Platform: Xbox 360
Developers: Playground Games | Turn 10 Studios
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Forza Horizon is a game that showcases perfectly the positive side of the importance of a brand name, obsessed as it is with brand identity. If Resident Evil 6 gave us a glimpse of the negative effects of forgetting just how important a name can be, then Forza Horizon provides a textbook example of how to take a successful series with firm expectations of what a franchise game should be, and spin it off to allow for expansion, innovation, and series progression.
There's a damn good reason this Forza game doesn't have a number in its title. But make no mistake; it's definitely a Forza game.
Dan Greenawalt suggests that Forza Motorsport 1-4 was all about shaving tenths of a second off of your lap ties around the Nurburgring, but in truth there's so much more to the series than perfecting your racing line. Real cars, real physics, real handling, real choice: these were the things that made Forza great. And they're still in Forza Horizon...apart from realistic crash physics, but then again, you don't have regular amounts of oblivious civilian traffic on race circuits.
Forza Horizon transports the racing action from internationally famous racing circuits onto hundreds of miles of hand-crafted Colorado roads, from speedy freeways, to delightfully winding mountain passes. Having embraced the spirit of Top Gear in Forza 4 with the jokey minigames on the test track at Dunsfold, this game goes even further, providing reams of open road and gorgeous vistas to behold as you take cars both large and small, old and new, around the next bend.
The cars, forever the focus of Forza, shine more than ever before here in a free environment. Although they might not quite look as good as in Forza 4 - to be fair, the engine is rendering a fair bit elsewhere - when you're behind the wheel, it's all about the way the car feels, the way it handles, and the stunning backdrops and sunsets you'll be riding off into. From hot hatchbacks to temperamental muscle cars, face-meltingly fast supercars to quirky classics, the cars that you know and love from previous series entries are back, and unbridled.
Crash physics are spectacularly forgiving, but the driving mechanics feel as authentic as they ever have, especially when you plug in a Force Feedback wheel such as MadCatz's offering. The lettered classes return, and the more compact races featuring the C and D class cars are just as engaging as retina-burning point-to-point sprints in the turbocharged scorchers. More importantly, you'll find yourself gradually growing and expanding your stable at your own rate; hand-picking the cars you want, upgrading them in the manner you desire, and taking them for a spin whenever you like. This is a game that manages to capture the leisurely serenity of a Sunday afternoon pootle alongside the neon-flecked intensity of the Fast and Furious generation. Whatever the kind of petrolhead you are - videogame novice, classic connoisseur, bass-thumping racer boi, occasional motorsport follower - Forza Horizon has something for you.
It's here that the importance of the word Forza in the title becomes apparent. Don't let the lashings of garish neon pink and the points you're earning for drifting and doing donuts fool you into thinking this is a pure arcade playground. You're not going to be able to treat every car the same, and throw each vehicle you own into spectacular drifts straight off the bat. Every character is its own character one that you have to come to understand inn order to fully appreciate. If that sounds too much like hard work, you needn't worry; Forza Horizon makes learning the characteristic quirks of each of its vehicles as engaging as any entry in the series to date, if not more so.
Again, you can tweak the difficulty settings - ABS, traction control, AI, racing line etc. - to your heart's content, to provide for maximum satisfaction whatever your skill level. Don't have the right car for the race? No worries, you can buy one before you hit the grid.
Colorado might not seem the most exciting place to stage an open-world driving game, but Playground's framing device for the game - the Horizon festival - stuffs your map with things to do. It takes a little bit of time, and you have to unlock the first couple of wristband sets to have your map truly peppered with activity, but once it is, Forza Horizon bursts into life as one of he most engaging player-driven (no pun intended) vehicle-oriented games we've ever played. It would perhaps have been nice to have created a completely new setting and stuffed it with everything from alpine slopes to dense forests, and maybe even a beach, but there's plenty to be getting on with, and numerous moments of gaming beauty.
Unfortunately, though, it's the framing device that rather lets Forza Horizon down the most. It seems a little strange to be criticising a driving game for its plot device, but it does rather jar from time to time. The parade of rival characters present in the singleplayer seem rather underused, and more could have been done perhaps to facilitate that urgent, personal sense of competition between one racer and another in the offline mode. All it really embodies is an excuse to slap a host of weird and wonderful driving events in the same hundred square miles.
It's just a shame that the in-yer-face, up-yer-Viva atmosphere permeates everything. The soundtrack from Rob da Bank is commendable in terms of what a radio playlist might actually contain, but we've heard everything here before...usually in game trailers. Nero, Madeon, and, of course, Skrillex are all in attendance, and at times it seems there's precious little difference between the Bass and Pulse radio stations. Also if you thought Rock might actually contain, you know, some balls-out rock, you're going to be really disappointed. That you can put on your own music via Xbox LIVE is beside the point, but after listening to endless wub-wub (painfully sober and not in a club) tracks melt into one another, it becomes disappointingly, even aggressively, obvious that marketing's target audience for this game is not me.
I also hate, as in really, really loathe the fact that you're given a character who appears in the game. The Forza experience is such a personal one that it's tantamount to heresy to even suggest that it's not actually me driving the car. It would have been so very easy to avoid: don't specify a gender, don't engineer some awful flirtation with the festival CEO (who takes far too much interest in your rookie attendance), and for the love of god, don't take us out of the first-person perspective. This might not seem a huge deal to some, and it really won't be to the majority of folk, but it's instantly immersion-breaking, and completely unnecessary.
If you can ignore the Horizon festival itself, then the game is utterly brilliant. The Showcase events, which feature some bizarre Top Gear-esque challenges such as racing a plane or a hot air balloon, are brilliant. So too are the PR Events that you'll find dotted around in the Horizon Outposts that provide fast-travel stations, and opportunities to tweak your vehicles away from the main festival hub. These might see you driving like a loon to earn a certain number of points, or heading over to a particularly photogenic part of the map to take some snaps. Progression is once again a part of the addictive quality that keeps you coming back for more, with everything you do in the world contributing to your popularity ranking, and winning events will unlock wristbands that gain you entry into more lucrative events, featuring better cars. There are also nine classic cars dotted around the map in barns off of the beaten track. You'll be fed the vague location by a pop up, but narrowing down the precise resting place of the treasured vehicles will take a little sleuthing.
Forza Horizon is at its best when it's just you, yes you, the car, and the road. Quite frankly, the so-hip-it-misses-the-mark coathanger on which everything hangs is rendered unimportant if you can let it wash over you when it rears its glow-in-the-dark head. When it gets things right, which is frequently, Forza Horizon is an utter delight. It's a pick-up-and-play experience that is never disposable, in which every car has a personality, and it's a triumphant debut for Playground.
- Those refined Forza handling models
- A huge variety of events to take part in
- Appeals to both newcomers and the sim crowd
- Awful story
- Open world perhaps not quite used to its fullest potential
- Slingshot AI on higher difficulty settings
The Short Version: Forza Horizon is what you'd get if you crossed a Sunday afternoon drive with Project Gotham Racing. At its best, Forza Horizon approaches being one of the purest embodiments of the sense of wellbeing that driving can instil - be that from the thrill or the serenity of being behind the wheel - that gaming has produced. It's just a shame that it dilutes that joy by feeling that's not quite enough, with a setting and a framework that doesn't feel quite right.