Racing games like to make a lot of statements. Photo-realistic car models, dynamic tracks and evolving course layouts, authentic engine sounds, revolutionary physics engines, human-like AI opponents. It’s the nature of the genre. Because all of these features are expected out of the best racing games, its no surprise that the good racing franchises are consistently held to the same standards. Racing games are constantly evolving, but rarely do they stray from the course.
Maybe that’s why Forza Horizon is so refreshing. There have been other open-world type racing games before (Test Drive Unlimited, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Need for Speed Underground), but none felt as alive as the Horizon Festival in Colorado does.
The Horizon Festival is the focus point of Forza Horizon, and you play the role of the prototypical unknown racer. You race your way into the last qualifying spot in the Festival, armed with a simple VW Corrado. It is during this scramble to the Festival that Horizon offers a glimpse of its potential. As your little Corrado zips along the winding plains of Colorado, you engage in brief position jockeying with rally cars, tuners, muscle cars and hypercars. The fact that you are going toe to toe with a Subaru Impreza and a vintage Chevrolet Camaro while a Ford GT whips past you is just a taste of how open the team at Turn 10 and Playground Games wants Horizon to be.
As you secure the last wristband in the Horizon Festival, you learn of the intricacies of advancing through the competition. Participating in Festival events earns you cash to purchase and upgrade cars as well as points to earn new wristbands. New wristbands unlock different tiers of events, increasing the challenge of the opponents and the complexity of the courses. Each tier is also represented by a fictional rival driver who races with a bit more aggression and a better ride than the competing field. Beating rival drivers net bonus cash rewards and ultimately a one-on-one challenge on the streets (traffic and all) for pink slips.
Racing events aren’t solely limited to Horizon sanctioned races. There are series’ of street races that net much higher payouts but are held on the open road with the complexity of route options and oncoming traffic. Whilst roaming between events, computer controlled cars will also be zipping on their own path, free to challenge. So if you really want to challenge a Porsche with a Mini, nobody’s stopping you.
But I have to give it to Forza Horizon, they really nailed Showcase events. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Top Gear, you may be familiar with racing challenges where they will face car against another mode of transportation. The show has used snowmobiles, hunting hounds, helicopters and wingsuit jumpers. The logic behind these races is less about the straight line speed of a car versus a plane, but rather because different paths are needed to traverse from point to point, how quickly each can do it in. A plane is obviously faster than a car in a straight line but needs significantly more space to change directions. Horizon’s Showcase events capture this thrill perfectly. In your first showcase event you are racing an old Ford Mustang Boss against a WWII era P51 Mustang. Crossing each checkpoint in this showcase is pure exhilaration as your car and the plane arrive at the checkpoint within milliseconds of each other. In truth, you have no idea how well you are doing in the race, all you know is that the plane’s course does not run in the same manner as yours does. Sometimes the plane is alongside you, sometimes perpendicular and often it is flying straight at you. Just hearing the buzz of the propeller racing up to you is enough to make you grip your controller just a little tighter. Best part about a Showcase event, is keeping the ride when you succeed.
In addition to racing to progress through the competition and earn money, there are also sponsor challenges that reward skillful driving. This includes drifts, high speed driving, drafting, dodging cars, jumps and even wrecking signs. Any of these skills can be chained to create combos, upping the bonuses to be earned. Skillful driving also increases popularity, which result in being offered more Showcase events.
Outposts are also scattered across the map and provide instant fast travel for a fee. By completing sponsor events at the outpost, you can reduce the fee until it becomes free of charge after completing three challenges. These three challenges are always a time trial from point-to-point, a photo shoot at a location (don’t scratch the ride) and lastly a stunt challenge to earn a set amount of points within the time limit.
Forza’s legendary physics model has been loosened up a little for the more aggressive driving in Horizon. Cars feel a little more responsive than before and are much quicker to initiate slides and drifts. This increased sensitivity makes the lower class cars much more fun to drive and the top tier cars even more challenging. When I jumped from my Focus RS500 to a Lexus LFA the sensitivity between the two was astronomical.
Races in Horizon are hectic as the AI opponents are much more aggressive than they’ve been in their Motorsport predecessors. They will fight for the inside corner and bump you around a little bit as you slow down for turns. The braking lines are still important, but tactical driving also means aggressive driving in Horizon.
The race courses really take on a new character too. Colorado’s twists and turns are proudly represented here as multiple types of terrain are utilized from tarmac to dirt to grass (and racing off the course doesn’t slow you down as much). This terrain variety was so heavily emphasized that the Horizon Rally DLC was created to add a bit of competition to Codemaster’s Dirt. I haven’t gotten the chance to play the Rally DLC yet, but I’m hoping for a marriage between Forza physics and Rallisport Challenge.
In addition to the steady supply of car packs that Turn 10 has steadily produced throughout Forza’s Xbox 360 life, they created the 1000 club DLC, a free DLC that provides multiple challenges for every car in the entire game. This is an incredible move by the developer that will certainly provide intrigue and motivation to take each car out for a spin.
Not that the cars themselves aren’t worth taking a look at. My garage at about 50% completion featured the aforementioned Lexus LFA, a Ferrari F40, the Bugatti EB110, a Lamborghini Diablo and a Jaguar D-Type. The game even features a nice little side diversion of barn finds where ultra rare cars (like the EB110 and D-Type) can be found and restored with just a little TLC. Cars can be upgraded in the typical Forza manner with minute tweaks and swaps to complete engine changes. Custom liveries can be purchased online by Forza’s already fantastic art community.
I actually approached Forza Horizon with a bit of skepticism. I was unsure that the franchise could make the leap from simulation to arcade-styled racer, and in truth, I was partially correct. Forza Horizon is not an arcade racer. But it is also not a simulation. It is a racer that just wants to be what it is; fun. It is a success in experimentation, a library of fine automobiles just getting out there and racing. Turn 10 was fearless in breaking away from the confines of the track and just letting the cars speak for themselves. That’s what Forza has always been about, the cars, the drive, the experience.
It is an experience that I not only reveled in, but wanted to live. I wanted to roll down my windows and feel that crisp Colorado air. I wanted to pull over on the side of the road and be like those animated people, taking pictures by a waterfall, having a picnic next to my car. It is a world that feels so distinctly alive, something I’ve never quite experienced in the otherwise sterile world of racing games. And ultimately that is what racing games strive to be, the ultimate driving experience, whose thrills make you feel alive.
9/10 A hugely successful game that always has something to do in a world teeming with life and excitement. Turn 10 has created a fantastic alternate series that can surely co-exist with Forza Motorsport.