The Forza series has been the pinnacle of racing games on Microsoft’s gaming box of wonders. This latest edition, Forza Horizon, aims to change the usual formula of realistic physics and painstakingly modelled cars around the world’s best race tracks. What we have now is an open-world racer set on the backdrop of a music festival in Colorado in the United States. We all know that the vehicles of choice for big music festivals are always Aston Martins or Bugatti’s. Have you never been to Splashy Fen?
Horizon is not developed by Turn 10 and, while the developers are hopefully busy getting Forza 5 ready for the next Microsoft console, Playground took over the helm. Using Turn 10’s excellent physics engine, tweaking the graphics engine a bit and adding really cool music we ended up with Forza Horizon.
During the Horizon festival you just barely make it into the heats for the races. The organisers hand you a wrist-band and it is now up to you to work your way through the events to gain a higher ranked wrist-band, designated by a different colour. Events include normal circuit races, but thanks to the attempted open-world you also get point to point races and street races.
Along the way you will also unlock a smorgasbord of different challenges. Just about every activity in the game has a counter that unlocks anything from a few credits to brand new cars. How many times you have a near-miss with oncoming traffic or an ultimate burnout at the start of a race all add up to the sponsors’ counters.
The game pretends to be a simulation with realistic handling, and it succeeds for the most part. Cars feel powerful enough that you want to treat them with the respect demanded. However this attempt at realism is quickly wiped out by the unrealistic affects of bad driving. Crashing into another car or hitting a railing does very little to affect your overall position in a race and often only slows you down. Cutting corners and driving off the track also does not slow you down or even penalise you. In fact, it is often encouraged with short-cuts that could actually improve your position.
This split personality in the realism department does open up the door for the AI to behave rather suspiciously. I found that making the AI opponents harder actually increased their ability to defy the laws of physics and did not actually make them much better drivers. They now simply stick to the road better than before.
Speaking of the road, there sure is a lot of open road in Horizon. Driving from one end of the map to the other will take you around 10 minutes, depending on your car and skill. Since most of the races requires you to drive to the starting block before you can begin, you will often find yourself driving to races much more than actually taking part in the races. This could be far worse than it is.
Firstly there are hubs around the map that allow you to quick travel to them from anywhere on the map. These locations need to be discovered first, and then each use will cost you credits. That is unless you perform three challenges at each hub to gain a 100% discount. These involve driving through a speed trap above a certain speed, driving a classic car to a photo shoot, and finally racking up enough style points.
Secondly, in order to make the long drives to racing locations more bearable you will often find speed traps, average speed traps, collectible cars, discount signs to smash, and best of all other racers who can be challenged for a quick buck.
Showcase events are also scattered around Colorado. The first event you will find sees you driving a Ford Mustang against a World War II Mustang fighter. These showcase events often involve car versus air vehicle, from planes and helicopters to even hot air balloons.
The game also has a great online presence. Every race you complete is followed by a rivals race where you can race against a ghost of either one of your friends who already completed the race, or a random online player. Every speed trap and average speed also immediately tells you if you successfully outraced your friends, often forcing me to turn around and try again.
Multiplayer races are full of variety. Anywhere from normal checkpoint races where the world feels more open than in the singleplayer game, all the way through to games like cat and mouse where teams have to work together to let a specific car (the mouse) win. Winning here gives you XP and more cash, but this does not really add much value in the way of progression.
You and your friend can start a car club allowing you to get together and enjoy the open-world together, creating your own challenges to find the perfect road in the game. Unfortunately any co-op gaming removes the traffic from the game, making the world feel a little empty.
You may think a game featuring over 130 cars would be well specced, but the Forza players have been spoiled with previous games containing much more than that. The selection on hand here is not to be scoffed at though. From Alfa Romeo to Zonda, they are mostly all here, except Porsche is again absent and many manufacturers only have their very top cars available, rather than a wide selection. This again leans towards the Splashy Fen or Oppikoppi music festivals in South Africa where gumboots are required. Clearly music festivals are done a little differently overseas.
There is, however, a special change in the type of vehicles. You now get to drive SUV’s, which is not too unusual, but you can drive them off-road. Some races require a 4×4 and are entirely on dirt tracks while others are hybrid tarmac and dirt. To further entice us to the off-road scene a Rally expansion has already been announced.
Visually the vehicles are simply stunning. The outside sun glistens on every piece of clean metal and the interiors are so meticulous that you can almost smell the leather and feel the stitching. Crashing cars does a good job of making the cars look damaged, but this never affects performance.
Colorado itself is rather fabulous. The environment stretches from the Rockies down to the grassy plains. The environment is very detailed with waterfalls, geysers, farms, towns, music stages and crowds partying and everything in between. For an open-world it is very well detailed. A highlight for me was driving behind a car as it drove over some leaves on the road and the leaves were blown into the air by the car’s turbulence.
We also have a full day night cycle that will throw an extra spanner in the works when longer races are attempted. Yet there is no weather system and it never rains or snows, something which would have added another layer of realism.
Forza Horizon may not be cast in the same mould as the previous Forza games, but does a very good job of walking the line between arcade racer and simulation. It retains the beauty of Forza, the drivability of Forza and the fun of an open-world arcade racer. If I have to choose a game that it reminds me of most, it has to be the original Need For Speed from the nineties: beautiful cars in the beautiful countryside.
It will face some competition from the upcoming Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but from what I have seen Forza Horizon will be do very well with both arcade and simulation fans. In short, I loved it!
The Good: Beautiful; fun; balanced.
The Bad : Relatively small collection of cars; crazy AI.
The Ugly: Damage is purely superficial.