn at Drivatars (AI racers based on other players). As the Festival boss, players can even customize, name, and share their own races now, so you’ll never run out of things to do.

As always, Showcase events are the highlight of the campaign. These races pit your car, truck, or ATV against increasingly surprising opponents, the only one of which we’re allowed to mention is a helicopter carrying a jeep by suspension cables. More common and less welcome are the Bucket List Challenges. They have a fixed difficulty that is mostly unaffected by the player’s settings, making the harder ones extremely unforgiving and less enjoyable than other event types.

Between races, players can always head out in search of XP and Fast Travel Discount signs. These appear on the map when you pass by their general radius, or you can buy a Treasure Map for three bucks to reveal them all. The Horizon Promo photo mode returns as well, unlockable in the newly expanded Skill Shop. Horizon Promo tasks players with taking sharable photos of the game’s 350 cars, doling out rewards for every new car’s image. Hunting for signs and new cars are some of my favorite parts of the game, as they really encourage exploration and discovery.

Speaking of cars, picking up DLC cars and new cars from the shop is still a slow and clunky process. You have to select each one, pick a community paint job or stock color, and wade through several confirmation screens and tedious loading just to pick up a car. The Forza series really needs to add a way to buy and upgrade cars in bulk. I’d be happy with the stock colors if it saved me several cumulative minutes of loading.

On the happier side, the long-missing Auction House makes a triumphant return in Horizon 3. Sure it involves lengthy loads at times, but you can find some great deals on other players’ cars. The Auction House is also a good way to pick up Horizon Edition cars, vehicles with special stat boosts like XP and credit multipliers. The only other way to get Horizon Edition rides is by winning the level-up wheel spin, so buying them from another player is a convenient option.

Forza Horizon 3’s most exciting new feature is 4-player online co-op. Xbox One and Windows 10 players can even play together, as the game is fully cross-play, with all progress shared between versions. As an Xbox Play Anywhere title, it’s even cross-buy if you buy digitally.

You won’t be able to jump straight into co-op when you start the game, though. Online multiplayer does not unlock until the second Festival expansion. The only benefit I can see to locking all multiplayer away for a while is the game wants to teach you how things work first before opening up the social experience. On the plus side, it only takes 1-2 hours to earn enough fans for the second expansion.

Once the player has unlocked multiplayer, the new Co-op Campaign becomes available. This allows up to four players to team up and complete races and other campaign tasks together. You can either join a random player’s Co-op Campaign, jump directly into a friend’s, or host your own. Hosting is a bit cumbersome, but it works.

After everyone accepts your invite and joins your group (essentially a game-specific party similar to what Halo games have always offered), the host player must press the B button a couple of times to back out of all menus and return to the game. At that point, the host presses the X button to actually initiate co-op. The host can then drive around while waiting for the other players to actually enter the game.

In online co-op games, everyone visits the host’s world. Most races can only be initiated by that primary player, which will start the race for everyone else no matter where they are on the map. Visiting players can request to initiate Bucket List challenges (which are instanced), but the host still has to approve them. Strangely, Bucket Lists only seem to allow 2-players to participate, even in 4-player co-op games.

As for the actual races, any race that involves competing against AI drivers (Championships, Exhibitions, Street Races, etc.) become team-based in co-op. Human players will automatically be on one team and Drivatars make up the other team. Each player’s position in the race contributes to the overall score of the team. If your collective score beats the Drivatar team’s score, then everybody wins.

Team scoring is cool because a couple of skilled players can carry the team. But if the majority of the team tanks the race, everybody loses. The host player can adjust the Drivatar AI difficulty if needed. Win or lose though, everybody gains XP, Credits, and Fans for every race – including a team bonus to further incentivize co-op play.

Forza Horizon 3 also supports online clubs, which are essentially the racing version of guilds or clans. Clubs don’t unlock until your fifth Festival expansion though, which will be 5-6 hours into the game. Clubs are unchanged from Horizon 2, which means they provide credit bonuses and leaderboards but not much else. It’s too bad Playground Games didn’t increase their functionality in this installment.

Online co-op is a great addition to Forza Horizon 3. Although everyone’s at the mercy of the host as far as starting races goes, you can otherwise explore and do what you want while occupying the same world as friends. The only feature you lose out on in co-op is Horizon Promo, the game’s photo mode. That definitely stings a bit, as someone who only plays co-op will never make progress towards photographing cars in the game. But teaming up to win races is so much fun, you can always save the photography stuff for later.

Forza Horizon 3 is the ultimate open-world racing game. Most of us will never get to visit Australia in real life, but tearing through its streets, forests, beaches, and deserts in virtual form is still legitimately thrilling. With phenomenal production values, a huge diversity of built-in and player-created events, cross-play and cross-buy, you really won’t find a better racing game any time soon. Especially not one with online co-op.

The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Forza Horizon 3 was reviewed on Xbox One and tested on Windows 10 using a code provided by the publisher for review purposes.