It took a 2012 Mini Cooper for me to fall in love with 70km of plastic track. Specifically, it took a punchy Mini Cooper travelling vertically up a stretch of this toy road, after being propelled by a thundering, belching treadmill in perfect concert with ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by the 19th century composer Richard Strauss, to really appreciate what was going on.
Let me explain. Forza Horizon – the playful scamp to Motorsport’s more stiff-collared companion – is a charmer of a series. Developer Playground Games originally took the guts of Motorsport’s physics model, tinkered with it to make it far more approachable and then fed their own changes back into system. If it wasn’t for a gigantic data pipe flowing between Turn 10 and Playground Games, and the fact that the two teams share their insights with each other, you could accuse the Leamington Spa-based studio of being cuckoos. Consider that both a model of the prize lucky dip which divvies out rewards and the basis of the weather system from Horizon 2 made it into Motorsport 6, then you have one very generous nest-stealer.
Playground Games evolved the series from a hemmed-in, mostly burnt-orange dude-bro racer in the first Horizon (you couldn’t go off the delineated road in Colorado, and there was a lot of neon) into a bright open world with a breezier attitude, complete with collectibles and distractions that branched off from other distractions. Horizon errs firmly on the arcade side of the racing game divide with a deep physics system. It is, for my money, the best version of Forza there is.
Forza Horizon 3: Hot Wheels is the second expansion to the main game, set in Australia. Mainland Horizon 3 features, without any doubt, the greatest open world created for a racing game to date, a surprising palette of highlights plucked from an entire continent. It’s showstopper after showstopper, from the iconic, dramatic Great Ocean Road coastline to the dusty plains of the Outback, with the Parkes radar array and claustrophobia-inducing rainforests in between. My assertion that this is the greatest open world is largely based on the fact that I live in Australia and I’m lucky enough to have visited many of the places depicted.
However. There is no place in Australia called Thrilltopia, the archipelago that hosts Hot Wheels. It’s entirely made up. Gone is the freedom to pick a point on the GPS and then ignore it in favour of crashing your way through the bush or threading your hypercar through backstreets knocking over bins, or going the ultra long way around because it is a sheer joy to see day turn to night and back again. In place of freedom, you have this impossible network of plastic roadways – a brighter version of burnt orange – that hang and curl 30-odd storeys in the air, occasionally punctuated by brutal junctions that clang against the flow of the race.
A clutch of corkscrews remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog’s 16-bit glory days, spinning multiple times through vertigo-inducing vomitoriums. There’s even a smattering of – get this – boost pads that fling your car to a hundred-odd miles per hour in a split second. Most of the track is bracketed by a lip that often stops your car from flipping over it and into the drink, but even then if you launch off a big enough ramp (and you will at some point) it’s possible to sail over where you meant to land and end up in the sea.
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The only part that’s authentic is that the Hot Wheels track has the joins from the real-world toy supposedly affixing each section together. As you can see from the screenshots, it goes snaking around skyscrapers before dipping over postcard seas. Yes, there is even a T-Rex or two in there, based on a themed Hot Wheels pack.
While Horizon takes the real world as basis for its arcade reality, Hot Wheels is a cartoon. It is pure fantasy, an injection of themes and ideas at almost total odds to what Forza Horizon is. For Hot Wheels, the toy, to be fun, it relies on pure speed for its toy cars to commit to its loop-the-loops and gravity-cheating spectacle. Finesse in terms of control, I huffed, was an afterthought.
So what about that Mini Cooper in the first sentence? If only fast cars – like, seriously, punch-a-hole-in-space-fast cars – can compete, then how does a B-spec unit like the Mini rank? With absurd comedy and pitch-perfect execution. Until I found the Bucketlist Challenge featuring the Mini, I was struggling with Hot Wheels. Everything felt too rigid, too forced. For a game that was clearly about speed, the pace was slow. For a game that celebrates creativity, I had no freedom.
But the opening horns in Strauss’ 30-minute repertoire, forged into the public’s consciousness after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, hinted at something peculiar. The Mini dawdles away from the interstitial text, but by the time the second round of strings and wind instruments in those stirring opening moments erupted out of my telly, the tension is building, building together towards that first crescendo, and the Mini’s been kicked in the rear thanks to a boost pad, a hulking, shuddering machine borne only for grotesque effect.
The Mini now points upward and it’s still accelerating.
As I pilot it with timing and luck, it’s now over a ramp, and the orchestra’s in full force. NASA’s best couldn’t outpace the Mini and I’m cackling like a lunatic.
I’m not laughing at it, nor really with it, but because I finally get it. The Cooper blasts through the finish. Fireworks explode on the horizon.
After a couple of hours of play, it took one minute and seven seconds for me to be utterly hooked. And I’m still hooked nearly 15 hours later. The last time I wrote about Forza Horizon 3, I advised turn the HUD off, drive around and admire the beauty of the game. Christ almighty, don’t do that. Turn it all on – at the very least, leave the minimap, your speedo and braking line on. You’ll need it to see where you’re going and navigate, leaving the rest of your body to simply hold on. Ride this one like you’d white-knuckle a rollercoaster.
Hot Wheels has simply highlighted one aspect of Horizon 3 that I’d never properly paid attention to: this is a toybox. A very literal one, too. And it’ll leave you completely rapt.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.