Developer: Turn 10 Studios/Playground Games / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Teen [Drug Reference, Language. Suggestive Themes]
Open world racing game and high-end performance cars, do those top-line descriptors sound like the Forza franchise? Certainly the highly detailed, spit-polished cars are a given. But what about live-action actors bobbing and bouncing through intermissions? How about personality-driven storylines? Radio DJs pumping out tunes and directions to the next big event? That has more of a Need for Speed flavor to it. And in this regard, Forza Horizon blends those elements into an expansive whole that provides a car enthusiast with slick rides, and also polished scenery to put them through their paces. It’s not without its foibles and glitches, but Forza Horizon packs in a ton of racing action and a broad suite of those expected customization elements to a package that keeps on giving.
Driving games. You get the gist by now. But for Forza, such a paragon of the driving arts over its history, Horizon feels different, plays more open, and changes gears in its presentation more than anything the franchise has offered before. A music and driving festival underpins the whole experience as you race around the occasionally winding, usually straight or just very slightly meandering roads of Colorado. You have a compere in your ear letting you know of newly available opportunities to race some of the established storyline studs, or even make you aware of some of the hidden details in this world that earn you credits when you find them.
The open world, drive anywhere experience is the real change-up to Forza‘s past. The game still keeps you, at least for the first several hours, pretty much within certain limits due to its steady doling out of new, improved cars. This progression was a little slow for me since–as is usually the case in this format–the first rides in your garage aren’t the sexiest. They also handle the most sluggish, and that means the early game is a little clunky.
The races themselves mix time trials, basic races, and time challenges against single or multiple other cars. That’s in addition to more esoteric challenges like racing a small plane or helicopter (how very Top Gear). What’s readily apparent is the varied handling characteristics, weight, acceleration, and braking distance of each of these car types. The muscle cars (Mustangs, Dodge Challengers) handle very differently from the lighter, sporty types (VW Golf and its brethren), and are far removed from the power players like Ferraris and Bugatti.
Steadily, challenges open up to let you drive some of the higher-end cars like the sports-powered Lexus and more. That at least provides a flavor of the later-game opportunities when, through upgrades you can purchase to your existing cars, or earning the top-tier in challenges, the handling feels more under your control. Forza Horizon really embraces drifting, and also racing rewards that maybe more familiar to the Burnout franchise such as near misses and sideswipes (performing all of which earns you credits). Much of the scenery is breakable (and again, you’re often rewarded for causing destruction on the sides of the road) but trees and lampposts are made of diamonds it seems, as they are immovable, even if you hit them at a couple hundred miles an hour.
The damage model also takes a little adjustment as you learn how obstacles like signposts impact your speed, swerving onto the grass can cost you vital MPH, and how head-on collisions with random traffic slows you way, way less than you probably deserve. (It was also curious how some of the lower-end cars appeared to get more battered with collisions than the higher-end variants–maybe a nod to the manufacturer requirements being stricter from those premium brands.)
Live action clips of partying twenty-somethings? That’s the hip new Forza, apparently. Those scenes set the stage for this festival atmosphere, but where some of the gameplay may have felt like a blend of Forza, Need for Speed, and Burnout, these elements conjured memories of Midnight Club. Even the occasional and thankfully brief animated cutscenes introduce characters and try to build a storyline of rivalries and competition. While it all looks good enough, it often feels like forced cool, when in a game like this the licensed cars themselves should provide all the cool necessary.
The cars themselves, as is usual for this franchise, shine with detail. It’s easy to spend a few minutes with every new ride, spinning the camera around to marvel at the detail. On the roads the up-close detail of asphalt and road signs are decent enough, but the backdrops of mountains and forests, bridges and dams are really impressive. A few challenges involve driving to a particular location and taking a snapshot of the scenery.
Like past Forza games the multiplayer component is a major part of the experience, and the tight integration of Rivals races can suck as much time as any of the others, particularly if your Friends list is populated with several other Forza players. After almost every challenge race against AI, you’re presented with the chance to race it again against the ghost of a friend’s time. Like most of these challenges, it’s utterly compelling as you see the ghosted car of a buddy (ahead of you, or behind you) taking the corners in his style, using the car of his choice for that event.
Of course, there are multiple race opportunities against other drivers that really showcase who understands the abilities of their cars, and the twists and turns of the tracks the best. Going into a race on a track you’ve never seen is asking for frustration. But the Forza community has traditionally been very enthusiastic, and very welcoming of other car fans.
The focus on community shines with the ability to take and share photos from within the game world, and edit (and share) car color and decals, many of which, even at launch, looked slick and stylish. And the library will only get bigger in the days, weeks, and months post-launch.
With this shift to an open world style, and storyline-driven progression, Forza has drifted into an area that the franchise probably requires, but isn’t expertly realized. The early game is the most challenging, just understanding the cars, their handling, and where best to race next to unlock a ride you actually want. About ten hours in it settles into a flow where you have enough cars to provide the flexibility to take advantage of the open world, explore, drive for fun, and pick and choose your next challenge. By then the multiplayer opportunities will beckon, and the lure of a passionate community should ensure plenty of opponents, customization, and lost hours.
While the car radio channels pump your choice of music and the festival styling provides a contextual backdrop for why you’re racing the roads of Colorado, Forza is still about the cars and their handling. In that aspect it delivers, and should satisfy series veterans, while introducing more casual racing game fans to a franchise that does cars great, and just needs to tighten its progression.
+ Cool cars
+ Interesting environment
- Slow pacing, tough start
8 / 10