I admit it; I am a driving game fan, from arcade based to sim-oriented racers I try to play them all. I also admit that I have been a Forza fan since the game was first launched on the original Xbox and I have played every incarnation since the franchise’s beginning. Well, Turn 10 has tapped the skills of Playground Games, whose staff has a long lineage of racing games under their belt, to develop the next Forza game on the Xbox 360, aptly titled Forza Horizon. I had a chance to play the game at E3 and PAX Prime prior to release, and I recently had a chance to sit down and play the final retail version. Well, let me tell you, after some extended playtime with the game I have to say that this is what a racing game is all about.
One of the first things gamers will notice is that Forza Horizon actually has a story. Yep, Forza brings a narrative to the game. In a nutshell, you enter the Horizon Festival event, which is a combination of music, parties, and of course racing. During your pursuit to win this yearly event key moments of the story are played out through cutscenes as you climb through the ranks, and in this case earn different coloured wristbands for later events. I found that although the story is not “academy award’ material, the addition of it takes away from monotony of just racing. There is a reason for doing what you are doing and I enjoyed what was offered in this realm as it added to why you were at the Horizon Festival and what it takes to win.
Along with the story, Forza Horizon introduces the ability to explore the world where the game takes place. Gone are the closed off tracks and circuits of previous Forza games as Horizon is all about open roads and vistas. Colorado is home to the Horizon Festival and you are free to roam the expansive area that the races and events take place. If you see a road of any sort, and it is not blocked in anyway, odds are you can head on over there and drive on it, including gravel and dirt. This is a new feature, as you are not forced to just race on the paved tracks like those found in previous games.
You’ll find that although the off-road sections are not ‘rally-focused’ you will still have to adjust your driving tactics to take into consideration the fact that you are racing on dirt or gravel. Breaking is not as concise and the back end of your vehicle will kick out a lot easier then when racing on pavement. The physics of driving on the dirt and gravel surfaces are well implemented. I was appreciative of the fact that there are new roads, with bumps and jumps, and it was refreshing to have this change in the Forza series.
The story mode is the heart of the game’s single player experience. When you are not free roaming you’ll find yourself competing in various events, earning credits or career points, and climbing the ranks in an effort to become the new Horizon Festival champion. If you have played a Forza game in the past you’ll know what to expect here. If you have not, races are usually broken down into specific classes of cars and start to amp up as you work your way through your career, or in this case your story. I found that there was a nice selection races, from point to point to closed off circuits. You won’t always have the right car for the race; however, Forza Horizon is generous with its race options and when you can’t find that car in your garage you can always buy it. You need not win every race to get to your final goal. Yes, some races demand that you finish first to collect your reward (e.g. game credits); however, in your career you are awarded points based on how you fair, so those when you only need a few more points to advance, you don’t have to particularly worry about being number one in the final race you compete in.
Forza Horizon has an in-game map of the expansive Colorado area you will race in. As you open up new challenges they become marked on this map and you can then plot your course using the game’s GPS to get there. As I played it became quite evident that there are a lot of events to mark on the map, and there is A LOT to do. Luckily there is a map filter that you can use to define certain races, such as those that are new or those that have been opened for a while but you still need to win.
Given that you can free roam the roads of the Colorado during your career there are more then just career races offered in Forza Horizon, and this is where the game adds a sense of the world being alive. Along with your festival races, you can pull up behind any other festival participants, whose names will be displayed, and you can challenge them to a quick duel. The skill challenge of the race will be noted (from easy to difficult) and with a quick press of the X button away you go. You will also find various forms of speed trap cameras, from one quick picture to actual speed zone calculators (average speed in a zone) for you to challenge. Of course your speed will be uploaded to a leaderboard and your friends can challenge your times.
Hold on, I am not done yet. You are also consistently rewarded for your driving, be it during a race or when free roaming. You are rewarded points for narrowly missing collisions, trading paint with other vehicles, drifting, air time, taking out various signs or roadside markers, as well as pulling of some impressive burnouts or 360-degree spins. You reach specific tiers for accumulating certain point levels and you are then awarded in game credit for each tier. These points are also accumulated in your popularity, and as you reach certain popularity levels you can compete in Showcase Events.
If you played the Xbox LIVE demo, then you know what Showcase Events are. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, they are events that entertain the crowds. They can range from racing against an airplane to racing against a hot air balloon. These are the first two that you race. I won’t spoil the others. Win these races and you win the vehicle that was provided to you to race in.
There is also a “Rivals Mode”. These are challenges that pop up after an event. You race a ghost car of an online friend who has the game, and your task it to beat their time in that particular event. This is neat and your friend will be notified once you beat their time. There are even more challenges that deserve mentioning as well, from finding all the discount billboards, completing all the barn finds, to finding all the media centers or completing all the PR stunts. If I tried to describe all that you can do then this review would be far to long, and I already feel that it is starting to happen.
I should also note that all the roads have traffic too, so not only do you have to focus on staying on the pavement or gravel, but in many occasions you will have to keep an eye out for any oncoming traffic as well as traffic that is in your lane but going much slower then you.
Forza Horizon is a game that is accessible to everyone. This has been Forza’s lineage from the get-go and it continues in the open roads of Forza Horizon. There are a bevy of vehicle assists offered up, from traction control, ABS, to auto braking and a full driving line. For those looking for a more simulation experience or more of a challenge, you can turn any or all of these assists off. Trust me, turn off many of the assists and then get behind the virtual wheel of the 2013 Dodge Viper and try to keep it on the road. This game is indeed accessible to everyone and event the most diehard sim/racing game fan will find a level of challenge that suits them to a tee.
I am sure a nagging question on everyone’s mind is “what about the AI of the computer racers?” In the end I think that people will find the AI racers formidable foes. Sure, they occasionally stay true to their racing line at almost any cost, but in general they provide a good racing challenge without feeling cheap. There were even a few times that I noted one of my competitors taking a corner a hair too wide and hitting the gravel on the side of the road which allowed me to sneak by as they corrected themselves. I also found that the rubber band AI was minimal, even in the harder settings, which is testament to Playground Games, and Turn 10, given that they don’t make the race feel so scripted. If you manage to take the lead, as long as you run a relatively error free race your chances of coming out on top are quite good, but if you make a big mistake it can definitely cost you.
Online racing makes a return, but it is not without some compromises. The first and foremost change is that the online racing has been scaled back from 16 racers to 8 racers. When you do head online there is some great Forza racing to be had in some great online environments. From straight out point to point or circuit racing, to some now classic racing modes like “Cat and Mouse” as well as a vehicular form of “Infected”. There are also some great cooperative online aspects as well. All in all the entire online suite is fairly robust and there is lots to enjoy.
Where the game seems to miss a beat is in the execution of the online experience while not tapping into what could have been a great open online world. These two are somewhat tied together. In order to play online with others you have to enter the multiplayer menu and go from there. Forza Horizon could have benefitted from being a truly persistent open world where people could meet online in the world of the Horizon Festival, and then play online together, without the need for separate menus. Although this is a complaint of mine, it is far from a deal breaker. I think it is something that could have propelled this into true greatness if it was implemented in the right way. I see it as a missed opportunity.
Of course customization of your vehicles has always been a staple feature, from custom paint, decals, to aftermarket parts, and it all makes a return to the world of Forza Horizon. On an interesting note, if you made any custom decals, or specific vehicle designs, in Forza 4 you can import them into Forza Horizon; however, if you bought custom decals or designs off of Forza 4’s marketplace you cannot transfer them, as you did not create them.
Although you can indeed add custom aftermarket parts for almost everything, you cannot tinker with them like you could in Forza 4. So while you are able to add new rims and wheels or new gears, but you cannot change the camber or air pressure of your new tires and rims, nor can you change the actual ratio of each gear. I did not mind this change in things, but I am sure the true gearheads who love to tinker may have a thing or two to say.
We cannot forget the inclusion of a Marketplace, which is back, as well as the return of car clubs and the Photography Mode. Feel free to share your cars with those in your car club again too, which I think is great, as one member may buy a car you want, and you can then try it in the club.
Visually Forza Horizons is a stunning looking game, plain and simple. The new environment is incredible and the diversity of where you go is amazing. From open vistas, to small towns, to taking a run though twisting and turning roads that snake their way through a section of canyon, all of it is amazing. I cannot believe how far the graphics engine renders the scenery, as I cannot recall seeing any draw in. The variety of settings is what catches your eye. From forested areas, a power generating windmill farm, waterfalls, lakes and rivers, hot air balloons floating in the air, and mountains in the distance. Oh, and don’t forget the actual Horizon Festival itself, with fireworks overhead, music concerts, crowds dancing and a very party like atmosphere on display.
Forza Horizon also allows for a full 24-hour day/night cycle, and this is represented very well visually. I was amazed as I just drove around the various roads and I watched the time of day change as the sun started to go down behind the mountains, and as night set in the moon rose and started to shine. Racing at night on any road or circuit is a brand new experience, as you rely on your headlights to show the way, and you watch out for the taillights of your foes or the headlights and/or taillights of the traffic that now populates the roads. As for the vehicles themselves, well this is a Forza game that relies on the Forza 4 technology, so you the cars are meticulous and very solid looking. From muscle cars of yesteryear to the most modern of supercars, from exterior views behind the care to that being inside the car, complete with fully functioning gauges, which by the way light up at night, you won’t find much to complain here.
The audio in Forza Horizon wraps things up quite nicely. The soundtrack is large and has three areas of specialty as there are three Horizon Festival radio stations including Horizon Bass Arena, Horizon Pulse, and Horizon Rocks. You’ll get a wide array of music including tracks from Chromeo, Digitalism, DJ Fresh, Rusko and Wolfgang Gartner on Horizon Bass Arena while you get tracks from Empire of the Sun, Foster The People, Passion Pit, Tesla Boy, and Willy Moon on Horizon Pulse. Finally, you’ll get tracks from the likes of the Black Keys, The Enemy, The Hives, and White Lies on Horizon Rocks. I enjoyed the soundtrack and found that I turned it down just enough so I could hear it but I was able to focus on the sound of my car’s engine. The DJ’s that provide random banter on the radio stations are also somewhat enjoyable. They actually speak about the goings on in your career, which was pretty neat as they talked about key events I had experienced and how things were going for me, along with various other ramblings.
The stars of audio are the cars themselves as well as the sounds of the environments you race in. A 2013 Dodge Viper sounds distinctly different from a late 2000 Subaru, while a 1960’s muscle car is very different sounding from a Fiat Abarth. Playground Games had access to the Forza 4 library, and it shows given how different each vehicle sounds from one another. The rest of the sound effects are just as good too. I found the use of Dolby Surround Sound pretty impressive as no matter where you were, you could hear other cars coming from all directions during a heated race. I also was impressed with the environmental sounds too, from the sound of a waterfall cresting over a mountain, driving on a gravel road, the sound of the crowd at the Horizon Festival central area, driving through the various tunnels, to the sound of a P-51 Mustang as it flies overhead. The sound package as a whole is well implemented and adds to the overall scope of the game.
At the end of the day Forza Horizon is the racing game I have been wanting for quite some time and Playground Games should be commended. With a good mix of simulation and accessibility, new open road exploration, the freedom to get away from closed tracks, and some great visuals and sound, I found I could not stop playing and neither will you. And even though the online experience takes a slight, and I do mean slight, step backward, the multiplayer is still a blast to play. In the end anyone who picks this title up will be happy with the overall racing experience that this game provides.