What exactly is Forza Horizon? An open world racer? A stripped down version of a technical giant? A playground for people who have a Vin Diesel shrine in their house and tattooed go faster stripes on their juiced biceps? In a nutshell, Forza Horizon is all of that…and more.
Set in the sunny and perpetually warm state of Colorado, Forza Horizon has players in the putting the pedal to the metal as a nameless protagonist, aiming to prove himself as the best driver that year at the annual Horizon festival, a Mecca for car nuts and party-goers that consists of glow sticks, fast cars and over-privileged trust fund babies being put behind the wheel of a getaway vehicle.
There’s a vague semblance of a story about you ranking up to the number one spot, collecting enough wrist bands to face the numero uno fiat champ himself, Darius Flynt. There’s your usual mix of slight antagonists along the way, from cocky jerkasses through to eastern-European rich kids, all standing in your way as you drive to the top.
Are they annoying? Yes, but fortunately they’re more like mosquito bites than anything else, as the main focus here is on driving, and driving damn well. And Forza Horizon has that in spades.
It’s from the hub of the festival itself, that all the action takes place. Spray your car a different shade of grey, buy some new muscle or tune the horses under your hood, that’s where you’ll want to be. From that location, await the Colorado roads, vast winding stretches of tarmac that are now home to other wannabe racers and lowly peasant locals, all waiting to give you a challenge or a nick on your vehicle, as you head off to racing locations.
Get to an event or start an impromptu race, and you’ll win yourself some credits and points that go towards your mammoth climb of reaching the top, unlocking more races, with bigger stakes and prizes.
It’s a massive world out there, waiting to be explored. Colorado is a large hub of activity, littered with challenges and opponents, that go side by side with the standard races. Speed traps litter the roads, waiting to see just how fast you can push your mean machine, constantly updating when you’re beaten (STOP BEATING MY TIMES DAWID!), while barnyard finds can help add some old school charm and grace to your growing car collection.
And that’s really, the real charm of the game. Just cruising, admiring the road or pushing the speed limit, it feels absolutely sublime. A part of me hopes that the Colorado from Forza Horizon actually exists, because the state looks gorgeous,warm and inviting. Fast travel hubs are available, for a price that can be whittled down by completing challenges, but actually driving from event to event really makes things worthwhile.
So how does Forza Horizon actually handle then? Well let me put it this way: If you’re a diehard fan of simulation racers, from Forza 4 through to Gran Turismo 5, then Forza Horizon is the exact opposite of the highly precise and calculated driving that is necessary to succeed in those games.
FH is lighter, more grippy and easier to come to terms with. A novice can easily pull off a 180 burnout turn, as the controls are far more forgiving. Sure, assists can be turned off to make things more challenging, but the hyper-real technical side from pure simulation racers? You won’t find it here.
Instead, you’ll get a car that handles like the bastard child of Project Gotham Racing, Driver, GRiD and Burnout, after one incredible night of drunken driving debauchery. And the reason for that is simple, as developer Turn Ten Studios is made up of employees from those games, and more.
Long-time driving fanatics will easily recognise certain traits that are present, from the handling, through to the style and even the collision mechanics with other vehicles. It’s an amalgamation of DNA scraped from other games, but instead of giving birth to a Frankenstein creation that needs to be killed with fire, the overall result is a fantastic approach that is easy to learn, and challenging to master.
A rewind feature is also present, something that will no doubt be a boon to anyone who finds themselves crashing with alarming irregularity, and while the potential is there to cheapen the challenge by constantly going back and reversing errors, seasoned racers will most likely ignore this crutch, when driving.
For those of you who picked up the demo earlier, and were wondering why your car handled as if a drunk uncle was behind the wheel, worry not. Those physics aren’t present in the game, and the end product is a tighter, more focused approach to gaming.
Overall, it’s an experience that drifts around a corner to arcade-style racing, but some strategy is needed to navigate the bends. It’s more about the joy of running down a road at a 100 mph, than checking your fuel and temperature gauges, as FH leans in that direction. But it’s a pretty fun direction.
But back to the world of Forza Horizon. Races are everywhere, just waiting to be engaged in, with points and credits awarded for successful completion. Turn off enough of your driving assists, and you could walk away with extra credits, while showcase events will award you with an extra car should you beat a certain aerial vehicle in a point to point race, ripped straight from an episode of Top Gear.
Illegal street races offer more coin, but are tougher due to the fact that pedestrian vehicles seem to be magnetically attracted to your bonnet, while hub races ask you to get an undamaged vehicle to a photo-shoot, or to perform enough tricks to accrue a set level of points within a time limit.
I’ll say one thing, the Horizon festival certainly isn’t dull and boring, because there’s always something to do. One of the other main drwas to FH, is the idea of Rivals Mode. Boot up a game, and you might find several records smashed by your friends, or finishing a race might result in a challenge to beat the time set by your Xbox Live chums, earning some quick credits in the process.
It’s a constant reminder that you can always do better, and will most likely appeal to people who can’t stand being second, in a game that is all about digitally driving cars. Naturally, my ego kept me on several tracks for hours as I tried to better myself. Plus Nick has crazy lap times.
When it comes to challenging terrain though, don’t expect too much. Forza Horizon has a day/night cycle, asphalt roads and some dirt tracks, but that’s it. No weather or muddy areas are there to pose a real challenge, and crashes are far more forgiving than they should be, on certain settings, resulting in damage being more cosmetic than anything else.
As for the visuals, while Colorado may look warm and amazing, there are plenty of moments where Forza Horizon doesn’t shine as brightly as last years offering in the franchise. Car models aren’t as detailed, edges seem softer and interiors lack a certain degree of detail and polish.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t look pretty, but clearly some sacrifices were made in order to make the world around you stand out, at the cost of making your cars less dynamic. On the audio front though, the cars sound great, and most importantly, distinctive. Rev a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am or take a Bugatti Veyron out for a spin, and you’ll instantly hear a difference in engines.
Hell, even the VW Beetle that you can buy sounds remarkably similar to the Hitler-mobile that my mom used to cruise around in. There’s three radio stations on offer, with two of them focused on bringing down the wub wubs, while the third is a hard rocking selection of current day tunes. It’s one aspect that could have used a little selection work though, as restarting a race also sets the same song back to the beginning. And when you hate The Hives as much as I do, listening to that one song over and over again can kill the mood. But otherwise, the use of music and DJ chatter does a great job of selling the atmosphere.
While single-player is a substantial offering, multi-player offers just as much in the open world around you. You’ve got your vanilla setup for 8 player races, free-roaming with buddies as your little car club roves around the Horizon fest and challenges for your club to overcome.
Playground games however, are a neat little twist in an otherwise predictable setup, as players tear into one another in games of tag, crazy arenas of destruction and anarchy, every man for himself. Imagine trying to navigate a tricky course in a Ferrari while several other players are closing in on your exhaust pipe, trying to tag you so that they can become King, or a game of Cat and Mouse that needs teamwork in order for slower car to cross a finish line in time while the faster teammates protect you and distract opponents.
Forza Horizon is a driving game with a casual beat to it, make no mistake. Sure, there’s room there for technical enthusiasts to turn off as many assists as possible, but it’s never going to be enough. Still, if you’re looking for a game that combines the best of both arcade style racing titles with enough of a realistic edge, Forza Horizon has that in spades.
Design and Presentation: 8/10
It may not be as pretty as Forza 4 in comparison, but the love and care that world around the cars has received is gorgeous, and the game never skips a beat or stutters a frame as it races along. The audio front is a treat however, as the game features a selection of cars that all sound unique under the hood.
There’s a lot to do in Forza Horizon, both online and offline, and a massive world to drive through as well. Car clubs, custom paint jobs, illegal street races and showcase events will keep any petrol-head occupied for a long time, while the urge to constantly better scores set by your rivals will an itch that needs regular scratching.
Whereas games such as Forza 4 and Grand Turismo 5 are all about being authentic racing experiences with an unbelievably detailed technical side, Forza Horizon is more about the joy of being behind the wheel of a car. Not serious, fun and all about competition, it’s a great new take on an established franchise, and even though it has room to grow, it remains a fresh experience with captivating visuals and content.