Game Review: Forza Horizon [Xbox 360]
As far as realistic racing games go, the Forza Motorsport series has always managed to bridge the gap between realism and approachability, allowing for a much wider audience to enjoy a fantastic racing experience. This being said, traditional circuit racing can only get you so far if you aren’t interested in time trials and leaderboards, as by their nature the tracks are linear and limiting to a degree. As much as it’s possible to make the cars look even more beautiful year over year, the real graphical enhancements can manifest themselves in the environments. Seen for example in Forza 4’s fictitious Bernese Alps race track, it gave a glimpse at what could be done outside of the track. The problem with this however is that of course you can’t actually get up close and personal with your environment, leaving gamers wondering what it would be like to smash through the barrier and head on into the sunset, instead being relegated to another lap of Mugello or Silverstone. In an effort to branch the series out further, and in fact tackling a whole host of new features, Forza Horizon opens up the roads, letting you go where you want, when you want, and with whom you want.
Based in an approximation of Colarado, Horizon’s Festival is the stage of the racing scene. It’s not the first time this aspect of the racing sub-genre has been featured in video games, as both Need for Speed Pro Street and DiRT Showdown attempted to encompass the atmosphere of style, music and cars. Forza Horizon absolutely trounces them, as the combination of an amazing soundtrack, beautiful vistas and smooth racing has been fine tuned to a tee, resulting in one of the best racing games this generation.
As well as being the centrepiece of the environment, the Festival acts as the hub, containing the Garage, Autoshow, Race Central, Paint Shop, Store Front, and Race Club. While you won’t be spending a huge amount of time here, loading is quick between areas, and each distinct area provides a well thought out interface, letting you get back to the most important aspect here, the racing. Most of these areas are self explanatory, but Race Central and the Car Clubs deserve elaboration.
Race Central is your centre point for Rivalries, a social engagement factor which keeps you up to date on what’s going on in the world of Horizon, as well as your friends’ latest times and challenges. This also feeds into the Messages system, letting you know if your Speed Trap or lap time has been beaten, giving you that little extra incentive to head back and reclaim your position. This constant engagement factor is integral to what makes Horizon easy to return to, as there’ll always be something new to do, as long as your friends are playing of course. The Rivalries also play into each and every race, as after crossing the finish line, you’re offered a bounty if you can top a friend’s time. The Car Club is another great addition, allowing you and your racing buddies to maintain a shared garage, as well as create a Clan for online matches.
Forza’s mainstays including the extensive paint and vinyl customisation return, though there’s no sign of the AutoVista mode from Forza 4. Previous designs can be imported from Forza 4, providing synergy for your Turn 10 allegiance, while also rewarding you with loyalty cars. Designs can be then sold on the store front, and already there are some hugely impressive designs available. This isn’t to say that it’s a daunting experience, as the editor is very well designed, using layers and shapes to create an infinite amount of possible designs. The indepth nature of Forza 4’s car tuning hasn’t quite made it over intact, resulting in a much more streamlined parts system, as well as a handy time saving auto upgrade feature, making it very approachable for the lesser car fanatics.
Where the customisation feels a little lacking is in the appearance of your character. Horizon can easily be compared to the Test Drive Unlimited series, though it’s much less so about the lifestyle and personal aspects that the later series focused on. Your character doesn’t speak, doesn’t have a name, and really lacks a personality altogether. It’s a little jarring after all the work put into the cars, but at least it’s clear where the Developer’s best work lies, the cars, which as expected, are stunning. Since the world itself is much more compact and slightly less free form than Test Drive, it results in a very structured and cleaner experience. The narrative adds flavour, though does little to engage you, essentially boiling down into a number of cut scenes as you progress up the ranks and racers on your goal to beat the champion Darius.
Colarado offers up racing in an impressive variety of environments, from the steep orange Rockies, to the downtown areas, there’s enough visual identity, and road diversity to keep you interested as you progress through the career, through both on and off road racing. There are however a large amount of indestructible barriers bordering the roads, so don’t go expecting to trek up a mountain in a sportscar just to get a cool photo. The few open areas do provide a fun playground like environment, allowing you to practise your offroad driving, or just muck about with some friends in free roam. The racing itself is fine tuned to perfection, and there’s a lot of it to do. From point to point, to circuit racing, the huge selection of cars from Lamborghinis to Mini Coopers keep things interesting, though a lack of other race modes such as Eliminator do feel amiss, as well as the almost baffling lack of a custom race editor, somewhat limiting the online racing free roam. The showcase events do provide some exhilarating races, such as pitting specific cars against a plane or hot air balloon for example, and do add some variety to the usual Festival events required to progress up through the wristbands.
Of course, what it all boils down to is the racing itself. The atmosphere around the track is all well and good, cheering spectators and exploding pyrotechnics, hot air balloons and planes in the sky, but the core driving is so solid. Building on the same technology base from Forza 4, the cars handle as they should, with a large number of assists available to tinker with, resulting in more credits for you the less you utilise. The Rewind feature returns both in and out of racing to give you that second chance at a corner, overtake or drift, providing a safety net for those more aggressive drivers. If you do happen to collide with the wall, or more often the case, an AI driver, the damage does provide you with battle scars, but little else, and there won’t be any need to repair your car, as it’s purely cosmetic. The collisions in general lack punch, oddly feeling more intense at slower speeds, as a fast collision can result in an almost pinball like effect on the other driver.
It’s easy to dismiss many of the aspects as just building upon a good foundation from previous Forza titles, but it doesn’t diminish the fact of how impressive it is that these systems have been adapted to work in open world gameplay. The cars feel as they should, the lighting it stunning, the vistas are often a sight to behold, though this has come at the expense of the framerate, which even though runs at a perfectly consistent 30 frames per second, is lesser than Forza 4’s silky smooth 60fps. The world itself offers up visual diversity, and even more impressive is the near complete lack of any pop-in, and unless you’re specifically looking for it, it’s near invisible. It’s hard to play more than a couple of races without hearing the fantastic soundtrack. With a number of genre based music stations on offer (complete with DJs), and music kicking in at just the right time during a race, it adds a huge amount to the atmosphere, and there’s a lot of it on offer, from that ever so loveable Dub-Step to more conventional Rock and Dance.
The Forza foundation has however brought along some of its downfalls, such as the lack of weather, and AI which occasionally gets confused just after a rewind, leading to some amusing crashes. The interior views of every car are impressive, and whilst it’s not to the level of the head-cam seen in Shift 2, there’s enough sway and movement to keep things interesting, and often you’ll be amazed at how realistic all the dials are when you’re driving at night time, all acting as they should.
There’s a constant meta game running underneath the entirety of Horizon, both during free roam and the actual racing events, all feeding into one points pot. The system is a more comprehensive version of what we previously saw in Project Gotham Racing, unsurprising, since Playground Games, the developer, are a new studio made up of ex-Bizarre Creations, Black Rock, Climax and Codemasters employees, all of which have produced some great racing titles. You start earning points through drifting, drafting, passing, jumping, high speed, trading paint, and even crashing through signs, whilst also earning special bonuses depending on how you string these together, for example you’ll earn a Slingshot bonus for passing just after drafting, or a Sideswipe bonus for hitting a sign after a drift. You earn multipliers for stringing moves together, and given a long enough space between moves, these points are deposited into your driver rank, beginning at 250th, as well as earning even more credits through the Sponsor challenge system. Since this system is running throughout, you always feel like you’re making progress towards your goals, challenging yourself to bank even more points.
Kinect and SmartGlass integration
Forza Horizon features both Kinect voice command integration, as well as the newly released Xbox SmartGlass applications. Through voice commands you can set a route to the next or nearest event, as well as the closest garage, instead of you having to use the map. It’s a nice addition, and works well, but since you’ll likely have the volume turned up high, the Kinect will have a hard time hearing you. SmartGlass works through having a map on your device, allowing you to achieve similar results by tapping where you want to set a route to. It’s again fun for a while, but you’ll need a friend beside you to utilise it the best.
Of course, the open world does feature many collectables and extra events for those you want to hit 100%, such as speed traps and zones, as well as discount signs to crash through, barn finds to collect famous cars, and even an achievement for driving on every bit of road, with the GPS and fast travel system add to the ease of use.
There’s a lot to do, for example I’ve put 17 hours into single player, and am currently sitting at around 60% competition. If you need a bit of extra cash for that particular car, you can even hop into spontaneous street races with other AI drivers who are cruising the world, so you’ll never run into that wall of halted progression.
Adding to the easy to get into nature, Horizon is full of little touches which make your driving career that much more comfortable, everything from allowing easy auto upgrades of your car before a race, or missed signs appearing on travelled roads, there’s just enough assistance to keep things interesting, but not overly much to make it simplistic. There are a couple of issues however, such as speed cameras sometimes proving tricky to find, or the deadly hedges that will stop you dead in your tracks, but nothing to ruin the experience.
Thankfully, the multiplayer suite is also very nicely presented, though as mentioned earlier, the lack of a track editor is almost criminal in an open world racer. A number of playlists offer a variety of racing modes, providing options for both car tuners and plain racing, as well as the hilarious Playground mode, throwing Cat & Mouse, Infected and King into a random playlist of crashing, insane tricks and just plain fun, resulting in long lost memories of Midtown Madness 3. The inability to upgrade your car to make it more competitive is however a little frustrating at times, though there’s always a rental car available if you don’t have something suitable. While separate from the single player, the levelling system provides you points for your position, number of players, and skill multiplier, rewarding you with cars and credits to use back in all game modes. Free roam is also on offer, providing the entire world to up to eight players to cruise and improvise their own game modes, though the challenges do add some variety by providing conditions with certain cars and routes.
Overall, Forza Horizon is a genre-defining racing game of this generation. Stretching the goal of approachability even further from previous entries, throwing in an open world full of events, collectables and fun. Complete with decent multiplayer offerings, there’s not a whole lot of bad things to say about the game. The omission of a track editor, as well as the weather and other niggles do bring up some valid issues, though the rest of the experience is so fine tuned, you’ll have a hard time picking on it. An amazing debut from Playground games, they’re sure to go far.