Review: Forza Horizon
Forza Horizon is the next progression in the long-standing and successful series, first brought to gamers via the original Xbox. Over its last couple of iterations, the series has become a flagship title for the 360, offering unparalleled simulation driving, as well as captivating online multiplayer. Horizon is a side-step (dubstep?) to the established order, veering away from the traditional racing of previous titles as it attempts to edge its way into the mainstream end of the driving genre. Does Horizon have what it takes to carve a successful racing line for itself?
Turn 10 has always prided itself on pushing Forza’s host hardware graphically, and Horizon is no exception. The ageing 360 hardware is showing hidden depths in its autumn years, and British developer Playground Games (in association with Turn 10) should be greatly commended for bringing them to light. Of the many vehicles on offer, all are rendered with loving care, inside and out. The dashboard views are genuinely a sight to behold – even if it isn’t your preferred driving view, it’s worth having a gander inside to see the attention to detail that has been made. Every curve of auto exotica is captured, and with surprising clarity – you’ll be hard pushed to find any unsightly graphical chips on the paintwork. The impressive visuals don’t just stop with the cars, as the sprawling open world streams into view in glorious autumnal shades. Detailed urban, industrial and rural areas mean that you’ll often fire through all manner of interesting areas on the hunt for first place – whether it be streaming through a corridor of trees shedding their leaves, firing down the I-70 freeway at eye-melting speed or glimpsing the distant fireworks popping over at the Horizon festival site, it all shines with great polish and attention to detail.
With a focus on mainly street racing, events are presented in more of an ad-hoc style to the traditional Forza experience. Presented in a quasi-legal manner, races are organised affairs which are dotted across the map. Participating (and winning) earns you points, and getting enough points earns you a wristband, which increases your respect and thus allows you to gain entry to more events, with the ultimate aim of being the top of the pile. You’ll start out small as the underdog, but progression is steady and the races restricted in certain ways by class, age or type of car. This at least means you can’t fire through all of the events in an overpowered monster car and dust the game off in under 8 hours, and that you’ll feel like you’ve earned your rewards.
Running alongside the standard points grab is popularity. This is gained by performing various actions as you drive (drifting, near misses, excessive speed, air, etc), and can be earned both during events and while cruising the open world. It’s good to see the indicator fill up and chart your progress, but unfortunately it doesn’t really lead anywhere other than an achievement for your efforts. There is no sense of progression other than a numerical rating (you’re aiming to be number 1, of course), and the only indication outside of this that you’re making a difference is the race organiser letting you know how close you are to a certain ranking position. And when it’s done, it’s done – you’ll remain in the top spot, and the indicator will still flag up your actions, but no more progress bar/reason to gun for those chained actions to gain combos makes for a short and shrift part of the game that’s over way before it’s finished. I had earned the top spot well before the credits rolled. I imagine that metering out the rewards might have spread it out more effectively across an average player’s career run.
Off from the beaten track, you’ll receive offers to join in with less-than-legal street races, away from the festival. Apart from the way they are presented to you, there isn’t really all that much to differentiate them from the regular racing events. If you’re expecting to find a mode where you can gamble away swathes of cash or the pink slip to whatever you’re driving at the time, you’re out of luck. This feels like a missed opportunity, as it could have offered a genuine sense of risk/reward to proceedings. Other sideline activity comes in the form of Showcase events, which you’ll have to attend, if only to fan off the race organiser from continually hassling you to join in the fun. These offer more of a unique twist, as you find yourself racing bi-planes, hot air balloons and so on. This is more of an interesting twist than the street races, but could have fared better had they been incorporated into the main career path to mix things up a little.
If you aren’t the greatest of virtual racers, there is a way to even the score – AI difficulty can be amended on the fly, prior to any event – so if you’re constantly grinding the crash barriers or rolling your car on the last corner, there’s a chance to try again, albeit with a reduced cash/points reward bonus for your troubles. This also applies to other facets of the driving experience, allowing you to dial up the simulation by disabling certain driving aids, but this is aimed more perhaps at the enthusiast crowd using a dedicated steering wheel and pedal setup. You won’t be heavily penalised for using the aids, and things will only feel like a grind if you’re really terrible at the game (full disclosure: I wasn’t terrible at the game… most of the time).
A rewind feature is offered, in a similar vein to Racedriver GRID (2008), which allows you to dial back the clock a few seconds from that head-on collision that just lost you the race, to give yourself another try at getting it right. Again, the only downside to enabling this is a few percent off any rewards earned, so it’s not particularly detrimental. It certainly saves re-attempting a tough, drawn-out point to point race all over again. Also, it can be used as often as you like, with no further penalty for doing so.
Multiplayer is a mixed bag, and as is the case with most online racing, it lives or dies on the quality of the participants you’ll be thrown in with. The usual race modes make an appearance, but for the most part you’ll find that any race is winnable by holding back from the first corner, witnessing the ensuing multiple pile-up, then cruising off to victory. Playing with friends can be a different story entirely, as long as everyone plays by the rules… which is never a guarantee!
Free Roam is also possible in multiplayer, where you’re offered a batch of co-op challenges to complete, a la Burnout Paradise (2008). These mainly take the form of vehicle-specific point to point runs, which may or may not have to be completed between certain times of day (between sunrise and sunset, for example). Unfortunately, trying to organise them is akin to herding cats. Although it has only been a week from release, many players either fail to understand how to set up the challenges, or don’t actually care for them. Most lobbies (at least the ones witnessed) descend into a pseudo-demolition derby, which often ends up with a hasty retreat to the lobby selection screen. A lack of effective sign-posting for the challenges doesn’t help matters much either – most expect you to know where certain locations exist on the sprawling map, but few are clear and you’ll find yourself retreating to gamefaqs before you’ll consider combing the entire world, road by road.
The overall presentation of the game uses the oft-utilised/much derided ‘yoof culture’ approach, traditionally associated with racing games which take great pride in the roots from which they are influenced, but few manage to pull it off without coming across as a tedious distraction that prevents players from getting on with the business of racing. Horizon is one of the rare exceptions where in-yer-face dubstep and colourful presentation makes for a good fit. It makes sense in the context of the car culture it seeks to emulate, keeping things bouncy and light rather than clinging on to the stern tone of more ‘serious’ racers.
The cold yet authoritative presentation that makes sense in Forza 4 (2011) would not have been the right fit here. For those who do not feel so inclined to position themselves within the demographic the game strives for, the handful of ‘radio’ stations can be disabled, and something more fitting can be booming through the speakers along with the roar of your engine. Whether your preference is Skrillex or The Stones, that F40 will still purr and roar with fine tone regardless.
Forza Horizon is a surprising yet welcome entry in the Forza series. Far from being the black sheep, it offers a genuinely enthralling racing experience alongside its more established brethren. Newcomers will derive hours of enjoyment from its charms, and even long-term Forza purists will find themselves succumbing to the fantastic vehicle designs and accurate recreation of a visceral driving experience. Occasional bug-bears mostly inherent to the driving genre aside, Horizon is a more than welcome addition to the 360’s catalogue so late in its lifespan, notably so with the next generation hanging right on the 360’s rear tailgate. Playground Games have created a fitting swan song for the current gen, and a great foundation to improve and enhance a new strand of the series for those willing to invest in the next generation.