This review was contributed by Cian Hassett.
Open-world driving, for the most part, is a bit of a failed experiment. I say that because Test Drive Unlimited never really achieved its goals, and Burnout Paradise was rather underwhelming. When the motor junkies over at Criterion can’t create a truly great, free-roaming racer; you’d be forgiven for assuming that Playground Games would follow that disappointing trail of failures. They’re a brand new entity, much like Forza Horizon. What we have here is neither a sequel nor a follow-up to Forza Motorsport 4, quite possibly the greatest racer of the generation. Rather, Horizon really is an experiment, a risk, a brave move to try something new with a franchise at the peak of brilliance. This would be a recipe for disaster in most cases, but Playground’s roster (including ex-staff from Codemasters and Bizarre Creations) has not only made Forza Horizon one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, but also one of the best racers of 2012.
Even with a new developer at the helm, there are certain things that are commonplace within the Forza universe and Horizon is no different in that respect. While the core structure of the game is considerably different, the immediate impact of the visuals is truly breath-taking. Horizon is positively gorgeous, oozing quality at the apex of every turn. Everything shimmers and glows and reflects and bounces off the screen like you’d expect it to. Instead of the familiar looping circuits of last year, now we have a huge space to drift around. Horizon‘s setting is Colorado, a territory full of beautiful open roads carved through mountains and lowland plains. There’s plenty of variety here with different types of roads and locations. One minute could find you roaring past a geyser in a Bugatti Veyron, the next minute you’re likely to be found cruising along the main road of a quaint little village.
Horizon‘s scale is by no means staggering, but it’s plentiful enough to give you the sense that you’re in full control of the world. This is the most clearly defined difference with Forza Horizon – it gives you an unparalleled sense freedom without much effort. Previously, we had been restricted to predetermined routes through iconic circuits. Now, all of that has been thrown out the window. To enjoy the beauty of Horizon requires little or no motivation because you’ll automatically want to explore what’s on offer. And even if you’re not exploring, simply driving is a pleasure in and of itself. Wake up in the morning, drive from dawn through until dusk, and at night you’ll catch a glimmer of energy right at the epicentre of Horizon‘s soul.
The game begins as you assume the role of a nobody, a racer without a name or a rank. Fortunately for you, that changes when you’re granted access into the ‘Horizon Festival’. That glimmer of energy I just mentioned was a reference to the atmospheric side of the experience. Driving at night and witnessing the fireworks and noise radiating from the festival is a glorious sight. In that sense, the air of excitement surrounding Horizon is akin to DiRT 2, but this is delivered in a much more precise and confident manner. Within the festival hub, you can access a range of different options. Players can set up clubs to share the wonders of Horizon, customise your vehicle of choice, browse through the luxury auto-mobiles that you’ll never be able to afford and, of course, get further information on all of the latest festival happenings.
In terms of structure and pacing, Horizon‘s story in the lengthy solo mode is essentially non-existent, but never truly forced upon you so it’s completely irrelevant. This is a good thing. Progression is staggered through a ‘wrist band’ process; completing enough races and gaining enough experience will earn you a new colour, opening up even more races. This pattern continues until you hit the top of the ladder. It’s very basic and entirely unoriginal but it more than serves its purpose and nicely complements what Horizon is trying to achieve. The races themselves are quite different however, not only in terms of handling and physicality, but also in terms of sheer stupidity. Outside of a typical race, Horizon will often pit you in a battle against aeroplanes and hot-air balloons; a nice little distraction at first, but one that inevitably grows old. The bulk of the content is found through both festival races and unsanctioned street races. If you’re racing for the festival, you’ll have to deal with technically complex routes, whereas the ‘illegal’ side of Horizon is completely open with no restrictions. While initially frustrating (as you’ll often end up taking the wrong turn), the freedom adds an extra layer of drama to proceedings as even the most experienced drivers can make mistakes, allowing races to explode into life.
Horizon is easily the most accessible Forza title to date, and that’s largely due to the tweaked mechanics. It’s not a fully fledged simulation, but it’s not exactly an arcade racer either. Horizon lies somewhere in the middle ground, and benefits because of it. The usual assists are in place here and they can be toggled to increase or decrease the difficulty, but don’t expect to find the hardcore physics of past Forza titles in here. Every car has a nice, unique weighty feel to it, so when you ram into an opponent, it genuinely feels like you’re doing some serious damage. While the driving is noticeably more aggressive (this is particularly evident online), it’s easily the most forgiving Forza so far. Driving across the grass in order to gain a cheeky advantage won’t cripple your speed, and even slamming into a wall won’t spell disaster because a decent recovery is nearly always possible. Depending on your stance, that could be the reason why you’ll fall in love with Horizon, but it could also be the reason why you’ll hate it. Personally, I love it to death.
Forza Horizon has every right to bear such a valuable name and unless you’re a narrow-minded purist, chances are you’ll spend many wonderful hours driving around aimlessly. It has all the trademarks that you’d expect, including what is arguably the best soundtrack to date, featuring a wide array of artists spread evenly around three different radio stations. The Black Keys with their soul-selling, yet incredibly catchy ‘Lonely Boy’ suits Horizon‘s tone, but it’s the electronic beats that really make you feel like a powerhouse behind the wheel. An excellent remix of Chromeo’s ‘Hot Mess’ stands out as a particular highlight, but there’s plenty more including older (but still brilliant) material from New Order and The Stone Roses. Although with that being said, Forza Horizon isn’t as perfect as a rose. Despite all of the aforementioned positives, there are several negatives that drop the overall package down a notch.
There’s nothing fundamentally broken about Horizon. In fact, it’s every bit as pristine as what you’d expect from a Forza game, but there are handful of niggling gripes that will persistently annoy seasoned gamers. Firstly, the absence of a true auction house to wheel and deal your garage is bitterly disappointing. Further, the online and offline pathways are nowhere near as streamlined as they could have been, leaving you to exit back to the main menu in order to switch between them both. There are little leaderboards to compete with your friends across the numerous speed cameras located throughout the environment, along with rival events, but a more seamless experience would have really smoothened out the overall package. The online racing itself is just as enjoyable and entertaining as you’d expect it to be, but there’s far too much time spent in lobbies and loading screens due to a large portion of races being incredibly short sprints. Some other ‘fun’ activities including ‘Infection’ and ‘King’ do little more than to serve as an occasional distraction. These design choices are questionable and there’s often an overarching feel that you need to create your own enjoyment around Colorado, but hopefully these flaws can be used in some executive meeting to encourage developing a sequel.
Still, Forza Horizon can’t be seen as anything other than a tremendous success and a great example to prove that open-world racing games can be done, and done well. Frustrations aside, Horizon delivers a pure, unadulterated, filthy, greasy, pulsating drive that will keep you engaged from the moment you first hit top speed. Adjusting to the new festival styling should be an easy transition, even for purists, and it’s thoroughly worthwhile. Horizon was a huge gamble and one that luckily paid off, because what you have here is a racing game that demands your attention and curiosity. By the time you finish the final lap, you’ll be left wanting so much more; and the most wonderful part of Horizon‘s design is that it’s up to you to find it. My advice would be to ignore everyone and everything else; just enjoy the drive, it’s unlike any other.