It has long been established that video game franchises, unlike films, tend to get better as the series goes on - Up to a point, at least. This has certainly been true of the fantastic Forza series, which has arguably become the best simulation style racer of the current console generation. But Forza Horizon is not truly a sequel, it's that entirely different and sometimes horrible beast, a spinoff. So, is it just plain horrible? Or is it horribly good? Read on to find out.
The Same But Different
The titular Horizon Festival is at the heart of Forza's brand spanking new open world. Set in a fictional version of Colorado the story follows a young rookie driver looking to make a name for himself. That's right, Forza has a story now. As you might expect it's nothing memorable and is cheesy at the best of times, but it does complement the games festival atmosphere rather nicely. It adds personality to a genre that, at times, can be somewhat dry.
You start at the bottom, just you and your old VW Corrado. From here the goal is to work your way up the ranks, acquiring coloured wristbands that grant you access to higher level events, with the ultimate goal of becoming champion of the Horizon Festival. A problem I've always had with previous Forza games is that they feel like a long unbroken slog through a ridiculously large number of events. The wristband structure works well to break the game down into manageable chunks. This is helped by the fact that you can only see events on the map if you have the required wristband to compete in them. Not once did I feel overwhelmed, nor did I ever feel like there wasn't enough to do.
The type of races on offer are also more varied than previous games in the series. In addition to the standard circuit and point to point races there are PR stunts and showcase events. The PR stunts are located at Horizon Outposts that are scattered all over the map. Each Outpost has three stunts to complete; a speed challenge, a photo challenge, and a style challenge. As an added bonus completing all three stunts at an Outpost allows you to fast travel to that location for free. The showcase events are outlandish challenges that have to be completed using a specific car assigned to that event. Beating the events - which range from racing against a plane to an all Mini Cooper event - earns you the keys to the car that you competed in. These stunts and challenges are a fun distraction from the main game and offer something a little different from the standard racing action. Unfortunately they're let down by a lack of variety, racing a plane loses some of its excitement after you've already done it three times, and the same three PR stunts at every Outpost can get a little tiresome.
Diversity is also a bit of a problem with the car roster. If you're used to the huge numbers of cars that appeared in Forza 3 and 4 then prepare to lower your expectations. Thankfully you don't really feel this while playing the game - you're gifted so many cars as rewards that there's always something different to drive - but when scrolling through the various manufacturers in the showroom it dawned on me that owning all the cars in Horizon was a genuine possibility. This is certainly something I've never felt with a Forza game before. That being said, monthly DLC car packs are returning, meaning that only the most dedicated of players are going to run out of new wheels to tool around in. Nevertheless it's worth noting that if you do go looking for a specific car in Horizon there's a higher chance of not finding it than in other Forza games.
Speaking of going looking for cars, another new feature in Horizon - made possible by its open world - are barn finds. These are classic cars that have been hidden in dilapidated old barns scattered around the map. Every now and then you'll get a message over the in game radio informing you that a new barn find has been discovered. A circle marking the area will then show up on your map, but this is only a broad guide to the location of the car, it's up to you to drive over there and hunt the barn down. Some require a little more searching than others but the results are always worth it, a fully restored classic to add to your collection.
Get Your Toolbox Out
Customisation, both visual and under the hood, has always been a big part of the Forza games. The visual side of things is still just the same as it's always been, in fact you can import your old designs from Forza 4 straight into horizon. Of course you can start from scratch as well, and if you're one of those clever creative types you can still create those crazy awesome paint jobs and vinyl groups.
Customising your cars internals also remains a big part of Horizon. Everything from simple brake upgrades to a complete drivetrain swap is available. Some cars offer more upgrade options than others but this has always been the case in the previous games. Unfortunately the tuning system has gone completely, meaning no more tinkering with your brake balance or adjusting your gear ratios. I played around with the tuning system in past Forzas and was very impressed. It was a deep and involving system that actually forced me to learn about the way a car works. In all honesty though I haven't missed it in Horizon, I'm sure others will, but if you only ever took a tertiary glance at the system before then its exclusion here is nothing to worry about.
Horizon intentionally shifts its focus slightly away from simulation and more toward the pleasure of actually driving. That's not to say that it's no longer a sim racer, it uses the same physics engine as Forza 4, and you can tell the minute you start playing. But this isn't the endlessly deep mechanical sandbox hardcore fans might be used to. As far as driving goes though, it's all there. I've been playing with all assists off apart from ABS, and manual gearing with no clutch. This provides the perfect level of difficulty and enjoyment for my skill level and play style. Others may want to crank up the opponent AI, turn off that last assist and add the clutch into the equation. While I'm sure many people just want to cruise around without having to worry about changing gear or controlling wheel spin. There is literally a difficulty for everyone here and it's endlessly customisable if you ever feel the need to step things up.
A Whole New World
Forza Horizon has absolutely no right to look as good as it does while maintaining its blistering sixty frames per second speed. Seriously, it has to be witchcraft. The vast expanse of Colorado in which the game takes place is rendered beautifully everywhere you look. There's enough variety in the environment to keep things interesting, yet it all feels cohesive, as if it really is a little slice of America in your disc tray. Not once have I experienced slow down, pop-in or screen tearing. It just feels ridiculously solid. And to top it all off the day/night cycle marks the first time in a Forza game that you can actually race in the dark. The whole thing is genuinely incredible, if it had weather effects it'd be nigh on perfect. Maybe next-gen, eh?
As should be expected the cars are also modelled in extraordinary detail. Seeing the setting sun bounce golden orange light off the bonnet of your Ferrari as you barrel through the mountains truly is a sight to behold. When this inevitably distracts you and you slam headlong into a roadside fence things aren't quite right though. Forza has always had a rather tame aesthetic damage model complemented by an excellent underlying physical one. Horizon retains only the cosmetic damage, meaning that no matter how badly you wreck you can always drive away. This is another example of the games slight shift away from complete simulation. It's all about driving very pretty cars through very pretty landscapes and not worrying about hurting them. I understand why they've done this, but I do wish they'd at least put the option in there for proper physical damage.
I'm just going to come right out and say it. Multiplayer in Horizon is a bit of a let down. Which is a shame, because at first glance it appears to get so much right. The difficulty customisation from the single player carries over very well. If you just want to race against people of a similar skill level you are presented with three options; Social, Veteran, and Pure Skill. Social gives everyone the same default difficulty settings, Veteran lets you pick your own settings - meaning you can gain an advantage with manual gears and no traction control - and Pure Skill turns everyones assists off and gives them all the same car. In Social and Veteran modes everyone in the lobby can vote on three choices of car class, with the one receiving the most votes being used for the race. You can pick a car from your own garage, a default car of the chosen class, or a something from your Car Club garage - more on that later.
Once you get into a race that's where the problems start. The net code just doesn't appear to be up to scratch, with cars jumping, bouncing and generally lagging all over the place. This doesn't happen all the time but it comes up a lot more than it should. And it's not just my connection, other people I know have experienced the same problems. In addition to this the etiquette of other online players is generally very poor. A bit of body contact and nudging round corners is fine, it's all in good fun and it makes for an exciting race. But in almost every game I've had there seems to be at least one person who makes it their mission to take as many people off the track as possible. There needs to be a system in place to automatically remove people who play like this. I've run into far fewer of these people in the Pure Skill playlist, so I'd recomend making that your home if you want (relatively) clean competitive racing.
If you want something a bit more creative there's also the Playground modes. This section includes the games Cat and Mouse, Infection, and King. Cat and Mouse casts one player as the mouse, whose teammates are tasked with defending him from the attacking cats. The cats simply have to stop the mouse from finishing the race by crashing into him and blocking his progress around the track. Infection takes place on wide open maps where one player starts the game with the infection. They have to spread the infection to other players by crashing into them, the last person to be infected is the winner. King is kind of the opposite of this, where one player starts the game as the king and has to remain the king for as long as possible. Other players can steal king status by crashing into whoever is the current king. The player that spent the most time as the king when time runs out is the winner. These games offer a fun distraction from straight racing but they're hardly original, and both King and Infection suffer from a lack of maps. Not only that, but Dirt 3 already did this better over a year ago.
On the non-competitive side of things there's a free roam mode for tooling around with your friends. Again, this is a fun distraction but there's not much to do so it's unlikely you'll spend much time here. Possibly the best social feature is the Car Club, which anyone who played Forza 4 should be familiar with. At it's core it's a way for you and your friends to compete even when you're playing single player. You'll be notified if someone beats one of your times or goes faster through a speed trap, and you can easily race against your friends ghosts. Everyone in the club also has access to a shared garage. So if I want my friends to be able to drive my Veyron SS I simply shove it in the garage and everyone can give it a go. You're limited to free roam when driving a car like this though, so you still have to unlock you own vehicles to compete in events.
Passing The Baton
As you may or may not know, taking over development duties from Forza creators Turn 10 are Playground Games. A kind of all star studio made up of former employees from Codemasters, Bizarre Creations, Criterion Games and many others. The influence from games like Dirt, Burnout and Project Gotham Racing can definitely be felt in Horizon's vibrant presentation. The festival atmosphere feels straight out of Dirt 2, which I know isn't to everyones tastes, but I love it. And the reputation system - which gives you points for driving with style - feels very similar to the Kudos system from Bizarre Creations Project Gotham series. Considering they're technically a 'new' studio Playground have done a great job at making Horizon feel like a Forza game. My only worry is that now we've got two developers working on the franchise it could turn into a yearly release. This seems to be the way the industry is going right now, but I just hope Microsoft can resist this trend with the Forza franchise.
Should You Buy It?
Forza Horizon is an incredibly pretty and technically solid racing game. The world that Playground have created feels real, yet still manages to offer over the top thrills. There are a vast number of events on offer, but they are presented in a way which never feels overwhelming, even if they occasionally get a little repetitive. Similarly the car roster is smaller than we've come to expect but is more focused on vehicles that fit the games setting. Forza purists will feel let down by the lack of tuning and damage, but the customisation options that are available will be more than enough for most. Unfortunately multiplayer does let the side down, although it's not a complete waste of your time. Just don't expect it to be more than a passing distraction from the meat of the single player experience.
Despite it's simulation racer pedigree, Forza Horizon is a game that almost anyone could pick up and play and still enjoy, whether they're a veteran of the series or a complete newcomer. The cheesy and forgettable storyline keeps things chugging along, but the festival atmosphere and pitch perfect controls ensure you'll keep coming back for more. If you have any interest at all in racing games then Forza Horizon should most certainly be near the top of your 'to buy' list.
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