When Forza Motorsport 4 made its debut almost one year ago, it was quickly hailed as one of the most complete console racing games ever to be coded. Stunning graphics, true to life sound engineering and meticulously judged physics modeling made Forza 4 the standard of the genre (Gran Turismo aficionados can feel free to debate this point in the comments section). So when developer Turn 10 Studios let it be known that, just one year later, it would be spinning off F4 into an open-world concept driver, gamers everywhere started the countdown.
The result, Forza Horizon, is a motive sandbox that blends the accuracy of F4's physics engine and detailed vehicle modeling with a completely new and beautiful racing universe set in a mythical fuzz-free Colorado.
Forza Horizon starts off with a continuation of the franchises tradition of dropping the player off right into the action. A short stint at the wheel of the 2013 SRT Viper cover car transitions neatly into meeting our hero, a strong-jawed digital dude who is set to be our incarnation for the adventures that follow. The car that he (we) start with is a Volkswagen Corrado VR6, which is step down from the Viper, but just the kind of indie, car-guy choice that leads us to believe the developers know their stuff. From here we beat feet to the Horizon Festival – a Lollapalooza-meets-Barret-Jackson affair that serves as the main story driver for the game.
It's also here, in the very first minutes of the game, that Forza Horizon misses a trick that could have seen it transcend the Need for Speed/Test Drive idiom and become more of the hybrid racing/role-playing game that its open-world concept teased. There's no early investment in the guy behind the wheel (ostensibly "you," don't forget): We don't get to build the character or select a skill set, we don't get to customize his look or his racing gear, heck, we don't even get to choose which car we'd like to start racing with. (That, by the way, is such a standard custom in current games that it feels really strange by omission here.)
Know that if you're buying shares in Horizon, you're buying them for the sake of cars and racing, not plot device.
You may think this isn't a big deal – this is a game about cars, not character-building, after all – but the lack of any sort of character creation simply made us care less about the story that drives the game's action forward. As it turns out, the story in question gets thinner as the hours played pile up, so know that if you're buying shares in Horizon, you're buying them for the sake of cars and racing, not plot device.
Following on then, the saving grace for the lost element of story is the sheer quantity and easy availability of cars in the game. Forza Horizon doesn't let you stay a single-car owner for long, for instance, as the vehicles are handed out frequently, and the cash with which to buy new ones is not hard to come by, either.
The saving grace for the lost element of story is the sheer quantity and easy availability of cars in the game.
There are effectively three main types of racing in Forza Horizon: wheel-to-wheel racing in either circuit-lapping (closed tracks) or point-to-point affairs (usually with civilian cars mixed in with the racers, like rocks in a stream), featured events that typically involve some sort of stunt race (e.g. car versus plane), and street racing that mostly happens within the flow of driving around the Horizons world. The feature events feel a bit like throwaway, or "mini game" content, and we could just as soon leave them as take them. But the beating heart of this new Forza lives in the other two.
It is, of course, the physics model and vast selection of rides from Forza 4 that make Horizon such an interesting option to racing gamers. And in the main racing modes this promise is made good. The tracks themselves are often anything but standard raceways. Many of them transition from blacktop to dirt and back again like a rally stage. Some offer sections that run through warehouses, park plazas, and through sleepy downtown streets. And more than a handful offer major advantages to the driver that, rather than stay true to a legitimate racing line, is willing to freelance through dirt and grass, crash through street signs and billboards or straighten out a chicane by ignoring it altogether. This sort of barnstorming doesn't always work, mind you; drive over a grassy embankment too fast or pull too many Gs in a corner and the Forza physics will end the party quick. But game designers want players to explore, play and rule break much more in this new title than would have been acceptable in a more serious sim.
The visuals run from merely well executed, to oftentimes breathtaking.
Exploring this vast world, modeled on the roads and topography of Colorado, is mostly a fun bit of work, too. The visuals run from merely well executed, to oftentimes breathtaking, as Forza Horizon opens up out of a tunnel or around a cliff face into visions of snow-capped peaks or vistas dotted with wild rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Everything you see from the window of your car (with the notable exception of human bystanders, who all look very flat) is detailed and rich.
As we alluded to earlier, the cars themselves are excellently rendered too with, for instance, accurate lighting for in-car point of view after the sun goes down. Everyone likes to see those gauges light up. The engine notes sound pretty great on most cars, too – the vaguely Millennial soundtrack is inoffensive, but you should still probably turn the car radio off as soon as you start playing.
"Tuning" means adding or subtracting parts to your car, there is no recourse for the smaller adjustments that make car gaming geeks so happy.
With cars and racing so well sorted, it's sad that a few of the essential mechanics of gameplay feel really raw. Tuning/detuning specific cars for specific races often requires a trip back to the center of the game's universe, the Horizon Festival itself, rather than being able to do this on the fly at the race venue. This may sound simple enough, but consider that you're mostly driving for a few minutes at least to get from one place to the next (and many times interrupted by side missions, street races and the like) and you'll start to understand how this can interrupt the flow of the game. Even when you are at your home garage, "tuning" means adding or subtracting parts to your car, there is no recourse for setting spring rates, changing brake balance or any of those other small adjustments that make car gaming geeks so happy.
But for every nuance that isn't quite right for the sim-racing enthusiast, there always seem to be two that will engage more casual racing gamers, or fans of the arcade-racing genre. The online support for Forza Horizon seems to add a lot to the total experience, with straight head-to-head racing online meeting up with first-person shooter-style games (Infected and Cat and Mouse both ask you to chase or be chased around an enclosed map of roads). And just like with Forza 4, Xbox Live users should also expect a great wealth of new downloadable content (mostly new vehicles) to be made available on the regular. Continually refreshed content definitely helps to keep racing titles from growing stale, fast.
For every nuance that isn't quite right for the sim-racing enthusiast, there always seems to be two that will engage more casual racing gamers.
Forza Horizon, on the surface then, is not a game that will appeal to the same part of the brain that makes driving simulation gamers go bananas for the physical, tactile and aural accuracy of games like Forza 4 or Gran Turismo 5. In a world where crashing through a farmer's fence equates to the most successful racing line, how could it? Expect to see some negative reviews of Forza Horizons based solely on this.
But we'd like to propose a counter argument, based on a week of playtime and our relative addiction to the game's hybrid sim/arcade experience. Despite its noted flaws, the game as a total piece still works for us. When we check off the things we love about the "serious" racing franchises – loads of cars to collect and drive, a huge variety of tracks to drive, many and varied forms of play – and then add in the very promising online experience of Forza Horizon, we end up with a really enjoyable gaming experience. There's just something in this intersection of believable car physics and outrageous situational driving that allows for a higher replayability factor than we've yet seen in an arcade racer. Forza Horizon is not intended to be Forza 5, by any stretch of the imagination, but for anyone looking for an imaginative and immersive racer, this is a great place to start.
Despite its noted flaws, the game as a total piece still works for us.