Remember the Top Gear episode where Clarkson and co went on a road trip to find the greatest driving road? Playground Games presumably did.
It was an episode that fulfilled the fantasy of every self-confessed petrolhead, with three men driving three ferociously fast supercars with the lure of the open road, stunning sweeping scenery and the distant horizon. In short, it perfectly embodied the thrill of driving these magnificent machines, the emotional attachment that comes with car ownership and the intoxicating freedom of the open road. And these are exactly the feelings that Forza Horizon evokes every time you start its engine.
Bring me the horizon
While Turn 10 continue to work on the core franchise, a new development team was formed under the name of Playground Games to work on Forza Horizon, an open-world spin-off to the established track racer. The result is a radical deviation from Forza Motorsport’s brand of serious simulation.
Many must have gasped upon hearing the news that Turn 10 had handed over the keys to the prestigious Forza brand to a completely new, unestablished developer. Thankfully, they needn’t have worried, as Playground Games was formed by an ensemble team of UK racing game developer veterans who have worked for the likes of Bizarre Creations, Criterion Games and Codemasters Racing. That’s some serious pedigree.
Indeed, Codemasters’ influence is abundantly apparent in Forza Horizon. Vibrant pink fonts make up the menus, dramatic camera angles precede each race and the whole game is centred on the Horizon Festival, a hybrid motorsport and music festival set in Colorado that has a decidedly DiRT-esque vibe, with its contemptuous young hotshot dude drivers, a smattering of sponsorship logos lurking everywhere and thumping dubstep drivel. Or ‘phat bangin’ beats,’ as some of the youthful characters that inhabit the game would no doubt call it.
Of course, open world racers are nothing new this generation. Test Drive Unlimited pioneered the concept of Massively Open Online Racing, and Criterion built on the concept with the highly successful Burnout Paradise before their more recent dabbles with Need for Speed, which introduced their revolutionary Autolog stat-tracking system. What sets Horizon apart, however, is its authentic driving experience.
All of Forza Motorsport 4’s mechanical nuts and bolts were handed over to Playground Games to tinker with, and the result is something truly unique to the racing genre. Because, until now, the idea of incorporating realistic driving physics into an arcade-style open world racing game seemed absurd. And yet Playground Games has miraculously managed to pull it off.
Admittedly, it’s not a direct replication of Forza’s complex simulation handling which will no doubt anger purists, but then it didn’t need to be. Open worlds demand a decidedly different driving style with sweeping roads, civilian traffic and environmental hazards to contend with. Playground Games has therefore adapted the handling so that it’s more forgiving for the arcade audience, yet still satisfying for simulation enthusiasts – it’s by far and away the deepest driving model in any other open world racing game to date.
Turn off the assists, and Forza’s driving DNA can be felt in full force with the same wonderfully weighty, responsive handling we’ve grown accustomed to that demands delicacy and precision in your inputs. While it has been tweaked to add more emphasis on oversteering for maximum enjoyment, there’s still a very tangible connection between tyre and tarmac, even on a controller. Forza Horizon handles sublimely, no matter what you drive.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said when playing Forza Horizon on a wheel, which is perhaps indicative of Playground Game’s target audience. Whereas Forza Motorsport 4 bills itself as a console racing simulator that requires a wheel to get the most out of it, as Fanatec’s Forza-branded CSR Wheels will testify, Forza Horizon aims to appeal just as much to casual players who enjoy games like Need for Speed as it does for simulation fans. Consequently, Playground Games don’t appear to have focused much of their attention on optimising wheel compatibility for Forza Horizon, and the handling feels jarringly unresponsive by comparison as a result. It’s a pity, really, as there are undoubtedly plenty of existing Forza Motorsport owners who will also buy Horizon and expect it to handle just as well on the wheel.
Of course, the cars are the real stars of Forza Horizon, and while most major manufacturers are represented, with the notable exception of Porsche despite their belated inclusion in FM4, the car list isn’t quite as comprehensive as I had hoped.
Granted, I wasn’t expecting the car roster to be anywhere near as vast as FM4, but when each manufacturer only features a handful of cars, their absence is sorely felt. In fact, I would go as far to say that Horizon’s car list plays it too safe.
Part of FM4’s appeal was its all-encompassing range of race cars, road cars and obscurities, yet in Forza Horizon there aren’t many cars included that stand out as a surprise. Instead, Playground Games handpicked a selection of around 150 cars from Forza Motorsport 4’s 500+ garage, sticking to the usual assortment of expensive exotica we’ve driven to death in countless games before it.
Of course, it’s all a ploy for Microsoft to drip feed us rations of monthly DLC onto the XBLA, just as they did for FM4. It’s a source of continuous contention for existing owners of FM4, however, as the majority of the cars released thus far were already available, or also released as post DLC, in FM4. A few new cars to the series have at least been introduced which can be bought individually, but, considering there’s a high probability that a large proportion of people who play Forza Horizon will have played FM4, having to pay for the same cars twice is criminal.
There are other setbacks when it comes to the cars, too. Car models aren’t nearly as immaculately detailed as they are in FM4, but then that’s understandable when you consider that Forza Horizon has to render an entire seamless open world as well. I’m more disappointed with the engine sounds, frankly.
I’ve always maintained that Forza Motorsport has some of the most authentic engine sounds in any console racing game, an aspect that has continually let Forza’s arch rival Gran Turismo down with its engines that sound like dying Dyson vacuum cleaners. And yet in Forza Horizon, they sound oddly muffled by comparison. Cars can also be upgraded to stay competitive in races, and yet you can’t tune them yourself, disappointingly.
There’s rarely a dull moment in Forza Horizon. Driving aimlessly is a divine pleasure in itself: I could quite happily wile away the hours cruising down the canyon passes while the in-game radio blares an eclectic mix of rock and dance tracks, even if they tend to repeat too frequently. But then you would be missing out on Forza Horizon’s primary intent: racing. And lots of it.
Forza Horizon initially plonks you inside its cover car, the savage SRT Viper, for a brief tutorial test drive and a taste of what’s to come as you gain popularity and significant fortune. But before you get too comfortable, you’re promptly whisked away in an underpowered VW Corrado on a mad dash to earn your place at the Horizon Festival, and it’s all jolly exciting. Yes, it’s scripted so that you’ll fail and therefore have to rise up the ranks to gain your reputation, but the initial rush is so involving you really won’t care.
Not quite so involving is the narrative, which casts you as an anonymous, speechless rookie racer competing against typically arrogant adversaries. Giving you a helping hand is the festival’s flirtatious female organiser, who guides you throughout the course of the game. It’s all very clichéd, but, unlike Test Drive Unlimited, the narrative doesn’t feel overbearing and serves its purpose of providing context to the racing. Having said that, the taunting one-liners spouted from rivals before each race would have seemed out of place in a racing game 10 years ago.
Progress is marked by collecting coloured wrist bands as you reach each new rank, and events for each wrist band are dotted around the map – each colour represents a different tier of difficulty. The only downside is that you have to drive to each destination, although a selection of Horizon outposts can be used to fast travel for a small fee. Alternatively, you can always fast travel to the central hub for free, which is the very heart of the festival where you can swap cars, buy new rides, create new vinyls, partake in events and access the online portal.
Festival races come in a variety of forms, from point-to-point races across Colorado’s varied terrain, closed-off circuit street races and manufacturer-specific races. Meanwhile, PR stunt events invite you to beat speed traps, gingerly nurse a pristine car to a specified location for a photo-shoot and partake in stunt challenges where you must chain together acts of dangerous driving such as drifting and near misses.
There are also invite-only Showcase events, accessed by gaining popularity points from driving like a div, i.e. drifting and smashing into scenery, present a number of novelty races against unconventional competitors. The first, for example, pits you in a Mustang vs. a Mustang – a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss against a P-51 Mustang bi-plane, that is. Again, something tells me the developers have been watching too much Top Gear. Not that I can talk, of course. Subsequent Showcase races don’t quite match the initial intensity, however, and the novelty, along with your pulse, soon falls flat when you find yourself racing against a hot air balloon.
Outside of the main festival, there’s still plenty to do. Indeed, the open world of Colorado is bustling with activity, presenting opportunities to race on every corner. See a smug rival swoop past? Simply tailgate them, flash your lights and you’re instantly in a one-on-one sprint to the finish line indicated on your GPS. You can also participate in illegal street races, and while these races will not contribute to your progress within the Horizon Festival, they do earn you bundles of extra cash.
Then there’s the barn finds. Scattered in hidden areas across the map are a handful of rusty rarities in need of restoration. It’s a novel idea, but becomes something of an anti-climax when all the cars have already featured in FM4.
Some races even let you do a spot of dirt-tracking. Indeed, off-road racing is a first for Forza, and Horizon’s handling is suitably balanced to make going sideways around corners supremely satisfying. If only there were a few more off-road cars available – there’s a handful of pickups and a Range Rover, but Horizon is sorely lacking in 4X4s designed to take such punishment. Hurtling along rough terrain in a low-down Lamborghini without a hitch just feels silly. Dirt and dust doesn’t accumulate on the cars, either. Clearly, Horizon’s off-road segments were in need of an expansion to fully realise Playground Games’ vision – which is where the Rally Expansion comes in.
Whereas FM4 had you strictly adhering the racing line, Horizon opts for a more aggressive approach. Since the damage is entirely superficial, you can charge through the competition with far less reservation than you perhaps would in FM4, and the AI becomes suitably more aggressive as you reach higher ranked races. Likewise, crashing into traffic has very little consequence – slam head-on into an oncoming van, and you might as well have hit a cardboard box since you barely slowdown, which dilutes the thrill of weaving past Sunday drivers, somewhat.
It goes without saying that a game branded under the Forza license is graphically gorgeous, but the fact that Forza Horizon looks as sensational as it does is arguably a more impressive feat when you consider its sprawling open world setting is being rendered on haggard hardware. The draw-distance is jaw-dropping, and yet, staggeringly, the frame rate never dips – I sense witchcraft. Speaking of which, the frame rate has been dialled down from 60fps in FM4 to 30fps in Horizon, but it’s an understandable compromise. You really won’t notice the difference when you’re soaking up the splendour of Playground Games’ beautifully-crafted driving haven.
My only gripe is that the replays really don’t do the graphics justice. I was highly looking forward to watching back my escapades and marvelling at the exquisite environments with a Top Gear level of cinematography as seen in FM4. Sadly, the small selection of external camera angles in Forza Horizon always follow your car and are far too close to let you appreciate the majesty and scale of the beautiful environment. Some have derided Playground Games for being lazy when it comes to the replays, but I suspect it was due to hardware limitations, however.
Despite being an open world packed with varied terrain, Horizon’s representation of Colorado is still frustratingly restrictive at times. As a result, the draw distance is actually deceptive – those vast open fields begging to be torn up that surround the roads are blocked by boundaries disguised as indestructible fences, sadly. You’re therefore mostly confined to the tightly knitted web of road networks, freeways and off-road trails, but it’s a shame that Horizon’s open world isn’t a little more open for exploring.
Horizon’s vibrant visuals evoke a tremendous sense of atmosphere. The lighting from the day and night cycle casts a warm hue, and while there’s no weather effects, the permanently sunny sky suits Horizon’s upbeat party vibe. The festival truly comes to life at night, however, as the glow of your headlights illuminates the road ahead in conjunction with the festival’s flashing lasers and dazzling fireworks lighting up the night time sky. Simply sublime. This is the first time night racing has been attempted in a Forza game, too, a glaring omission from FM4 that will hopefully be addressed in FM5 if this is any indication.
Existing owners of FM4 will feel right at home with Horizon’s suite of online modes. Rivals makes a welcome return, challenging you to beat your friends’ times upon completing any single player event, much in the same way as Criterion’s stat-tracking Autolog from Need for Speed, but the added scope of the free-roaming environment makes it feel fresher, more compelling and addicting.
Horizon’s multiplayer on the other hand cuts down the player count from 16 to eight, but FM4’s fan-favourite modes Cat & Mouse and Virus have been retained and they feel more at home in Horizon since they’re essentially party games. Naturally, you can also cruise in online free roaming and set co-op challenges to your comrades.
Come out and play
Despite some shortcomings, Forza Horizon is an outstanding achievement and a solid first entry from a promising development house that will be fondly remembered for years to come. Playground Games has proven that there is still room for innovation in the racing genre as the current console cycle draws to a close. Indeed, the talented team is already a force to be reckoned with, firmly sealing them in the UK racing game developer hall of fame alongside the likes of current champions Codemasters, Criterion, Evolution Studios, Slightly Mad Studios, and Eutechnix.
Forza Horizon achieves what many thought was impossible: it fuses the arcade accessibility of open world driving, the depth of simulation racing and a raw passion for car culture together in one picturesque playground.