OverviewPlatform: Xbox 360
Take a road trip in the first game from Playground’s racing all-stars.
Forza Horizon comes from a super-group of racing game talent. Playground Games in Leamington Spa is made up of former staff from Codemasters, Bizarre Creations and Black Rock. Amongst them, they have experience of working on GRID, DiRT, Project Gotham Racing and Split/Second. Their skill shows throughout this spectacular racing game.
The premise is set around the Horizon Festival, a massive music and racing event in Colorado, USA. Your nameless character arrives in his tired old VW looking to make a name for himself against the fictional celebrities who compete in the races. The game is held together by a forgettable narrative filled with lots of painful trash-talking and awkward voice acting. Very few of the characters are likable, most of them being terribly hip 20-somethings spending their parents’ money on supercars. Thankfully though, the story matters little and it’s the racing where Horizon excels.
You challenge for championship points in order to earn different coloured wristbands which open up more events for you to compete in. Most races are point-to-point or take place on small circuits created from Colorado’s streets. Many involve off-road sections too, though you are often asked to tackle these in completely inappropriate cars. In the real-world, taking a low riding sportscar on a rally would destroy it’s suspension in minutes.
These more traditional races are broken up by some good old-fashioned illegal street racing. These usually result in more aggressive driving from the AI cars, who certainly aren’t worried about forcing you off the road when the Horizon organisers aren’t watching during these unsanctioned events. You also have to contend with regular road users getting in the way, though crashes offer nothing like Burnout levels of spectacular carnage. In fact, the damage model is less impressive than Forza Motorsport 4 and has zero impact on car performance.
You can also flash your headlights at other Horizon drivers you spot as you are driving around the game’s massive open-world. This gets you into a quick one-on-one sprint race for a bit of extra cash. Sadly, you won’t find the MMO action of Test Drive Unlimited in this game. Other real drivers won’t appear in your world during free-roam. You have to specifically select the free-roam option in the multiplayer options to experience that. Perhaps this more persistent style of gameplay will appear in a sequel.
Horizon’s most unique races are the Showcase Events. In order to qualify for these showstoppers, you have to impress the Horizon sponsors will skilful driving. You can perform stunts at any time which earn you sponsorship points, basically the same as the much loved Kudos system from PGR. Stunts include drifting, maintaining high speed, destroying roadside objects, overtaking and having near-misses with other cars. Earn enough points and you’ll be invited to try out a new car in a race against an aeroplane or hot air balloon! These look fantastic, but the speed required to win is scripted so that you always cross the finish line just before the vehicle you’re chasing. That said, they still look utterly spectacular and you get to keep the car afterwards, which is a great way of adding classics like the Ferrari F40 to your collection.
Handling in Forza Horizon is straight out of the main Forza Motorsport series. For the most part, the physics seem to have been directly copied across from Turn 10’s games, though they have been made much more forgiving if you play with a standard Xbox 360 controller. The simulation is still solid, but correcting the car during a drift has been tweaked to make it easy to pull off spectacular moves. However, steering wheel users will find the driving much more difficult. In simulation steering mode, it becomes incredibly tough to control drifts with a wheel, creating a serious challenge for hardcore racers. The only disappointment is that because controller users are given more subtle assistance, steering wheel players will regularly be slower on the game’s leaderboards. This is the only racing game in recent memory where using a wheel actually makes you slower. This issue seems to be caused by slightly soft force feedback which doesn’t really give the driver as much information as you need through your fingertips. That said, travelling through the mountain roads of Colorado is incredible fun, with or without a wheel.
When you’re not concentrating on hard racing it’s worth taking some time out to cruise around the world and take in the spectacular sights. Horizon boasts some incredible landscape and the huge draw distances let you really appreciate the scale of the environment. Long drives up mountain roads are rewarded with perfect spots to stop and play with the game’s photo mode. All of the screenshots with this review were taken using the photo tools in game.
As you would expect from a game with Forza in its title, the cars are all modelled beautifully, including the working interiors. They still aren’t at Gran Turismo 5 “premium” level, but they’re mightily impressive given the 360’s aging hardware. The lighting has also been adjusted compared to Forza Motorsport 4. Colours appear to be more saturated and night racing has been introduced to a Forza game for the first time. Coming over the crest of a hill to see the Horizon Festival fireworks lighting up the night sky is a spectacular moment. You can even chase the sunset across Colorado in free-roam.
Horizon also comes with all of the online features which Forza is so famous for. Creating and sharing car liveries is as intuitive as ever, though tuning has been removed for this version of the game, so there are no setups to share with others. Multiplayer includes various racing lobbies using courses from the career. There are lobbies for beginners and veterans to help the balance of races, which is certainly a welcome addition. The levelling system has also been enhanced, rewarding you with cash and cars which carry over to the offline game. It’s a very similar online offering to previous Forza titles, but the extra rewards are a fantastic reason to come back more often.
Forza Horizon is an incredible start for Playground Games. The fingerprints of former DiRT and PGR developers are all over this exciting addition to the Forza franchise and though it certainly is flawed, Horizon is still a unique game which racing fans will not want to miss.