Forza Motorsport is a big name when it comes to Xbox racing games, and over the years it has gained a dedicated and loyal following of motorsport fans. It's known for its commitment to combining realism, highly accurate performance modelling, and stunning graphics, with a great multiplayer model and an exceptional level of car customisation.
In Forza Horizon, developer Playground Games appears to be aiming to strike a balance that suits both arcade gamers and hardcore fans, which is unlike Forza 4 and its focus on detailed simulation. This is always risky, given that it’s extremely difficult to find a satisfying middle ground, but Forza Horizon looks to be on the right track.
Forza Horizon is based around a fictitious event called the Horizon Festival in a somewhat fictitious Colorado. It's set in a massive open world, with real life traffic and scenery that is stunning and exciting, which presents an excellent visual frame for the on-tarmac action. Many gamers have dreamt of taking their Forza Motorsport rides onto the open road, and in Forza Horizon it’s finally possible.
The Horizon Festival itself is an event with explosive concerts, big name bands, and of course a LOT of racing. You start out speeding to the festival, trying to be one of only 250 drivers allowed to enter. The lucky 250 then populate the mean streets of Colorado, and - while cruising, exploring, or racing - you will encounter your fellow competitors, be they racing each other or simply waiting for you to give them a bit of a challenge. You race mostly to win wristbands which allow you to get into higher profile events, and your ultimate aim is to become the Horizon Festival champion.
Forza Horizon seems to be a kind of amalgamation of Burnout Paradise and the Forza series. This isn’t a bad thing, as Burnout Paradise was a great game, and it’s awesome to have real rides in a slightly more simulation-orientated open world. The open world introduces a lot of variation, too, including a day and night cycle, and different road surfaces - including off-road and sticky sweet tarmac.
In terms of gameplay, you can earn street cred by powersliding, speeding, drafting, and slingshotting around opponents, as well as for near misses with oncoming traffic. All of these factors increase your overall respect at the Horizon Festival, which also allows you to enter more events.
Some of the events are crazy, too. Things like taking on a P51 Mustang plane in a Ford Mustang, or racing hot-air balloons. Each adds to the overall feel and immersion of taking part in the Horizon Festival, and they are ‘plane’ cool as well.
Of course, bringing Forza into the mainstream and an open world environment is hazardous. The handling model from Forza 4 takes a hit and becomes distinctly more arcade than it has been in the past. While you have a range of difficulty options (including Simulation Handling), they're limited in their effectiveness. That said, given the range of surfaces to race on, it’s understandable that the arcade focus is there; the game would probably be near impossible if it wasn’t.
A game that takes on the Forza name without the full-on Forza feel is risky, and it may be best to consider Forza Horizon as a distinctly separate title. Overall though, the handling is fun and results in a game that is a real blast to play. It's very easy to bury yourself in the game world, with the need to play "just one more event" quite often resulting in a later night than intended.
The amount of content in Horizon is stunning, as is the level of customization potential - something we’ve come to expect from Forza. The number of cars boggles the mind, leaving very little to be desired, and the ability to completely overhaul each car - putting in whichever parts you’d like - is fantastic. The fact that the full livery editor is present as well is great, and there are already some truly stunning rides out there (with the ability to import some cars and liveries from Forza 4.) There is also some hidden content around the game world, including classic cars which you have to track down and restore.
The cars and in-game sounds are incredible; the roar of the engines, the sound of gravel scrabbling under your tyres - it's off the hook! The game also has one of the best soundtracks in a long time. There are three radio stations to choose from as you drive around Colorado, with artists such as Netsky, Empire of the Sun, Passion Pit, Arctic Monkeys, The Black Keys, and even a few Kiwis, such as Willy Moon and The Naked and Famous.
In terms of online connectivity, in the singleplayer mode you can create car clubs which join you and your online friends, letting you compare times, race against each other's ghosts, or even share rides (for a blast, join the NZGamer.com car club under the code NZG.) This all works really well, and it’s really good fun comparing your times against your Live friends.
We hit a few snags when it came to online multiplayer racing, unfortunately. When you are going head-to-head with others, the emphasis on a more arcade-focused approach is brutal. You have a range of playlists to choose, from depending on skill level, but that didn’t seem to change the fact that we were generally used as a cornering block to be bashed around on the track.
The fact that only visual damage is received means there is really very little reason (other than sportsmanship) to not race like an absolute oaf, if you can live with the shame. Forza 4 is a better bet for serious online racing, but Forza Horizon still provides a blast; if you don't compare it with Forza 4’s simulation focus, it stacks up reasonably well.
Forza Horizon is an excellent game. The open world is stunning to look at, and even better to explore. The level of content is huge and it’s evident that many, many hours can be sunk into the title. Graphically, it’s not as brilliant as Forza 4, and the replays are dreadfully disappointing, but given the open world and the different focus, as well as the broader level of content than previous Forza titles, you can understand the choices the developers have made. The gameplay, too, is rock-solid, even if it focuses more on the arcade player than any previous Forza title.
Forza Horizon is a game that really needs to be judged on its own merits, and not compared strictly to its predecessors, as they're related largely in name only. If you can put aside your preconceptions, then Forza Horizon is a very tidy package indeed. It’s even better to hear that in December we will be seeing a Forza Horizon Rally Expansion, bringing even more diversity to the title. I, for one, can’t wait.