What is it about racing games and festivals? It’s as if risking life and limb to race the most exotic cars across open country roads is no longer enough; now there need to be rock shows, fireworks displays and wet t-shirt contests to accompany it. Motorstorm did it; Dirt did it; and now Forza Horizon does it. Alright, maybe the wet t-shirt contests aren’t in either, but you get my drift.
So there I sat in my humble VW Corrado. I’d just pulled over at one of those typically American highway-side diners, feeling a little out of place parked among Mustangs, Skylines and Evos. Then the radio comes on and there’s an announcement that only five spots remain in the Horizon Festival, and it’s first come, first served. All drivers hop out of the diner and into their rides, cutscene seamlessly switches to gameplay, and thus ensues a mad dash to make it into this annual competition of the racing elite. There are cars all around, aggressively jostling for position. Each road connecting to the one I’m on brings with it another set of eager competitors, their eyes on the same prize. It was right then – about ten minutes into the game – that I realised that this is unlike any racing game festival I’d experienced before.
Open world. Off-road driving. Dynamic day and night transitions. These aren’t things you associate with the Forza Motorsport franchise, but these are three of the key ingredients of Forza Horizon. Like any good spin-off, Horizon takes the core principles and underlying themes of the Forza franchise and delivers an unrecognisably different game experience around it. It retains the deep design and customisation features, the layers of gameplay assists, and the performance index that it uses to segregate various car classes that we’ve come to expect from Forza games.
The big difference is that Horizon isn’t a simulation; far from it. It’s more in the vein of Project Gotham Racing and Grid in that it isn’t terribly punishing, but demands just enough skill that you won’t pirouette gracefully and effortlessly around every corner like you would in a Need for Speed game. With it also comes cars that behave drastically differently from each other and react differently to different surfaces. That said, anyone with a little experience with arcade racers should be able to pick up Horizon in no time, and once you do, you’ll love the depth of gameplay it offers.
Forza Horizon is an open-world racer. Think Test Drive Unlimited 2 minus the persistent online and drive-anywhere game world, but what it lacks in openness, it more than makes up with its slick presentation, stunning visuals and tight gameplay. And this isn’t an empty open world like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit either; there’s speed records to break, stunts to perform, abandoned exotic cars to search for, random cars on the road to issue impromptu race challenges to, and more. You’ll never find yourself short of things to do when you’re just driving around aimlessly or getting from one event to the other.
You’re here for the festival though, and that’s where you’ll be spending most of your time, racking up wins, stacking up cash, and moving up through the ranks to earn different wrist bands – Horizon’s version of levelling up. Festival events are mostly races, either lapped or point-to-point, but every now and then you’ll enter showcase events. These are events for the fans, where you’re given a car and put in an outlandish scenario, such as racing against a plane or helicopter. Win it and you get to keep the car. At the various fast travel locations, you can also enter PR events, which could be anything from driving a Bugatti Veyron past a speed tracker at a particular speed to racking up combos and multipliers through drifting and fancy driving.
There’s plenty to do, but what ensures that it doesn’t devolve into a chore is Forza Horizon’s fantastic open world and the perfectly paced progression. Colorado is a joy to drive around in, partly for the scenery, but mostly due to how well the roads are laid out. This also extends to the off-road driving, which isn’t quite at the level of Dirt, but can easily hold its own and be a lot of fun.
The one criticism I have with the game is that the moment you enter a festival event, the game forces you down a linear path. Races are either lapped or closely checkpointed, rendering the open world completely useless. You don’t even get alternative paths or shortcuts; it’s all pretty straight forward. Not that it will bother you too much, because the linear paths it does force you through are masterfully designed for some thrilling races. It’s the sort of intensity, aggression and energy I haven’t seen in a racing game since Grid.
Things can get quite tricky at night though. There are no street lights around, so all you really have are headlights and whatever lighting there is in surrounding areas, which is often none. It brings an amazing level of risk to the races, especially because you also have to keep one eye on the mini map and prepare for your next turn.
The game does a great job of rewarding you with level-ups, cash and new cars at regular intervals, but not often enough that they lose their value. It’s just the right amount to keep you playing. Not that there isn’t enough reason already. Forza Horizon is easily the best looking open-world racing game ever made, and one of the best looking racers period. Rock-solid frame rates, zero aliasing, picture-perfect car models and the varied landscape make driving around Colorado an absolute joy. I turned the music off, but if you like driving around to music, there are three radio stations to choose from, playing indie, rock, and electronic music.
Unlike Test Drive Unlimited 2, Forza Horizon doesn’t consist of a persistent online game world, but has a separate multiplayer mode instead. Online multiplayer is broken up into lobbies based on experience level, and these lobbies allow you to either enter into a variety of races or just free roam. The series signature playground modes return as well, including the strategic team-based Cat and Mouse events; King, which is the racing game equivalent of capture the flag; and Infected, where infected cars must crash into others to infect them. It’s as fun as Forza multiplayer has always been, and the levelling system along with the car and cash rewards will keep you coming back.
Grid’s tight, intense gameplay; Test Drive Unlimited 2’s vast expanses and variety; Gran Turismo 5’s ambition; and Forza Motorsport’s depth and attention to detail – Forza Horizon manages to cram all of that into one game, and the end result is quite simply the complete racing game.
If you ever find yourself wondering why a developer or publisher would mess with a successful formula to create a spin-off, it’s in the hope that they can do what Playground Games did – break the mould to make something even better than the original.