Platforms: Xbox 360
Developers: Playground Games | Turn 10 Studios
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
"The whole simulation vs. arcade debate is bullshit," says Turn 10's Dan Greenawalt. Of course, one would expect a fairly emphatic response like that considering that for the past six months journalists and fans alike have been looking at Forza Horizon and wondering why the hell the Xbox's petrolhead jewel is seemingly coming over all Burnout. You can tell that Greenawalt has made this impassioned speech a hundred times already, that there's some grit behind it, that he's concerned that somehow people still aren't getting it. "This isn't an arcade game," he says. "Don't create sim vs arcade, that's just an excuse for lazy design. In arcade games, the car is disposable. You might start off with something like a Ford Focus, for example, but as soon as you unlock that Mustang the Focus is forgotten about, it's redundant. Now I'm not saying that's not fun, there are plenty of good arcade games. But it's not Forza."
Authenticity is a word that Greenawalt uses to emphasise this distinction. Real cars, real physics, real roads, real DJs. The whole idea of Forza Horizon is focused around the concept of a petrol-fuelled festival held out in the Colorado desert. You start the game en route to Horizon as an onlooker, when a radio broadcast announces that the next ten cars to show up will earn the last handful of wristbands into the driving events.
Greenawalt suggested that previous Forza titles were all about shaving milliseconds off of your Nurburgring lap time. The thing is, I'm not sure that's right, and I'm glad he expands on the series' legacy when he says that "it's about turning gamers into petrolheads and petrolheads into gamers". Forza 4 with its Autovista Mode, Top Gear extras, and more tuning options than ever before had a beautiful balance that made it that rare thing: a hardcore game that every driving fan could enjoy. Horizon, if the 90 mins I spent playing it is anything to go by, simply pushes that mantra to the limit.
The key to it all is the array of cars themselves. "In other games, the car can become redundant," Greenawalt reiterates. "But here the car is the star." Making sure that is the case is a British startup outfit with enormous pedigree. From the ashes of Bizarre and Black Rock (and SCE Liverpool should certain plans come to fruition), Playground have arisen - bringing fresh ideas, plenty of talent, and a healthy sense of co-opetition. Horizon is a chance for this crack team to see what they can do. Frankly the cream of US and UK racing developers getting together to lay out Forza's future is a mouth watering, thumb twitching prospect indeed.
I'll say it right now. Forza Horizon is not Burnout Paradise at all. For starters everything handles differently. Criterion spent years perfecting and honing their arcade speedster, and became so good at it that EA base them rescue Need For Speed's sinking carcass. Playground have kept the emphasis of the driving squarely on the car, with handling models yanked straight out of Forza 4. Real cars, real landscape, real handling. But of course the accessibility sliders are still in play. Want to vary ABS, driving lines, rewind allowances, or customise the AI? Go right ahead. Want to jack up your vehicle and start tinkering about with differentials and that gearbox of yours? Oh yeah, that's still in there. Forza Horizon might have had a bit of a makeover and changed up its geography, but this is a Forza game through and through.
The focus is a little different, though, this time around, and you can tell that for better or worse Turn 10 and Playground are aiming this game at a demographic who grew up watching The Fast and the Furious. Everything revolves around the Horizon festival, from the game map - which soon becomes littered with diverse events - to the in-car radio, with three bespoke radio stations packed with sixty-six tracks picked and arranged by Rob Da Bank. The dusty roads are lined with cheering fans, the paddock of Horizon itself a heaving festival hub, also designed with help from the Bestival DJ. As much as anything else, Forza Horizon is a game of its time.
But it's also true to its franchise umbrella, where it counts at least. The handling is markedly different from other supposedly "arcade" racers. Instead of being about breakneck speed, Forza Horizon, as with previous games to bear the Forza name, is all about keeping whatever car you have in the sweet spot: finding the balance between pushing a vehicle and the limits of your skill, and losing control and victory in a second. So it is that the new setting brings with it familiar racing styles, circuit laps, point to points, and individual rivalries. Within my ninety minute run I've gone off-road in a Forza game for the first time ever, whipped up a rivalry with a punky woman in a a massive truck, and raced an aeroplane through a canyon pass in a Mustang. By the time I have to leave, and I really didn't want to, my plucky Volkswagen Corrado has been joined by four other cars, each wildly different, each with a familiar lettered class, and a set of readily identifiable attributes that belie a host of other distinct quirks.
Playground have stuffed the game with plenty of other things to do besides the main events, though. We got the hints of a story - a hotshot wannabe who lets his driving do the talking, a crabby old mentor mechanic who appreciates a well-cared-for car, the typically attractive CEO of Horizon on the lookout for new talent (who seems to be almost too hands-on considering how much she must have on her plate) - but as well as the races that will pop up, the radio DJ will occasionally let you know of emergent events. An especially hot rig might come bursting through civilian traffic and the game will encourage you to race to win it. Persistent social elements, a must for games such as this since Autolog's emergence, are "baked into the game's structure". Every race, every road, every car, every speed camera will throw up instant challenges pulled from your friends list and the wider world. And then there are the barns. Dotted around Colorado are nine classic cars, tucked away in remote barns, that cannot be obtained any other way than heading off into the sunset one you get a tip-off over the radio, exploring the map, leaping behind the wheel when you find one, and taking it back to the festival.
Greenawalt is keeping tight-lipped on what Turn 10 ar preparing for beyond Plaground's debut, but his point is well taken. There's no distinction to be made between Forza Horizon and a "proper" Forza title. The integration of the social modes (not to mention direct multiplayer available from the splash screen and the pause menu) means that people are still going to be shaving seconds off of their times. Moreover, this is a proper Forza title, through and through, and it doesn't take long to see why. The series has always been fundamentally about the joy of driving and celebrating rather than dumbing down the differences between cars. When you look at it like that, you wonder why they didn't embrace the open road sooner.