The best gets even better thanks by embracing the absurd
In a genre that has been struggling with where to go next, Playground Games' Xbox One and PC-exclusive Forza Horizon 3 has been a rare flash of brilliance. While Turn 10's main Forza Motorsport series has gotten progressively more and more serious and fetishistic, we've seen EA's Need for Speed completely lose all sense of its own identity and Sony apparently forget that Gran Turismo is a thing that people want to play on PS4. Since we achieved peak-fun-car-game with Criterion's Burnout Paradise back in 2008, the only racing game series with any sense of glee outside of Mario Kart has been Horizon.
When Horizon 3 launched last September, it was clearly something special. It was a gorgeous game with a playful sense of humor that gave you tons to do while also encouraging you to hoon about in its expansive open-world in everything from bonkers supercars and SUVs to pickups and classic racers. Subsequent car packs have brought all kinds of wonderfully indulgent silliness, including the Warthog from Halo, and in December, it got a whopper of an expansion in the form of the snow-themed Blizzard Mountain. All of this already added up to one of the best car-based games you could buy (and certainly the best value) but this Hot Wheels expansion takes things far beyond expectations. From the moment you roll out onto its bright orange track, it just exudes coolness.
For $19.99 (it's part of the season pass if you signed up for that) you get an enormous amount of stuff. It's like a whole other game has been bolted on to Forza while absorbing all of its best parts along the way. Accessed from a location on the main Horizon 3 map, it adds a network of islands off the east coast of the game's expansive chunk of Australia and covers them in miles and miles of a spaghetti-like network of supersized Hot Wheels track. Loops, corkscrews, half-pipes, criss-crosses, high banked turns, gigantic mechanical boost pads powered by monstrous truck engines and even life-sized plastic dinosaurs all give credible full-sized form to the beloved toy. As you can probably imagine from the screenshot here, it's a bit of a nightmare to navigate, but it's such a joy to drive around, you rarely feel frustrated.
Given that the central premise of Horizon 3 is basically a festival of "wouldn't it be cool" unbound by trifles like budget or practical considerations, the existence of this ridiculous structure is accepted as just d'uh, obvious within the game's lightweight narrative. Of course we're building the biggest Hot Wheels track ever. We can rewind time, so why is this any less believable? But it's a bold move for a series that's ultimately grounded in realism. But while this is in essence a toy writ large, it's actually still bound by the basic rules of Forza's world. If you're going to pull off a loop-de-loop, you're going to need to build up enough speed so you don't fall off the track at the worst possible moment, and as you're hurtling around a vertically banked curve at 150 mph, you still have to fight gravity so you don't plummet to your death in the water below.
Fortunately, the expansion also includes 10 appropriately performant and faithfully reproduced Hot Wheels cars (one of them is a hidden barn find), including the iconic 1969 Hot Wheels Twin Mill – yes, the iconic crazy blue wedge with two engines – along with the Pagani Zonda R, the Rip Rod and even Jeep's giant-wheeled 2016 Trailcat concept. If you like to play your driving games from the cockpit view, some of these aren't so practical, though. The Bone Shaker Hot Rod is so severely chopped that the roofline completely obscures your view, and I'm sure you can imagine what driving something with two engines poking out of the hood is like. As with all of the other cars in Horizon, though, they feel absolutely wonderful – more like caricatures of performance cars than accurate representations. Slam on the throttle and they bite back ferociously as they scream out engine noises that sound like Satan gargling sulphuric acid.
There's an enormous amount to play with here. While it's unlikely you've exhausted everything that the vanilla Horizon 3 has to offer (or indeed Blizzard Mountain) there's so much more here to keep you occupied. It embraces all of the main game's key events, from standard circuits to point-to-point races, speed camera challenges and stunts, plus it puts a new spin on the main game's custom events by allowing you to modify stunt track sections and share them with friends. While multiplayer racing is supported in the same way it is elsewhere in the main game, the real motivator here tends to be the asynchronous stuff that generates leaderboards for just about every action you ever take. Discovering new sections of the track, blowing through speed cameras and hitting new top speeds are all tracked alongside your win record and shared with friends. There's nothing quite like knowing you're only a fraction of a second behind a friend on a loop-de-loop challenge to keep you motivated to retry multiple times.
Ultimately, what this all adds up to is something that exudes a kind of confidence and joy that we rarely see, particularly in driving games. Hot Wheels demonstrates that Playground Games are so assured and steadfast in their vision for Forza Horizon that they can make something so patently absurd feel like the most obvious and natural thing in the world. It shows that games can be rooted in realism while reveling in the preposterous and that's what guarantees Forza Horizon 3's place as one of the all time great driving games.