October 18, 2012
When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar! DO HO HO! It’s an old (lame) joke but one that is perfectly apt here. So when is Forza not Forza? When it’s Forza Horizon. Playground Games has taken the tried and tested formula of Forza Motorsport and shaken off the cobwebs, letting it loose on the mean streets and mountain roads of Colorado in a game that has faint whiffs of the Need for Speed series while still maintaining its own personality.
Forza Horizon keeps all of the things that were so good about the franchise at large, with a wide range of events, a superb selection of cars and the ability to do your own tinkering and decorating to your hearts' content, then it slaps it all down in fun open-world setting. For once the series isn’t all about precision and perfection, and for the first time you're allowed to get your hands dirty rather than conforming to rigid simulation style trappings. For purists that might come as a slap in the face, but the level of freedom and excitement present should help the ease those worries.
The game starts as it means to go on, dropping you into a high octane race against the current champion before then hot-wiring you into the shoes of the game's protagonist. The radio is blaring and the challenge is laid down: get to the Horizon event to claim your place in the competition. You hurtle onto the road as a bevy of drivers come screaming past, taking every highway and byway in a bid to be involved. It’s a race you are never going to lose of course, but it highlights the excitement of the event and as a plane comes soaring overheard to overtake, you just know that this isn’t your standard racing fare.
Sure the story is complete hokum and the cutscenes are, at times, dubious at best with the kind of acting quality that used to be the sole remit of the best soap operas. Still none of that takes away from the flurry of events, challenges, stunts and street races that litter your burgeoning quest to become the best. The beauty comes from the fact that every time you're in the car, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you have the chance to show off. A handy sat-nav feature lets you select an event and then just cruise over to the start line, but on the way you can skim past other cars, challenge other racers, drift around corners and set new speed records via cameras. Just getting to an event can be an event in itself and that's where the game excels.
Starting at a central hub that houses the main garages, auto shops and online locations you can then branch out into the wilderness. Your progress is charted by a series of coloured wristbands that give you access to the main Horizon events, plus you also progress up the ranks of popularity by basically driving as well, or as recklessly, as you can. Drifting, drafting, overtaking, near misses and even trashing roadside obstacles all help boost you up the ranks and ensure that even a casual drive can soon pay off. Thankfully the range and breadth of the events is spot on, so that the likelihood of boredom isn't even a remote possibility.
At the heart of every racing game is a solid physics engine and Forza delivers, as you would expect. Every car has been given the usual amount of care and attention, so the physics and handling are spot on. You can tune up your rides to get every last drop out of them too as well as giving them a custom paint job, so that by the time you finally roll out onto the tarmac you have your own unique ride. Then you can just lose yourself for hours on end by cruising around the central hub, exploring the mountains, searching out shortcuts or heading into the nearby towns. Once you get a new car, the urge to just jump in and drive it around is superb and every twist and turn has the chance for new discoveries and the opportunity for you to just progress a little more.
With a lush open world to explore it’s nice that the map keeps an eye on things you may have missed too. If you didn’t spot the speed camera or hidden discount sign, you can rely on the map to notice and this gives you the fresh impetus to go back over some of the well trodden routes. The game progression is wonderfully natural, with new locations and rivals gradually being introduced as you climb the ranks, so that even if you never feel the urge to explore outside of the confines of the events you can still see the vast majority of the world at large. But with just as much to see and do off the beaten track as on it, you'll be hard pressed to resist the lure of the open road for too long.
Cleverly the multiplayer aspect of the game fits in snugly alongside the single-player offering, as every race offers you the ability to challenge friends and beat their times, or the times of random folks if you have no friends. The central hub lets you hop into online events at will, though sadly the offerings here feel a bit slim in terms of options. Considering the breadth and depth of the single-player experience it’s peculiar that the online modes feel so lacking in comparison. Still the chance to challenge friends, set best times and still boost your popularity and earnings is not to be sniffed at, and the online aspect is wonderfully adapted to feel like just another aspect of the Horizon festival experience.
With such a plethora of racing laid out before you it's nice to see that the game can cater for the more casual crowd as well. The set up and difficulty of the races can be tinkered with before each event so that even relative driving novices can get behind the wheel and do well against the AI. Veteran players get the added bonus of extra cash and rewards if they make the settings as professional as possible, plus the only way to set the truly fast times is by having most of the assists turned off and racing on the edge. It’s a game that rewards old hands while still offering a warm welcome to newcomers, and for that it should be roundly applauded especially as the older Forza games could seem so unapproachable at times.
There are also achievements, such tawdry things when compared to the fun of drifting a Ferrari around a hairpin bend, and they take on the standard Forza formula. Rising through the popularity charts, snagging all the wristbands and completing all events are your main goals, plus you can expect to do the same online as well if you want to max the game out. A word of warning to total newcomers though, as you will need to have played a prior Forza game to get the full thousand. We also like the fact that a bit of fun has gone into the descriptions, wordplay and punning is a dying art so bonus points for effort.
Forza Horizon is a well-crafted mix of ideas, old and new, that help to create a glorious experience that can drag you in for a few hours where seemingly nothing is accomplished. Assuming you class having the time of your life as nothing accomplished, of course. The single-player experience far outweighs that of the current online offering, but considering how much time you can pour into cruising around Colorado then it will all seem like time well spent. Hop in your favourite ride and prepare to lose yourself over the horizon.
Three unique radio stations pump out a medley of tunes, though some of the voice work can be distinctly hit and miss.
Beautiful vistas and the full gamut of cars, only spoiled by no realistic damage. It makes taking your latest acquisition for a ride feel like a step into the real world.
Superb for newcomers and as in-depth and compelling for veterans too, this is a game that takes the sandbox idea and lets you run free to wondrous effect.
A driving game that takes the stuffy Forza formula out on the open road and never looks back. The online modes are a letdown but that aside, it’s arcade racing perfection with a simulation spine.
A fairly generic list that is, in part, redeemed by some clever wordplay and smooth progression.
A breath of fresh air for the series and one that should appeal to fans old and new, Forza Horizon may have toned down on the realism but the open world environment and host of quirky ideas more than make up for any discrepancies. This is a racing game that has plenty under the hood, and leaves you wanting one more shot at racing glory.