Forza Motorsport is a name of quality and excellence in the simulation racing genre with Turn 10 Studio’s franchise rising from fledgeling Gran Turismo competitor to the big daddy on the scene. Playground Games got together with Turn 10 and wanted to create something new for fans of Forza, but take it away from the hyper-realistic track racing of the Motorsport series. Forza Horizon looks to become a new breed of Forza and take the franchise to new heights. Can Horizon look beyond the track or has the sun set on this more casual Forza entry?
Upon first hearing about Forza Horizon and how Playground were looking to make the game appeal to not just fans of simulation racing but also aim to create an open road experience, I immediately thought about one of my favorite open road titles: Burnout Paradise. Going into Horizon expecting something along those lines will knock you back, as it’s – at best – light simulation racing, rather than the arcade experience of Paradise. Revolving around a fictional festival known as the Horizon Festival that celebrates automotive culture along with music and style, it all focuses around the scenic landscapes of Colorado – which adds a hint more realism to the proceedings. Every time you turn on Forza Horizon it’s like you’re going on a driving vacation with the open road at your finger-tips with plenty to explore and tons of fun to be had.
Starting out as an unnamed racer, you needs to prove yourself before being accepted into the festival ranks. Once you’re given a starter car – and if you have a previous Forza Motorsport save you also garner a few additional loyalty rewards in the form of additional cars – you are can trudge on with your journey. Each tier of the festival is represented by a different color and, unsurprisingly, you can only enter events that match the colors of the wristbands they posses. Races tend to fall into the category of point-to-point or circuit races, but each one has a requirement that must be met to pass. These range from simple things such as European cars only or perhaps even only Ford vehicles. You can also upgrade or change your car prior to events – at a cost – if you need to, or you can just buy a new car to compete with. This forgoes the need to return to Horizon HQ and makes everything more streamlined.
Each tier of the festival also has a racer that serves as your rival and, upon beating them, you’ll be showered in extra credits for engaging them in races. Once you’ve polished off the event you can then gain your rival’s car by beating them in a showdown – ala Need For Speed‘s approach to gameplay. Unsurprisingly, each tier gets progressively harder; however, as Horizon – just like Forza Motorsport - allows you to tweak individual aspects of gameplay you can set the curve exactly how you like. Fancy a fun, easy experience for you to soak up the atmosphere then you can. Perhaps you’ll want a nail-biting, balls-hard racing experience where milliseconds count in each lap. Horizon does reward those daring enough to challenge themselves though by increasing the race bonus as you climb the difficulty ranks. Expect an ultimate challenge for those willing to try the ‘Insane’ AI setting.
As you drive through the game you can pull of stunts or complete challenges that earn you credits for upgrades, purchases or modification to your vehicles. These moves also garner you popularity that can be used to level up. By chaining together moves that Criterion would be suspect about (drifts, ‘burnouts’, near misses etc) you can add to your score multiplier that’ll evidently give you more popularity points. By raising your popularity you’ll also manage to bag yourself some sponsor challenges and in turn a sponsor credit bonus if you do the job well.
As you progress in rank you’ll also get invited to special ‘off-the-wall’ showcases and Street Races that put your skills as a driver to the test. They also put you in a set vehicle for the race; but if you win you’ll bag the vehicle along with a sponsor credit bonus. These races will test your mettle to see if you can beat a balloon, helicopter and, yes, even a biplane to the finish line. Street Races aren’t your Horizon Festival sanctioned events, it’s here you’ll find anything goes, pedal-to-the-metal races where you’ll go up against your opponents and the slow moving civilian traffic as well.
For a game about cars and a motorsport festival, Horizon isn’t all about the races, there’s a lot of mild-mannered exploration involved as well. Horizon HQ, which is your main hub, offers quick transportation to nearly anywhere on the map. It’s from here, that you can create or share new paint jobs at the Paintshop. If you choose to enter Dak’s garage you can check out and upgrade your car collection; and heading to the Autoshow lets you purchase new vehicles and manage your Car Club – think of it as a clan except for racing fanatics – where you can create your own club or join others. If you decide to create your own, you can share certain vehicles that club members can use in races if they wish.
When you’re driving about in the great vistas of Colorado you’ll occasionally come across a sign with Dak – from Dak’s Garage – on it. Ramming into these grants you a discount on parts in his garage. Also, as you work your way up in festival rank you’ll be notified of ‘Barn Finds’ that place a node on your map for you to uncover hiding a hidden automotive treasure. Random racers also cruise around Colorado waiting for a challenger to drive up behind them and engage them in a point-to-point race for quick cash. Set up along those Colorado roads are speed traps and speed zones. Speed traps task you with driving as fast as you can past the cameras to log the fastest time on the leaderboards – in a similar way to Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Speed zones track your average speed from one end to the other and track it onto the leaderboard for all to see.
Along your travels you also come across Horizon Outposts that allow you to enter the garage to switch cars or upgrade, these outposts also act as fast travel destinations; but, most importantly of all, they hold a few PR Stunt events for you to partake in. Each outpost has three PR events: speed, skill and photo shoots, each one giving you a car to use for the event and rewarding you with credits and a discount on fast travel to the outpost. Speed events have you drive through a speed trap while also racing against the clock; Skill events want you to perform lots of stunts in the best way possible in an A-to-B race; and Photo Shoots are straight up A-to-B runs without damaging your vehicle in the process.
Horizon also has an online mode that feels fresh and new for Forza Motorsport fans. Free-Roam allows you to drive around Colorado with your friends and allows you to compete in co-op challenges that can be activated from the pause menu. Hitting the Playground Games mode grants you access to distractions such as Cat & Mouse, and Tag – which was known as Virus in FM4. Transferring these classic modes onto the open road completely changes the paradigm, opening up new ways to play and new experiences to be had. A creatively titled ‘Hoppers’ mode also allows you to hop-in and hop-out of randomly created events that change regularly. There’s also an air of AutoLog with Horizon‘s friends list feature of comparing times and letting you face off against their ghosts. Saying that, it’s a great feature and adds immense replay value.
Horizon also has support for those of you who like to take Microsoft up on their ‘better with Kinect’ claims, and for anyone who fancies giving SmartGlass a go when it hits. Utilising Kinect’s voice features means you’ll be saying certain phrases at your TV for the in-game GPS system to use. By saying “GPS. Next Event” you can place a marker to the next event you have to hit. It’s handy to have but, like many games, doesn’t really benefit from having Kinect. SmartGlass gives you a complete map of Colorado to use and lets you just pick a spot on the map for a marker to appear in game. Again, nice feature – but hardly enough to entice someone who’s sat on the fence.
Forza Horizon manages to do something that very few racing titles can: it creates a perfect marriage of white-knuckle racing, over-the-top showmanship and that trademark realism that Forza Motorsport has championed. Playground Games deserve all the accolades and credit that, they will surely, receive for this title as it’s clearly forged through the love of cars. Horizon keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the many races, twists-and-turns, and the discovery of the open road. Turning on Forza Horizon feels like a developer looking you in the eye, giving you a set of keys and saying: “Have fun and enjoy the ride.”
Audio/Visual – 5/5: The roar of the engine and the Colorado skyline will make for great audio and visual stimulation throughout your stay at the Horizon festival.
Gameplay – 5/5: Players will be hard pressed to put the controller down and automotive fanatics won’t want to. Creating the perfect mix of realism and arcade action in a racing game.
Innovation – 5/5: Taking the open road to somewhere relatable and enjoyable for the casual and the hardcore is an accomplishment itself.
Value – 5/5: Tons of races to compete in, virtual leaderboards and an online experience that will addict many are just the tip of the icecap for the many who will just drive around exploring scenic Colrado and all that the Horizon festival has to offer.
Final Score: 5/5