There are a few names that are synonymous with video game racing, most notably Burnout, Gran Turismo and Need for Speed. Over the past decade, Microsoft has elbowed its way into that exclusive club with its Forza Motorsport franchise, rivaling Sony’s Gran Turismo series as the high water mark for simulation racing on the home consoles. However, while the Forza series has always been extremely accessible, the fact that it is a simulation racer often scares more casual racing fans from trying it out, with them instead turning towards more arcade-like experiences.
The latest entry in the Forza series looks to bridge that gap. Offering a more arcade-like experience for more casual racing fans, Forza Horizon also maintains the hardcore Forza sensibilities for those that want it. It truly is the best of both worlds.
Forza Horizon is set against the backdrop of the fictional Horizon Festival, a racing/music extravaganza akin to Race Wars in the film, The Fast and the Furious, set in Colorado. This backdrop injects a loose sense of narrative, complete with flashy cutscenes, where the player is vying to win the festival. This narrative provides a greater sense of purpose than in other similar games and while it is a bit hokey at times, advancing in Forza Horizon feels rewarding because of this and it is a welcome change of pace from just driving for the sake of driving.
Another big change from the traditional Forza model is the implementation of a vast open world. Forza Horizon offers miles, upon miles of open road to explore with things to find all over the place, ranging from billboards to smash (for discounts on car upgrades) to hidden barns hiding classic cars to be restored. There are also a collection of speed traps and zones where cameras will log your speed, setting records for your friends to demolish in their own games. While all this extraneous stuff is reason enough to scour the countryside of Colorado, the open world holds all sorts of races to compete in and that is where the real meat of the game comes into play.
Forza Horizon offers up a trio of different racing events. Festival races are officially sanctioned races that provide points towards overall festival advancement. Street races provide unsanctioned events for large cash pots. And Showcase events are crazy one-off races pitting cars against airplanes, helicopters and hot air balloons, as well as more traditional racing fare like a mini-cooper rally. To enter Showcase events, players need to up their popularity level but winning these showcases grants you the exotic showcase car and a nice stack of cash.
Popularity is a key aspect of the Forza Horizon as the in game leveling system is tied to the style scoring. Reminiscent of Project Gotham’s kudos system, Forza Horizon’s leveling system keeps track of everything you do in the game. Drifting, drafting, hitting excessive speeds, even causing wanton destruction to the environment is kept track of and scored. Scoring is chained together by completing actions in succession and performing them cleanly.For instance. If you string together six cool moves in a row, you’ll snag a nice multiplier to increase your score for the combo but slam into a wall or a car and the points are gone. While the system encourages clean, fast driving for higher multipliers, because everything gives you points, the game never feels like it is attempting to punish you for being wreckless and slamming into everything.
This approach of rewarding good play but not punishing those less skilled is something that has long permeated throughout the Forza series but it is most evident here in Forza Horizon. Forza Horizon, like past Forza titles, uses an extensive system of assists that allow players to customize their gameplay experience how they see fit. Every assist that gets turned off, every difficulty level that gets increased, grants a credit bonus to the player upon completion of a race but those that need to drive with the assists on are not penalized for having used them and that makes for an easily approachable game that anyone wanting to race can jump into.
Like all Forza titles, Forza Horizon is loaded with a ton of great cars, over 140 to be exact. And while once again Porche is missing due to EA owning the licensing for that brand, nearly every other high-end sports car brand is available. Each of these cars offer color customization options and all feature cockpit views for those that like a slightly more realistic viewport. So you can look and feel like you are driving your dream car. More importantly though, the handling of each car feels drastically different and it is clear that the class, drive train and specific upgrades of each car weigh in to how exactly each vehicle handles. Best of all, the car stats really seem to matter and a Ferrari will always blow the doors off of a Honda Civic.
While much of the game is a joy, there are a few hiccups in the overall experience. The biggest is that the open-world is often times squandered with either closed circuit races or point-to-point checkpoint races. It seems like a giant waste of time to have such a grand open area to drive in and then be relegated to driving a certain line to get to the finish line. Considering Burnout: Paradise had races that allowed for freedom in choosing your route to the finish line, it is somewhat disappointing that neither Forza Horizon nor Burnout: Paradise’s own spiritual successor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted allow for this.
Additionally the multiplayer portion of the game is something of a missed opportunity as well. Instead of just throwing players into a free-roam environment everything needs to be selected via a multiplayer menu and even finding free-roam can be a bit of a hassle. That said, the different options for multiplayer racing are extensive and offer tons of fun, with prize money transferring between online and offline play.
And finally, one of the biggest positives in the Forza series are its extensive customization options via both tuning and the awesome skin system. Due to the nature of what Forza Horizon is, tuning takes something of a backseat in this game being being buried and limited in scope. And while decals and car skins are still a big part of the culture behind the Forza series, the limited storefront system, as compared to Forza Motorsport 4, is a bit of a let-down.
All-in-all though, the issues with the game do little to warp the final product, in fact, Forza Horizon is simply put, the best open-world racing game since Burnout: Paradise. Its scalable user experience offers the best of everything to everyone. The customization options, despite being limited, are still tops in their field. And the racing, the reason to play Forza in the first place, is phenomenal. There is so much good stuff packed into Forza Horizon, that fans of both arcade and simulation should be giving it a go.