Veering sharply away from Forza’s usual strictish racing simulator style towards a more Need For Speed style thrasher, Forza Horizon was always bound to polarise opinions. Forza faithful are likely to feel a little out of sorts early on as they’re bombarded with trendy people telling them that the most important thing in the world is to get more popular with the trendy people at the trendy Horizon music and car festival.
The first challenge is to win a heads-up race against a bunch of other cars to win the final entry to the Horizon races. That achieved, you’re thrown head first into a world of stereotypes who’ll exhort you to do silly things to gain popularity. I’ve still yet to decide whether the awkward caricatures that populate Horizon are intentionally absurd and hilarious or just poorly written. They’re mostly easy enough to ignore, and even someone like myself who’d rather wear a fresh scalp than a flat peak hat can look past the douchebag aesthetic and get down to some racing.
Playground Games have obviously spent a lot of time carefully balancing the driving model between the Forza hardcore and the Need For Speed / Test Drive arcade feel. The handling physics are immediately more forgiving than in more serious Forza games, which is something of a necessity in the open world setting with its traffic and other obstacles. They haven’t gone too far to the arcade side though; it’s quite easy to get a car into an unrecoverable tank-slapper, or to wash off valuable pace with showy drifts, which rack up the popularity points, but are not typically the fastest way to negotiate a corner, unlike in many other arcade racer titles. The feeling of speed is impressive, if sometimes heavy-handed, with the field of view narrowing and starting to shake and blur at very high speeds, rather moreso than in Forza Motorsport 4 Like previous Forza titles though, the cars respond in a realistic way. While they’re easier to drive this time around, they behave like actual cars, rather than the scifi rocket sleds that most arcade racer handling models seem to be based on.
Forza Horizon is set in a large area representing the state of Colorado, with the Horizon festival at its centre. There are hundreds of roads stretching for thousands of kilometres, but over the course of the game you’ll come to find much of it familiar. Races are mostly staged on closed sections of road, in both point to point and circuit formats. There are also “illegal” street races and one on one challenges on open roads. The lengthy load times are something of an annoyance when the race being loaded is typically in the same spot as where you’ve just parked up. Not that there’s much that can be done about that on this generation’s hardware.
Navigation is by a usable if inflexible GPS style navigation system, which superimposes the familiar Forza racing line on the road, leading to your destination. It’s quite an elegant solution to the problem of driving very fast over unfamiliar roads. There’s also a fast travel feature, usable between unlockable Horizon Outposts, but I very rarely used it. I happen to enjoy driving places.
The graphics are suitably impressive, and while they lack the outright detail of Forza 3 and 4, the expansive views of Colorado and the addition of a rather spectacular day-night cycle more than make up for that. The scenery has clearly been arranged with that in mind, with some spectacular views on offer to distract you from the important matter of keeping the round black things on the flat grey bit.
Winning races accumulates championship points which act more like an experience bar, filling up to a maximum in each level, unlocking new races at each. The levels are represented by colour coded wrist bands, and each level has its nemesis who you get bonus points for beating in races. The nemeses are probably the most cringe-worthy of all of Horizon’s characters. Each is the undisputed master of his or her wrist band class, and they’re all total dicks about it. Even when you’ve beaten one of them in six consecutive races, they’ll wonder aloud at how you think you can compete at their level, and imply that it’s barely worth their time to race you. As villains go, they’re not what you’d call imaginatively written.
The other progression stat is popularity. You start out dead last among Horizon’s 250 entrants, and rack up points by doing… pretty much anything. Destroying property, drifting, driving very fast, not quite crashing into other cars, only just crashing into other cars, handbrake turns, J-turns, et cetera, et cetera. These can be chained together with multipliers for some big points. The accrued combo points are only lost if you crash heavily, or rewind. There’s an implication that getting to the top tier of racing without maxed popularity would be a bad thing, but I must just be naturally popular or something, as I hit most popular several races before the big showdown with the kind of the nemeses, the dorkily named Darius Flynt.
Outside the festival races there is a bit to do around this strange version of Colorado. There are always other Horizon racers driving around, and you can challenge them to point to point races whenever you encounter them. Each Horizon Outpost has a set of three PR stunts – driving challenges – to complete for popularity points and money. One of them always involves driving a car to a nearby landmark (without damaging the car too badly) and taking a photo. I enjoyed taking the worst possible photo and bathing in the effusive praise from the Horizon organiser about my amazing photography skills. There are numerous speed cameras dotted around Colorado, but rather than dishing out fines, they keep leaderboards of the highest speeds attained. Most speed cameras are the instant type familiar to NZ drivers, but there are also speed zones, which record an average speed over a section of road. This can turn into a rather competitive rivalry with others on your friends list.
Horizon continues the no doubt lucrative tradition of monthly car packs, and also gameplay expansions. The rally expansion is out now, with hints that there’s more to come. The initial car roster is nothing like as extensive as that of other Forza titles, though the range is pretty good and there can be said to be something for everyone.
Multiplayer is a laugh, though more modes would be nice. A complete inability to connect to friends’ games somewhat ruined the experience for me, since pub matches tended to be laggy and full of Americans.
Other issues include the radio stations. Being quite bloody minded about music, I kept my radio set to Horizon Rocks; the least upsetting of Horizon’s three radio stations. Unfortunately, on loading at the start or end of a race, or having done some tuning or whatever else, the station can randomise. Not an issue if you’re on the road, but if it’s the start of a race it’s a little dangerous to be changing stations through the first few corners. For some reason, the radio takes a longish press on the D-pad to change, and seems to have a cooldown of several seconds.
Overall, Forza Horizon is quite an excellent open world racing game. It’s a bit silly and occasionally annoying, but that’s more than made for by the involving driving model and pretty graphics.