Ever since its inception on the original Xbox, the Forza Motorsport series has been the de facto racing sim on the market, putting the previous simulation king, Gran Turismo, to shame with each iteration thanks to an outrageously large car list, the most realistic driving physics in video games and unsurpassed vehicle customization that has allowed players to create virtual works of art and even specifically tune their dream car exactly the way they’ve always wanted it to be.
Enter Forza Horizon. Not only is it the latest iteration in the venerable racing franchise, as the name suggests, Horizon signifies a bold new direction that Forza is heading in. With the “Motorsport” part out of the equation, Forza is ditching the track for the open road and the result will leave automotive enthusiasts very satisfied.
As mentioned, the biggest difference between Horizon and the previous four titles in the series is the fact that you never race on a track in a controlled circuit, instead you get free reign to drive around in a fictionalized Colorado, choosing to do just about anything you like with a car. This includes driving to specific races, challenging other drivers on the road to a quick battle, recording your top speed in specialized speed trap zones and even just challenging yourself to pulling off the longest drift possible.
By doing all of this stuff at your own discretion you advance through the game with the end goal being to achieve a number one ranking amongst all the drivers participating in a gigantic celebration of car culture called the Horizon Festival that serves to act as an excuse to progress you through the game as well as serve as a central hub so you know where to go when you want to buy a new car, customize/tune your existing car or join an online car club.
Another big change to Horizon is the actual development team that worked on the game. The previous entrants in the series were all created by Turn 10 Studios but for Horizon Turn 10 only acted in an advisory role and instead handed the keys to Playground Games, a studio that was founded by former employees of Codemasters, Bizarre Creations and Criterion Games – development houses that are famously known for creating the DiRT series, Project Gotham Racing and Burnout.
Elements from the games the Playground devs previously worked on is readily apparent in Horizon and that most noticeably comes from the progression system that is very reminiscent of Kudos in Project Gotham Racing. Basically for anything you do, be it draft an opponent, drift, get airborne, etc. the game rewards you with experience points that gradually rank you up. You’re also rewarded for dangerous driving such as nearly missing another car and driving extremely fast without braking, a feature extremely prominent in all of Criterion’s racers. Lastly, the rally pedigree that Codemasters has built up is seen in the way vehicles react to different road surfaces, adding a whole new level of realism to the driving experience.
As much as what’s changed with Horizon, the game is still a Forza title and if you’ve ever played any of the other ones you’ll find yourself playing a familiar experience – albeit in a vastly different setting. Since the game is based off of the same engine that powered Forza Motorsport 4 that same awesome driving experience has been kept intact. Every car feels different, as they should, and each of the over 150-plus vehicles (currently) in the game have been meticulously modeled so everything looks as close to the real thing as possible.
The clever difficulty options still remain the same where a player can put on as many or as few assists he/she wants to make the game easier or more difficult for them. Some of these options include whether or not you want ABS brakes, if you’d like to see the suggested racing line or if you want to drive with an automatic or manual transmission. The fewer assists you decide to put on, the more credits the game will reward you with to buy cars, parts and progress faster – giving players incentive to practice and get better.
By departing the track for an open world, one of Forza’s best features can finally be fully appreciated – the graphics. The scenic vistas of the Colorado that’s been recreated serves as an ideal backdrop for any car you want to drive around in and photograph. The power of the Xbox 360 is abundantly on display in Forza Horizon with many visual tricks including lens flares and high dynamic range lighting being used to make the cars look as sleek and sexy as possible.
Unfortunately, by losing the focus of the track, Forza’s online multiplayer has taken a bit of a hit. It’s possible to invite seven other friends into a separate open world where you can have fun driving around. But, for some reason, you can’t start actual race events with each other. A nice feature of the new multiplayer mode is the very cool cat-and-mouse-style co-op game.
Overall, Forza Horizon succeeds in taking the Forza brand in a new direction. Instead of just the reverence of the cars found in Forza Motorsport 4, Horizon is a grand celebration of car culture. For the first time, Forza has the capability of appealing to not just gearheads but to a general audience that happens to like cars and driving fast but isn’t necessarily interested in the technical side of things. This is an important point as there are many different kinds of automotive enthusiasts and by providing a fun-to-play experience in addition to the franchise’s signature hyper realism, Horizon can successfully capture the imagination of anyone who has stared longingly at a photo of a Lamborghini Aventador.
Long story short: if you like cars, you should play this game.