Car nirvana brings the thunder Down Under
IMAGINE a music festival like Coachella, but for petrolheads.
This is Horizon, a virtual car gathering, carnival and rave party in one massive celebration that takes over entire cities for one (endless) summer and lets you drive as irresponsibly as you want.
I had lived in Australia for half a decade and I once took my folks on a drive along the Great Ocean Road.
So it was with waves of nostalgia that I relived my memories of the land Down Under, albeit a hyper-real version of it, in Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios' third instalment in the biennial Forza Horizon open-world racing series.
I immensely enjoyed the first two editions, which were set in Colorado in the United States and Mediterranean Europe. Being a former Sydneysider, I was excited for this one, located in south-east Australia.
Unlike the previous games, you're now the boss of the festival, with two chirpy assistants and the returning in-car GPS Anna ready to help you out.
You can even choose your avatar from a diverse cast, the nickname the non-player characters will call you and what goes on your vanity plate.
I picked an East Asian man in a Hawaiian shirt; the moniker "Bantersaurus Rex", even though "Andre" was an option; and "TEHTARIK".
Your campaign objective is to expand the festival by gaining fans - this is the age of social media, after all.
You can do so by taking part in races, pulling off PR Stunts (like the new Danger Signs, which involves you jumping from a ramp as far as possible) and performing Showcases (barmy Top Gear-like contests such as chasing a jeep being airlifted by a helicopter) and Bucket List challenges.
Besides virtual followers, the game eagerly showers you with a smorgasbord of rewards with each completed mission.
You can gain XP points, which let you win cars and credits as you level up; credits that let you buy cars; and skill points that unlock Perks like a drone-camera mode.
Series-staple collectibles like XP and Fast Travel Discount boards (which give you their corresponding bonuses when smashed) and Barn Finds (rare cars abandoned in secluded areas) are back for treasure hunters.
A new collectible in Horizon 3 is Beauty Spots, which are 13 landmarks you have to visit to attain the Backpacker achievement.
FAIR DINKUM PORTRAYAL
The Australia of Horizon is one where you can cruise from Byron Bay to Surfers Paradise in mere minutes, with the Twelve Apostles and Yarra Valley in between instead of down south in Victoria.
Horizon 3 packs in a staggering variety of environments - from the bone-dry sand dunes of the outback to the lush rainforest of Maroondah Reservoir - into its map, twice the size of its predecessor's.
Dynamic day-night cycles and weather return, with rain droplets now streaking across your windscreen instead of Horizon 2's static ones.
There are no Need For Speed-style cops to harass you, but you can get some sweet user-created police liveries for your rides or make your own vinyls through the versatile custom decal creator.
This is an Australiana fever dream with a side of creative licence. Yet I continue to be amazed by the attention to details, like the rubbish bins with their red and yellow lids, the orange-top Telstra phone booths and the quintessential suburban houses with corrugated iron roofs, verandahs and white picket fences.
There are 381 cars to buy and ride, from the Lamborghini Centenario cover star to the fictional Warthog from Halo, although Volkswagen models are strangely absent.
This is also the first Horizon title to use Forza Motorsport's Forzavista mode, which lets you ogle over your vehicle like in a showroom.
On the multiplayer side, a new feature called Drivatar Lineup allows you to hire four of your friends' Drivatars (a virtual avatar of the player who earns rewards on his behalf in other people's races when he's not playing) to bring in more fans and credits.
For the first time, too, there is four-player campaign co-op, which lets you and your buddies team up to complete races and other tasks together.
Another addition is Horizon Blueprint, where you can create your own races by setting variables like weather, time of day and eligible cars (though the tracks are fixed) and Bucket List challenges.
The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of over 140 songs from genres like rock, hip hop and classical on seven music stations.
There is an eighth station which, for the first time, allows you to stream your own music on OneDrive, so the in-car radio and outdoor concerts are blaring your tunes.
With mind-boggling levels of customisation and social interaction, a plethora of activities to do, doodads to collect and a gorgeous, enormous playground to explore, Forza Horizon 3 is the festival's most phenomenal edition yet.
It's hard to imagine how any future instalment is going to top this one.
But like my in-game experience, I'm confident there will always be something to look forward to over the horizon.
Forza Horizon 3 is out now. For Xbox One physical versions, the Standard Edition is $69.90 and the Ultimate Edition is $124.90. For digital versions, the Standard Edition is $69, the Deluxe Edition is $90 and the Ultimate Edition is $124.50.