Forza Horizon abandons the race tracks favoured by its big brother and lets the player loose on the open road.
Reviewed on the Xbox 360 by Henry Kelly
Video games can be seen like recipes. All the elements that make up the game have to be balanced and work together otherwise it can go sour. A great shooter with a brilliant story, incredible gameplay but a weak frame-rate is a little like a burnt soufflé in the oven. We respect the ambition but the marriage between execution and ambition is where the special games separate themselves from the pretenders.
I am happy to report that Forza Horizon is one of these games. It easily lives up to the appetite created by its intriguing list of features. You have the handling of the Forza Motorsport series, the festival fun-loving vibe of Dirt 2, the addictive points system of Project Gotham Racing and the open-world of Burnout: Paradise. Forza Horizon borrows and on occasion flat out steals to carve something that you might have a hard time calling original but somehow invigorates the racing genre at the same time.
Starting with the presentation, Forza Horizon is indebted to the Dirt series. The makers Playground Games are a new British developer that includes some of the talent from Codemasters and they have brought many of their designs with them. The menus have a fun colourful style, the announcer is slightly condescending and rivals smack talk you before races. I found the similarity a little unsettling at first but it does carry the same strengths as Dirt. The game fights for your attention and is always pushing you to new objectives. It can be obnoxious at times: the sponsors, buzzwords and encouragement to buy in game short-cut tokens with real currency can unintentionally make it feel like everything bad about a modern festival. It’s a nagging frustration but like a pebble in your shoe, it gets easier to bear with time and gently recesses into the rear-view mirror when driving through the rich Colorado inspired setting.
The game-world is one element that Forza Horizon can claim for itself. It is simply gorgeous. Set in the autumn season the colours are a mixture of browns and ambers that fuse with red rock mountains to create an incredible vista that will have you googling ‘trips to Colorado’ within minutes. Like all great open-world settings, it’s the details that make the setting so effective. Driving down a secluded dirt track with leaves whipping across the gravel, only to see a combine harvester trundling along in a nearby field is immersion at its best. [pullquote]Driving down a secluded dirt track with leaves whipping across the gravel, only to see a combine harvester trundling along in a nearby field is immersion at its best.[/pullquote]
One of the costs of this detail is a drop from the Forza standard 60fps to 30fps. Luckily the gameplay doesn’t concentrate on hitting apexes and nailing break points to such an obsessive degree as its big brother, Forza 4. This means the game gets by fine with the reduced smoothness. I normally prefer the in cockpit view when I’m playing racing games but Forza Horizon looks so good I found myself using the outside camera to soak in more of that open-world. The draw distance is incredibly long making the drop in frame-rate far more excusable.
What also makes the setting such a joy is the cars you get to drive and how well they handle. The game borrows a large percentage of the cars featured in Forza 4 meaning there is a good mix from old Volvos to speeding Ferraris. The handling model is pretty much cut and pasted from Forza 4. Cars handle differently with small speedsters feeling twitchy while huge muscle cars need dragging across the road like reluctant dogs. The cars do feel slightly looser to allow more slides but it never sacrifices a realistic feel.
The suspension system, in particular, really sets the game apart from the arcade racers. Driving onto the gravel roads and the car will bump and slide in a convincing manner. The traction isn’t simulated to a degree one would call realistic but the important thing is how it feels. Moving back onto tarmac and you can feel the tires snatch onto the surface like leaches on a fat man’s back.
One questionable element of the driving model is the lack of damage. Cars do get scratched and scuffed but the car never loses performance. This changes how you approach races because essentially you can bully your way up the pack. It’s a tricky balance because damage should limit your aggression but the free-roaming could have become quite frustrating with your car carrying damage and needing constant fixing. Likewise crashing into pedestrian traffic doesn’t have the earth shattering impact you would expect in real life. You bounce of the cars in a way that isn’t exactly realistic but at least keeps the game flowing. I rarely used the rewind feature as the balance between penalty and leniency seemed well pitched.
The racing itself is quite vanilla but tracks created from the open streets are very well designed. Surfaces change mid-lap and tracks include jumps and grass banks that can be cut across meaning the racing feels very free when put against Forza 4. As previously mentioned, apexes and breaking spots are less precious meaning you can be more expressive with you driving. In recognition of this, Playground Games have taken out car tuning so what you drive is what you get. Some fans will bemoan this omission and while I do feel for them I can’t say I missed the tuning aspect and felt that is something more suited to Forza 4. You can still upgrade your car so there is room to alter performance and cosmetically the game still allows you to design crazy paint-jobs and sell them at your store front. You can even import your favourite designs from Forza 4.
Getting into the structure of the game, Forza Horizon borrows once again from Dirt. The game opens with a cinematic of you arriving at the Horizon festival, which is the overarching context behind your racing. These cut-scenes are sparsely implemented through the game and while they look fantastic, they are scripted poorly with little dimension to the characters.
Races and event are displayed on the map and the central hub in the centre handles all your options and upgrades. You can skip to this hub at any time to tinker with your car or buy a new one. The loading times can be a bit irritating here as you enter and exit menus but I found installing the game does make this aspect better.
The game starts off gently with a few events but soon adds to the mix and introduces so many elements you will have to pick and choose what you want to do first. There are street races for cash, barns to find on the map that unlock classic cars, upgrade boards to smash and speed traps to race through.
With events you earn points towards a new wrist-band, which acts like the belt system in martial arts. Get a new colour wrist-band and you unlock more events corresponding to that class. It can feel like a grind but the distractions make it easy to break up and enjoy at your leisure. Events like one-on-one boss events against rivals and crazy point-to-point races against planes keep things fresh.
Like in other open-world games such as Skyrim, a lot of the joy can be had from simply journeying to your next event.[pullquote]Like in other open-world games such as Skyrim, a lot of the joy can be had from simply journeying to your next event.[/pullquote]Setting up a route on your map is easy and you even get a sat-nav to guide you. This is where Forza Horizon is at its best, simply driving and enjoying the cars. You can listen to the radio as you cruise but there are only three stations and changing them with the dpad seems to carry some unwarranted lag. That being said, the music is good even if the rock station is a bit on the tame side. Radio announcers will occasionally reference your up-and-coming status and even the car you are driving in which is very cool. Your rival racers drive along the roads as you do and can be challenged to a quick race to a spot you have marked on your map.
The final layer to the onion is the points system that rewards you for driving with style. It is very reminiscent of Project Gotham Racing where you chain moves together to get more points. You can draft behind a car, slip past them and power-slide through the corner to keep your chain going. It’s a very addictive system and is tied to challenges, which in turn unlock more credits to buy cars. The points system can really help some of the races from becoming stale and the constant sense of achievement is very welcome.
Taking the game online is easy to do and there are plenty of fun alternatives to racing such as cat and mouse. You can also free-roam if you just fancy a drive although this mode seems half-baked with little ways to interact. The rival feature in single-player returns, allowing you the chance to better a random ghost on the track you have just driven.
Forza Horizon is a very impressive game. It sets a new bench mark in gameplay terms by breaking down the barrier between simulation and arcade. It shows that there is no reason why a racer can’t be open and expressive as well as having a rewarding driving model. It doesn’t always feel original but I think the marriage of a simulation handling system like this and an open-world hasn’t really been done before. This is the game that Test Drive was always threatening to be but never could.
As much as I like Forza 4, it can be a very dry experience that doesn’t involve you in the way a game should. It can feel more like a simulation than a game and while it does contain the depth that some players will miss in Forza Horizon, what you get for that sacrifice is a game that is much better at being a game. The only element that holds Forza Horizon back is the presentation. It does little to involve and actually does the opposite quite often. The constant references to Dirt, particularly its corporate feel and hipster tone may work well in giving the game structure but they also rob Forza Horizon of a chance to create its own identity.
Forza Horizon is quite an achievement for a new studio like Playground Games. The execution in combining so many ideas effectively cannot be understated. I hope with a sequel the team get a chance to step back and look at how the presentation and structure can use the location in a more meaningful way and be less derivative. I think its one of the most gorgeous game-worlds ever created and if a unique story could create more drama within it, we could be looking at a something truly special.