Forza Horizon Hands-On Preview - Like Forza Motorsport, But More Fun
Written Wednesday, September 19, 2012 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Spin-offs in the games industry are usually hit and miss affairs. They can often be misinterpreted and not fully understood by the gaming populous, like the recent DiRT Showdown, or they can be completely embraced and heralded like Obsidian's take on the Fallout franchise, New Vegas. With development costs still on the extraordinarily high side of things though, they're surely going to be a staple of the industry for quite some time. Same engine, new feel and new direction; it makes business sense. That right there, then, is Forza Horizon, which oddly enough, seems like it could go one better than its Motorsport counterpart. I know, right?
Let’s put the PR spiel aside for a second and break down Forza Horizon into what it really is. It’s an open-world racer with a loose story used to tie the proceedings together with the trademark stunning Forza visuals. Is it simulation? Is it arcade? According to Playground Games and Turn 10, it’s “action racing.” That, my friends, is PR speak for “this handles like an arcade racer from the off, but can be tweaked to be more simulation-esque.” It straddles the two genres or can sit in either, effectively. That choice is yours.
Sitting at the centre of Horizon is the eponymous Horizon festival, a festival of egos, cars and music. It’s the festival of life, essentially, taking place in Colorado of all places. After being eased into the game in trademark Forza fashion – with a fast car – you’re dumped into a ‘95 Volkswagen Corrado – it’s a wheelbarrow with 4 wheels, essentially. Your aim? To be one of the top 10 racers at the festival who don’t have a wristband to the Horizon Championship, all of which enter a qualifier for a yellow wristband, entry into the Championship and a chance to fight your way to the top of the pack and deny Darius Flynt the chance to win the big prize. The loose story intertwined doesn’t feel shoehorned in, surprisingly, and in fact, Playground Games has done a solid job in weaving a believable series of events and have done so with the signature slick presentation associated with the Forza series.
Horizon is all about proving your skills on the road but there’s also an element of style involved. You’ll partake in a variety of races in order to win different coloured wristbands in a bid to climb the ranks and race it out for the prestigious Horizon crown – although we only played about 3 hours, it’s already feeling like the underdog to hero journey that’s been saturated to the point of cliché at this point. Horizon effectively is about earning points all the time while beating the other 249 players in a variety of events, but more importantly, it’s about racing with style. Players can earn points in any of the 32 different skill categories – like driving fast, drifting, burnouts, close calls, and so on – and linking them together in a combo is the key to big points and success.
Taking inspiration from Top Gear, players will find themselves racing against planes, hot air balloons and more in Showcase Events, racing for pink slips in The Fast and Furious style street races, taking part in straight up A-to-B races, circuit races, off-road races, one-on-one race-offs to win a rival’s car, and more. The Mustang vs. Mustang race (plane vs. car) is a particularly interesting concept that provides some unique and tense moments – with the plane faster on straights and with a bigger turning circle, it’s closer than you’d think… Just ask Jeremy Clarkson. Hopefully there are a stack more of these dotted throughout the game.
Don’t fool yourself though, Horizon is a game that does nothing truly unique other than the Showcase Events, but what it does is take a fantastic engine, combining it with the best of the open-world racing genre. Considering the origins of the development talent behind this game, who come from all over the UK from prestigious studios, that should come as no surprise.
The handling is intuitive, responsive and the gameplay it throws at you is a tad on the addictive side. Sure, the Corrado wasn’t a great starting car, but the Subaru Impreza WRX STI was a joy to get behind the wheel of, as was our first purchase: a Lotus 2-Eleven worth 70,000 credits – a car rated 10 for handling and braking, with good acceleration and launch. Not the quickest car ever, and operated more like a high-powered go-kart, but a pleasure nonetheless.
One thing we did notice though was that we were always slow starters in every race – I mean every race – with the pack pulling away early on. Even with us driving high acceleration cars at the top of their bracket we found ourselves behind the pack, but almost always managed to make that ground up about a third of the way through the race. Whether that’s an indication of some sort of rubberbanding, I don’t know. I say I don’t know because once ahead I was able to pull away from the pack quite easily without them ever catching up. It was a little odd if I’m being truthful and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
It’s not just about competitive racing either, as the world is your oyster, and at times we found ourselves just exploring, earning skill points, smashing signs for discounts at stores, hitting speed traps, searching for the nine hidden legendary cars – one of which we found, a 1971 Plymouth Hemi 426 Cuda – and challenging rival racers, to name but a few things.
Despite the sheer size of the game world, fast-travel isn’t a readily available option. This, according to Ralph Fulton, Design Director on Forza Horizon, is because players should want to just experience driving in the open-world and will want to anyway. Burnout Paradise tried a similar approach a few years back and we all know how that ended – with a fast-travel patch! The only option available to players is to fast-travel to certain points in the game world, known as Outposts. Unfortunately, it’ll cost players to use this service and they’ll need to have already uncovered the Outpost to travel to it, but if you nail the “PR Stunts” at each station, you can travel for free. These waystations seem to be sparsely populating Colorado though.
The PR Stunts actually help Forza Horizon nail that ‘just one more go’ mentality. The amount of times we tried the speed trap event in a Bugatti Veyron was insane, and in attempting to hit 235mph past a speed trap on a busy freeway, we found it was the perfect balance between challenging and attainable. That said, after 10 attempts we gave up, but only due to time constraints. Other PR Stunts at this one waystation included taking a photo of a Lamborghini Miura and racking up 20,000 skill points in 2 minutes in a Ford Shelby GT500.
If there’s one thing you can take away from this here preview though – apart from the fact that the game is an insane amount of fun – it should be this: Forza Horizon has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in years. That’s no hyperbole either. Boasting three stations of varying types of music – Rock, Pulse and Bass Arena – Forza Horizon plays home to some of the biggest and brightest talents in recent years and it perfectly encapsulates the mood of the game. With the Arctic Monkeys, Black Keys, Chase & Status, New Order, The Enemy, White Lies and with one of my recent unsung tracks from recent years, Yuck’s Get Away, it’s a soundtrack to fall in love with. Coupled with the DJs talking about the race antics you and your fellow racers are getting involved in, interviews with drivers, news from the festival and surrounding areas, and the roaring of the engines, it’s a truly immersive audio experience. One you could get completely lost in.
Now, don't get me wrong, we loved Forza Motorsport for what it was - a simulation racer that thrusts you behind the wheel of some of the greatest cars in the history of man - but Horizon is like the younger brother that's just more fun and outgoing... a lot like me, actually. Shhh, don't tell my brother that! The loose story, the festival atmosphere and the freedom to roam, it feels as if Horizon is the Forza franchise's mid-life crisis, you know, the guy that turns 30 and knocks back Jager bombs like he's in his 20s... Yes, the fun guy! Forza Horizon is that guy right there, and we can't wait to sink some time into it this fall.
Forza Horizon is scheduled for an October 23rd and October 26th in North America and Europe respectively.