Gamer: Forza Horizon

By Brandon Turkus

October 19, 2012

Forza Horizon is unlike any racing game that’s come before it. Don’t believe us? Let’s put it like this: how many racing games feature, for one of your first races, a point-to-point sprint between a 1970 Boss 429 Mustang and a vintage P-51 Mustang fighter plane? And do so with impeccable graphics? And a banging soundtrack? And semi-realistic physics? Right, that’s what we thought.
 
Forza Horizon is the latest in the Forza line of games. The formerly numeric titles of Forza 1, 2, 3, and 4 followed the same basic formula pioneered by Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo series: you start as a lowly dude with a smidge of money for a crappy car, who then travels to some of the finest tracks in existence, races, wins money, wins cars, and repeats the whole thing over (only with a nicer car this time). Forza improved on this formula with the size of its car collection (notably the inclusion of Ferrari and Lamborghini, two marques that evaded Polyphony until GT5), the breadth of tracks it offered, and the ability to dramatically alter the looks of the cars with different paint and custom decals, adjustable wheel sizes, and full engine and drivetrain swaps.
 
Gamer: Forza HorizonForza Horizon turns that tried and tested formula on its ear. The game starts you off with the SRT Viper cover car, a stunning yellow and black beast, chasing down a Ferrari 599XX as you near the entrance to the Horizon Festival. The Horizon Festival is a utopia of the best modern music (an oxymoron to old-timers, we’ll admit) and some of the finest four-wheeled conveyances ever built. It’s also apparently a pretty hot ticket, as you’re suddenly transported to the driver’s seat of a lightly modified Volkswagen Corrardo, with a voice on the radio talking about 10 open slots for the Horizon races.
 
From there, it’s a flat-out sprint to claim one of the 10 slots in the entry heat. Success finds you face-to-face with Alice Hart, the boss lady of Horizon and your stereotypical car-show hottie. Alice directs you to Dak Shepherd for a tech inspection, and before you know it, you’re given the location for the entry heat, just outside the main festival ground. Following this short, point-to-point race, Alice invites you to your first Showcase Event, the aforementioned Mustang versus Mustang race.
 
Once completed, you’re sent back to the Festival to claim your first wristband. Wristbands are the Horizon version of Driver Levels. Each Festival Event you participate in earns you points towards your next wristband.
 
Alice also gives you a quick briefing on popularity and how it’ll get you invited to more Showcase Events. Basically there are 249 drivers at the Festival. Your goal is to boost your popularity by showing off your skills through everything your driver’s education teacher and the local constabulary discourages (burnouts, drifts, power slides, close calls with civilian traffic, outright speed, and some light destruction). Each act is assigned a point value, and multiple acts can be chained together into combos that offer more points. Get enough points, and you’ll move up the popularity rankings and into even cooler Showcase Events.
 
Further, fans and sponsors alike love these random acts of hooning. Complete a certain number of drifts, for example, and G-Shock will give you a 5000-credit reward. Complete 25 drifts using the handbrake, and Oakley will give another 5000 credits. There are plenty of these sponsor challenges to bolster your bank account, with awards increasing for each sponsor level. Who says hooning doesn’t pay?
 
Gamer: Forza HorizonThe game properly begins once you’ve completed your first Festival Event. From here, your options are unlimited. As you may be able to tell just based on the handholding parts of Forza Horizon, this is not your standard Forza game. Things make an even bigger departure as you dive deeper into the wild world of Horizon.
 
Now, there are two ways of playing Forza Horizon. You can participate in the races, earn wristbands, and make some serious cash, or you can drive around aimlessly, and earn some serious cash.
 
Running races is perhaps the more familiar method of making money for most players, and is what we spent the first several hours of gameplay doing. Races, called Festival Events, are spread around Colorado, and take place on some of the 216 different roads that surround the Horizon Festival.
 
Using the roads around the festival instead of dedicated tracks certainly made for a more interesting racing experience. For a start, course layouts are rarely recycled. This makes it remarkably difficult to learn the track, almost necessitating using the driving line display. This feature shows the correct line around each track, including braking zones. It’s adaptable, showing exactly when to brake based on your current speed and other factors. We only used it sparingly in Forza 4, but it’s been on full-time in Horizon.
 
The other factor was the variety of surfaces. There’s the traditional smooth blacktop, of which Forza’s Colorado has a shocking amount, along with pure dirt roads, and a few mixed areas of asphalt and dirt. Races take place on every type of surface, making Horizon the first Forza game to introduce dirt racing.
 
You’ll be racing against seven other cars, and always starting at the back of the pack. This is in contrast to previous Forza games, where the Performance Index of each car determined the grid. Perhaps the biggest effect this has is that you’ll almost always be involved in the pile-up at the first corner.
 
Yes, there is a lot of crashing in Forza Horizon. This Talladega approach is in stark contrast to past Forza titles, where it required little to no effort to make it through a race with an undamaged racer. That being said, there was another factor in past Forza games that discouraged recklessly crashing into your opponents: expensive mechanical damage.
 
Gamer: Forza HorizonForza Horizon has done away with mechanical damage, though. While we initially bemoaned this fact, the more we played, the more it made sense. With races spread out across the map and the requirement that you drive to each race while sharing the road with other festivalgoers and civilian traffic, mechanical damage was an untenable feature. Wreck the engine on a far corner of the map, and you’d be in for a fairly long hike back to the festival or one of the 10 Horizon Outposts that act as automotive forward-operating bases.
 
Ignoring the trek to the race, participating in the Festival Events has its own hazards. We mentioned there was a lot of crashing during the races, and that’s because of the track layouts. Play Forza 4 at a track like Laguna Seca, and you’re treated to a wide, predictably leveled stretch of tarmac with rather large runoff areas. In Forza Horizon, though, the tracks are narrow, with little to no runoff areas. Add in the diversity of tracks, with their unpredictable elevation changes and the sheer unfamiliarity with the layout, and it’s a guaranteed recipe for crashing, regardless of skill level.
 
While this is a good deal of fun, it almost dumbs Horizon down, making it feel more like an arcade game than the simulator-like experience of older titles.
 
Tackling the public roads had its own set of challenges. Like the tracks, the roads are difficult to learn and feature a myriad of elevation changes, intersections, and unexpected turns. There’s no shortage of civilian traffic, easily identifiable by the duller cars (there are a ton of Priuses and Leafs in Colorado apparently). It wasn’t at all uncommon to cook it around a turn and spot a Prius hogging a lane of traffic. The inevitable crash doesn’t have any negative effect, unless of course, you were running up a popularity combo.
 
There are also the illicit street races that can bring in even more money. There are two ways to approach this. A street racing hub can be found in a nearby city, allowing you entry into a race. You can also challenge other racers you run into on the road. Pull up alongside, hit the challenge button, and you’ll start a point-to-point race. Rewards are based on how much better or worse your car is. Race some poor soul in an old GTI while you’re driving a Ferrari F40, and you won’t make a lot of money. Flip that equation, and you might be earning a great deal of cash.
 
The driving itself is quite enthralling. The game’s physics are good, and the variety of roads really highlights how the different cars behave. Take a stock car like a Subaru Impreza WRX STI over a crest at speed, and you can almost feel the suspension expand and compress. Run along the same road, at the same speed with an upgraded suspension, though, and the difference in car behavior is palpable. It feels more planted and stable, with more predictability in its handling character.
 
Gamer: Forza HorizonUndersteer and oversteer both feel realistic, and can be countered in the same manner as in real life. Grip levels are quite true to life, with elevation changes and variability in the camber of the road having a direct effect on how much grip you have at your disposal. We did have an issue with oversteer, though. Running with the traction control off, there were still times where it felt like stability control was reigning in the power. It was usually at lower speeds, but mid-drift, it was almost like we couldn’t lay down any power. It’s a frustrating thing, this.
 
Of course, the physics and racing are only a small part of the game. Graphically, Horizon is excellent. The car interiors aren’t as obsessively rendered as in FM4, and the overall feel of the cabins is somewhat lessened as a result. The exteriors of the cars look rather good, but it requires that you get into the paintshop to realize just how beautifully rendered the exteriors are. Light falls on the cars in a familiar manner, creating the same kind of shadows you’d expect in the real world.
 
Where Horizon really shines is with the scenery. The vistas are truly excellent. Running through the Red Rock area at the right time of day feels like running your favorite canyon road, with detailed scenery and dynamic lighting. The inclusion of day/night cycles is a first for the series, and while it’s not quite as well executed as Gran Turismo 5, it’s still very well done.
 
Music has been a weak point in racing titles. Usually it’s just too eclectic, lacking in big names and familiar songs. That is just not the case in Horizon. Centering around a music festival, it should come as no surprise that Turn 10 Studios rolled out the A-list for Horizon’s soundtrack. There are three radio stations, all put together by BBC Radio 1’s DJ Rob da Bank (Radio 1 listeners, your author included, should be familiar with his skills). The result is easily the finest soundtrack for any racing game, bar none. Music is meant to enhance the motoring experience, and that’s exactly what this soundtrack does.
 
As for the automotive sound effects, Forza’s traditional excellence continues. Cars sound as close to the real thing as most video games can hope to get. Slapping a racing exhaust on a Jaguar XKR-S is almost as ear-pleasing as driving the real thing. Tire noise does sound a bit exaggerated, though. That’s not a huge downer, but it does take a bit away from the overall experience.
 
We had other small issues with Horizon. The car selection is remarkably poor for a modern racing game, but is something we expect to improve massively as downloadable content becomes available. In fact, it’s Turn 10 Studios’ record with DLC that makes the Forza games so appealing. It’s not great now, but if past games are any indication, it’ll improve with time.
 
Gamer: Forza HorizonPerhaps our biggest gripe with the game came when we needed to tune our cars. The upgrade paths follow a similar progression as FM4, but the two games digress in a key area. Past Forza games allowed fine-tuning of vehicle components. Running a tight, twisty track? Tweak your gear ratios for acceleration. Is the track bumpy? Soften your suspension accordingly. Forza Horizon offers no such fine-tuning. We can think of no reason why this feature wasn’t included, particularly because downloadable vehicle setups were one of the big draws of the online Forza community.
 
We had several instances in cars where we’d wished we could tweak the suspension to dial out oversteer, or adjust gear ratios for better top speed or acceleration. The bumpiness and elevation changes of some tracks had us absolutely screaming for a softer suspension at times.
 
While not perfect, Forza Horizon is a very welcomed addition to a highly successful franchise. It takes nearly everything that made Forza Motorsports 4 successful, and adds a legitimate and exciting culture that few racing games are able to truly capture. It is the Need For Speed game Electronic Arts wishes it could make. For that reason alone, this is a game that you want to have in your library. Forza Horizon is for Xbox 360 and goes on sale on October 23. Pre-orders are currently being accepted.