I enjoyed Forza Motorsport 4 a great deal. Visually stunning, the circuit-racing simulator was made for car lovers and according to Jon Knoles, design director from Turn 10 Studios: they want to turn car lovers into gamers, and gamers into car lovers. Of course, those who love to drive don’t necessarily like keeping their fun confined to the track – the allure of the open road is too great. That’s where the most excellent Forza Horizon floors the gas and takes us for a ride that we won’t soon forget.
I am going to come clean here: when I first read the announcement of an open-road Forza, I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. My conflicting emotions remained as time raced on, revealing teasers and trailers that relied on stereotypical gimmicks to really sell the game to the viewer. Even at the recent Forza pre-launch party, the party-like nature of visuals and the bassy dubstep made me wonder if this game was going to be such a radical departure so as to be more like an arcade title -something like Need for Speed– rather than a fun simulator experience. I am very happy to say that I was very wrong.
Forza Horizon takes place in a fictionalized version of Colorado; the landscape is a mix of fields, valleys, forests and mountains. Most roads have generous width and few kinks; others are thin, curvy, and dangerous. While it is an open-world map, most roads are bound by guard rails or impassable features (like cliffs or trees); the road system as a whole is also contained within the map – so there is nothing extensive (in terms of high-density routes) beyond the large “ring” that makes up the outside of the map (other than some small “neighbourhoods”. In the center of this road system is the hub of all activity – the Horizon Festival.
The Lure of the open road is hard to ignore.
Placed on a circular road in the middle of the map, with several “stations” for the drivers to stop at, the Horizon Festival is the heart and soul of almost all activity that occurs in the game. It is here that the majority of the crowds gather around several large stages and line the roads to enjoy the music and gawk at the cars. It is the first place that you are guided to and, once discovered, it is the first location that you can fast-travel to for free. A lot of work has gone into making it look like an event that is well-established, yet entirely plausible as an annual gig that is only there for a relatively short time: the road that makes up the central ring is “paved” with a temporary rubber surface – all arteries leading in are dirt roads. At night, you can see it from miles away – what with the multitude of bright stage lights. It is truly magnificent to behold and when you’re zooming down the roads at night, you will always have a “North star” to guide you home.
It is here at the festival that you can check out your garage, tune up or decorate your vehicles, check in for races, browse for a new vehicle, check out the marketplace (for designs and paint jobs) and manage your car club. Each of these areas is accessed by driving into the associated area and pressing X – this brings up the menu tied to that spot and is fairly self-explanatory. Each node has its own distinct feel and some of them (like Dak’s Garage) come with a personality thanks to the voice cast.
When you first start the game, you are given a yellow wristband, which allows you to participate in a limited number of events. As you complete races, you gain experience points toward the next wristband colour. Gaining a level means getting a new wristband, which opens the gate to another set of races that are slightly more difficult – until you reach your final hurdle: the race to be the winner of the Festival. The wristband system is only one aspect of Forza Horizon. Climbing the ladder not only involves winning races; it also involves winning over the public by fancy-shmancy driving skills.
The Forza is strong in this one.
Performing stunts as you drive earns you skill points, which translates into increased popularity. The more cred you have, the more events you gain access to. The riskier the stunt, the more points you get (burning out is different than a near-miss, for example); and the more stunts you do in a row, the higher your chain score becomes (thanks to an ever-increasing multiplier). Your score is banked when you cease to perform stunt-related activities, while avoiding collisions. Should you crash into something, the chain is broken and your accumulated score for that set of stunts is clawed back to zero. At first, this aspect of the game felt arcade-like to me; but to pull off the stunts and gain a lot of points takes some skill – so it eventually lost the feel of a shallow addition.
On top of official races (where you can win money), you can also participate in other events. Rivals events usually occur at the end of an official Festival race; you are matched against someone with a slightly better time than you – beating that time gives you cash and cred. Showcase events are unlocked as you gain popularity, pitting you against some very odd opponents. One of the first Showcase events is basically Mustang (the car) vs. Mustang (the prop plane). These events are not impossible to win – instead, they are a great challenge. Street races eventually appear where you can attempt to win some cash (usually a bit more than the official races) – but the rules disappear. Finally, there are races that you can start by just driving up behind a Festival driver and challenging them – the routes are intelligently created to bring you closer to your next goal (a nice touch).
On the quest to find a bathroom.
Under the hood, Forza Horizon’s engine is based on the same powerhouse behind FM4 – with some slight improvements. This is great in terms of the aesthetics: everything looks amazing – between the cars and the landscape, I was very impressed. The cars seem to look more realistic than the ones in FM4* – or maybe the background has been improved to match the level of detail given to the cars. The landscape is well-rendered; draw distance is far, giving you some very spectacular views, especially while driving around some of the higher-altitude locations – both by day and at night. Yes, that’s right: night. A “24 Hour” timeline rendering allows you to race at all times of the day, which introduces various challenges to overcome. The driving physics are also realistic, which makes it harder to drive an arcade racer. The thing about a simulator, though, is that eventually you figure out the rules – which are based on reality; this makes driving easier. Anyone that has a good idea of how physics works will be able to get used to driving a car in a Forza title.
Of course, the glitchy collision physics have also been carried over from the previous title. One could put on their purist hat and cluck their tongue about this; but then, I would argue that most people in real life would probably not last long behind the wheel of some of these cars on the open roads in the mountains of Colorado – so the crash weirdness is forgivable (and kinda fun).
Photo Mode makes a triumphant return; and it’s really one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery – and share it with others. You can go into Photo Mode at practically any time and take some snaps. The number of camera settings available is akin to a low-end SLR camera. However, the advantage of the Forza camera is that you have a full-screen preview of what you’re going to shoot. As a photographer, I love this mode.
Game audio is fantastic. Forza Motorsport 4 really did a great job of nailing the sounds of the different cars; Forza Horizon picks up the torch and might even have more sound effects than the previous game. I could have sworn one day while playing that I heard the wind whistling past my Aventador as I tore down the road (a sound that I do not recall hearing from the previous title). Turn 10 also adds awesome music to the mix – delivered via “radio stations” in the game. It’s a clever idea, and reinforces the idea of the Festival. It also gives you some decent choices for music (unless, like me, you play with the radio off).
If you work really hard, you might be able to take a picture like this – from inside your car.
Multi-player is painless and fun. There are a number of different styles of racing that you can choose from. If you are new, you can play in the beginner section. If you want to play solely based on skill, you can do that too. There are several steps in between to give you what you need. My favourite races are the “alternative” ones located in the Playground selection. King races start with one of the players being tagged as “king”; the other racers try to “steal” that designation by colliding with that person. Whomever tags the king first becomes the new king – the winner of the match is the person who accumulated the most time as king over the duration of the match. “Infected” is kind of like King, except that the person who starts off as “it” has to try and “infect” everyone with their zombie car disease. Whomever is hit by the infected car also becomes infected, enabling them to also share their condition with other. The winner is the one who remains uninfected at the end (or infected last). Cat-and-Mouse pits two teams against each other; each team is made up of one car designated as the “mouse” and the rest of the cars on the team are “cats”. Only a mouse car can win a race; it’s the job of the cats to prevent the opponent’s mouse from winning! Experience points and money are rewarded for all multi-player experiences; gaining a level allows you a random prize (the value of which seems to increase as you gain levels).
I have probably missed a bunch of features** – but truthfully I just want to finish writing this so I can get back to playing! Forza Horizon has shattered the classical view of circuit racing being the only way to run a car simulator. With great graphics, sound, physics and fun (not to mention regularly scheduled DLC), this game is going to spend more time in your Xbox 360 than on your shelf.