Forza Horizon Review
There's a serious problem with the variety of racing games you can get on your console or PC, and few developers seem to want to do anything about it. Serious sims on PC are extremely meticulous in their physics and handling, but amateur modders are left to add unofficial versions of real cars because the developers can't afford the license fees that major manufacturers charge. And the publishers that can handle those costs are either making arcade-style games, or they're releasing console-exclusive sims that sometimes are a bit weak on the physics and simulation, but they've at least got production values and huge rosters of cars behind them. Somewhere in between those two, we've seen a certain type of games that try to bridge the gap between arcade and sim come and go: Test Drive Unlimited and Need for Speed Shift are the two mini-franchises that each had a couple of entries, and they haven't been seen again since.
Now, Microsoft and Turn 10 Studios have decided to try and solve this problem, and they've tried a little new with Forza Horizon. They've hired British developer Playground Games - made up of people that worked on racing franchises like Project Gotham Racing, Grid, and more - to make a game that tries to meld in the great handling feel of Forza with a large outdoor world to explore and drive on all you want. Horizon winds up compromising on a hell of a lot of things that makes the Forza franchise great to deliver on a much smaller set of features, but those features may just grab you in a way that a track-based racing game would never accomplish.
Horizon centers around a festival in Colorado where people apparently illegally tear around the countryside at ridiculous speeds all day, and dance to dubstep all night. The game's got a silly premise and it's full of that fake in-your-face attitude we've all come to make fun of in the Need for Speed series, and yeah, we even have a young, generic, brown-haired silent Caucasian male in a plain white T-shirt as the protagonist. You won't get too many glimpses of your stereotypical d-bag "hero" as he only gets out of a car in cutscenes and you don't really do anything but drive when you're in control, but I guess this is just one of those tropes we won't be getting away from any time soon.
Anyway, you show up in a hoopty, get into the tournament by the skin of your teeth, are given a glimpse of the guy you're eventually expected to beat in order to win the Horizon festival's tournament, and set off to drive out to races, complete them to win cars and money, and keep coming back to the festival to buy new cars, upgrade them, and more. You'll have the choice of several events at pretty much all times, and when you set one as a waypoint on your map, you'll still have to drive out to the starting point. Sure, there's a fast travel option if you want it, but it costs a hell of a lot of money early on, so it's best to drive out there and maybe on the way you'll get to do a bit of sightseeing, maybe hit up a race with someone you find out on the road, and possibly knock down some of those special signs that slowly build you up to a huge discount on upgrade parts for your cars. If none of this sounds anything like Forza at all - if you're wondering whether you accidentally stumbled on a review for a different racing game entirely - don't worry, you're in the right place. Just try and bear with me.
The choice of Colorado for Horizon's setting was fantastic, and while this doesn't map out some large section of the real-world geography to race on, the version of it that Playground Games created and cobbled together is a blast to drive on. They've made it just big enough that you won't feel constrained by borders, and it's small enough that you can get from one corner to another without getting bored of the drive. It does help that other racers are out all over the road, and you can challenge them to a race on the spot when you come near them - and all this time you'll be dodging the regular traffic that sparsely populates nearly every road on the map.
At this point, I should stop going all wild and crazy with this new content and bring it back to answer this question: Is this really a Forza game? It's a spinoff game not made by Turn 10, but yes, it is Forza. You've got a stable of hundreds of licensed cars, you've got the same driving aids that can be tweaked as in FM4, great online play with tons of fun modes that aren't just races, an excellent suite of paint and decal creation tools, the chance to make and share photos of your cars in action, pretty much the same car handling and physics you expect from Forza, and a similar upgrade system.
The same attention to detail in the lighting and in the cockpit view are here as well, while the game adds a day-night cycle for night racing as well as a larger expanse to make for some very long races if you want. Unfortunately, the terrifyingly amazing night racing seen in the Need for Speed: Shift games hasn't been fully resurrected here, as Playground elected to make nighttime still pretty bright - hell, you barely even need headlights at night to see. On the upside, this means you can drive at night without being worried about opening up the throttle, but the downside is that those high-stakes night races where you can barely see anything outside of ten feet of asphalt in front of you, the brake lights of the leader just ahead, and the headlight glare of the guy behind you bearing down on you - well, Forza Horizon doesn't really go that far with it. On the one hand, I'm a bit relieved, but on the other, I can't help but be a just a little disappointed.
One thing you won't be let down by is the number of things to do in this game, especially if you play online. There are a ton of events to do, impromptu races against the AI you can set up, crazy events that will remind you of Top Gear's silly car-versus-plane races and the like, and while we're not seeing anything remotely like 500+ cars on day one like we have in other racing games, Horizon does include that loving detail and unique feel and sound of every car in the list. Too many times I've seen AAA racing games come out with about fifty licensed cars, half of which all handle about the same way. That doesn't happen in Horizon, and that alone will already be considered a pretty big victory by some. But going beyond that, the game also includes dozens of driving surfaces you'll have to deal with, most notably the races where you switch between dirt and tarmac repeatedly. Cars with bad handling are just not terribly welcome in off-road races, while those with AWD and/or a lighter weight are much easier to deal with.
I found some annoyances with how Horizon structures its events and lays out its map. The developers are trying to get people in the habit of driving everywhere, but sometimes Horizon separates you physically from some of the things you might want to change. Sick of sliding around in that ridiculous old Mustang? You can change cars, but only at certain stations lightly scattered throughout the map. Want to do manual car upgrades? Gotta drive back to the center of the map to the shop. Things like this aren't that big a deal inside the scope of Horizon itself, but for Forza veterans, the annoyances can pile up.
The game itself has been made more forgiving in how your car interacts with the rest of the world. Rewinding your mistakes at pretty much any point in time is still here and it works mostly like what you remember from previous games, while damage has now been scaled back to only be cosmetic. Additionally, collisions with oncoming traffic means only a small loss in speed, rather than the huge crash you might expect. Tuning your car's many smaller statistics - gear ratios, camber, and the like - has been axed as well, leaving the upgrade system as the only way to really configure a car's speed and handling. The end result is that you're getting most of what you expect from Forza's cars, but they almost seem to reside in what feels like someone else's game. That is most certainly going to be an appealing idea to a big chunk of racing fans, but I'm not sure that this sort of line-straddling is really going to be any more successful than, say, the upcoming Criterion-made NFS Most Wanted remake. One game I do think it was a good idea to mimic was one of the developers' previous titles, Project Gotham Racing. You'll now gain points for near-misses, drifts, and the like, all of which add up to increasing your Horizon-wide ranking. Winning races still has the vastly larger effect on your ranking, but building up points with small challenges and such is very helpful. Early on, I was worried about the game trying too hard to encourage destruction - because if there's one series that any Forza game (even a spinoff) shouldn't try too hard to mimic, it's Burnout - but I found that it's not a big deal. You get vastly more points by not hitting things rather than purposely hitting them.
Visually, Forza Horizon is fantastic, with great depictions of great Colorado wilderness, canyons, mountains, and all the small towns and winding roads in between, and it all looks equally amazing at dawn, midday, evening, and at dusk. There's one downside, though, and it's a pretty big one: this is the first game with the Forza name on it to not run at 60 frames per second. Yep, we're locked at 30fps, and while the frame rate is usually rock-solid and the developers also got the chance to flex the 360's GPU a bit by enabling antialising at all times, for me the 60fps thing is just difficult to deal with. It took me a couple of hours to get used to racing at 30fps - after all, I'm primarily a PC gamer and strive to run as many games as possible at 60 - and once I felt used to it, I popped Forza 4 back in and was blown away at the fluidity and smoothness of its 60fps racing. Simply put, for me, playing a racing game at 30fps is something to be endured, and I feel like even a pretty great game like Forza Horizon doesn't get a pass. I understand that there are some serious hardware limitations that forced them to do this, but I can't help but think that maybe this game came at the wrong time or on the wrong hardware. Maybe all of Playground's new features could have been somehow wrapped up into Forza 5 on next-gen hardware, all without the many compromises that Horizon imposes. It might be silly to speculate on these things, but I really do look forward to the day when Forza can be a full-on sim while still allowing players to explore some open roads, too.
I've mixed together a lot of negativity with my praise in this review, but I do want to come back to the notion that there's nothing really like Forza Horizon out there right now, as the wide-open world to explore and solid handling of the Forza franchise come together beautifully. Yes, Playground and Turn 10 had to compromise on what feels like a rather hefty list of features and selling points in order to make Horizon a reality on Xbox 360, but the relatively few new things this game includes add up to a massive impact on how it's played and enjoyed. Forza Horizon is not ideal for all fans of the Forza series, but it also will be able to pull in fans of other racing game franchises that couldn't deliver serious racing in a large environment. Playground Games and Turn 10 may have had to tighten their belts and cut features some gamers consider crucial for a racing game to bring racing out into the wide-open roads of Colorado, but the most vital feature of them all - the ability to drive a distinct range of beautiful cars in semi-realistic fashion - was never taken off the table. Just for that, racing fans owe it to themselves to give Horizon a fair shot.
Disclaimer: this review was based on a retail 360 copy provided by the publisher.