Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Playground Games/Turn 10
Racing games on the Xbox 360 do not get much better than the Forza franchise - realistic physics, car modification, and heaps of tracks.
Playstation gamers get Gran Turismo, Xbox fans get Forza, which is very much a simulation for the masses, but what would happen if the game's invisible barriers were lifted and gamers could drive anywhere, anytime, at any speeds?
You'd be playing the new open world racing sim, Forza Horizon, perhaps the best racing game Xbox has ever seen.
Playground Games is the developer behind the ambitious game, which has been introduced to take the reins (with guidance from Turn 10, the original Forza developer) of an open-world style racing game centred on a music festival in Colorado, and as you've probably guessed the dev has done a sterling job, both in terms of gameplay and graphics.
A reasonable premise to base a street racing game on, the Horizon Festival is a celebration of music, style and automotive culture, but the reality is that the Colorado desert around Red Rocks and surrounding towns makes an interesting place to try out some high powered street (and off road) racing.
This is not like other Forza titles. There are 216 roads in the game to explore, some are winding mountainous highways, some are dirt roads flowing through farmyards and others are pedal-to-the-floor freeways where, seated in the right machinery, ludicrous straight line speeds can be achieved.
Rather than a series of circuit events, the structure of horizon is free-form. Players can drive from one Festival Event to the next, competing to win points towards a new coloured wristband which, in turn (in a true music festival way), opens up further events on the map.
Apart from Festival Events which usually include an injection of flavour and a smart-Alec comment from a race rival prior to the start, there are
Street Races that reward players with big cash prizes and Showcase Events to be had. The latter events give the game a level of variety and excitement rarely seen before, as you'll have to race against competitors in hot air balloons or aeroplanes for example, and they are hugely entertaining.
To unlock Showcase events one must boost his or her popularity and this can be done during racing, or spammed whilst cruising the Colorado countryside.
Performing drifts, having near misses with traffic, property damage, high speed runs and burnouts are amongst the driving techniques that will boost your popularity score and, just like in real life, popularity can be bought with real money if if you're time poor (via the Xbox Marketplace).
Rival events also appear during the game, usually on completion of another event, allowing the player to compete against a ghost car around the track you just raced. Beat the ghost and you win more cash, or, in the case of other map-based Rival events, you might win a new vehicle to expand the virtual garage.
Forza Horizon is a beauty to behold. It is hard to appreciate during a race, but the replay camera and general cruising will provide ample opportunity to take in the autumnal vistas of Colarado at all hours of the day.
The cars themselves, whilst not showcased like they were in Forza 4, are still well presented with multiple light sources bouncing off gleaming panels that can be spray painted and decaled to your heart's content in the design studio. The game moves very fluidly too, with an excellent frame rate and no slow down to speak of.
Sonically, the music festival manifests itself in the form of bands such as New Order, The Black Keys, Nero, Empire of the Sun, Artic Monkeys and LCD Soundsystem amongst many others that can be tuned in across three in-game radio stations, and at specific locations around the map. The diversity of the music parallels the extent of choices that can be made in the racing and blends beautifully with the fast-paced driving action.
The only aural drawback is that some vehicle engine sounds do not seem robust enough for the chosen car. A small price to pay for an otherwise superb game?
Fifty car brands make their appearance in the game, with hundreds of cars to choose from, including bonus loyalty cars that can be imported from Forza 4 save files. I really liked that the game offers five difficulty levels, though these can also be customised as you wish. Adding or removing driving assists will affect the bonus percentage of money achieved at each event, so there's a reason to make the game more of challenge for yourself.
Progression through the game is intuitive as well. Some events are only available to certain types of cars - rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive for instance, and if rock up to an event in an ineligible car and the game will prompt you with garaged cars that can enter. Beyond that the game will encourage you to auto upgrade or degrade your chosen vehicle as necessary to qualify for a chosen event.
On top of excellent physics, graphics, audio and gameplay, it's features like those mentioned above that make the game very accessible, and keep the game progressing while still providing the customisation, tinkering and driving options for those that prefer a challenge closer to the simulation end of the scale.
Surprisingly some of the best fun is to be had in the off-road events where rally skills will come to the fore, and the game feels authentic in these sections where getting the nose pointed in the right direction at the optimal point of a corner greatly enhances exit speeds.
On the down side, crash damage is not a major factor in the game, only coming into effect for photo shoot missions. All damage is cosmetic only, and auto-fixed – for zero fee – between events.
Unfortunately, at the time of review the game was not yet released, so multiplayer was not an option. While the usual Forza AI is great fun to play against - being generally less robotic than other racing games (yes, that means Gran Turismo), the multiplayer options look interesting. Rivals events can be set to challenge friends and playground games such as Cat & Mouse and Tag Along with more vanilla – yet still exciting – bumper-to-bumper racing can all be played out on the open Colorado map.
Forza Horizon was somewhat of a gamble, taking a well-respected franchise and attempting to expand the audience. Moving the game to an open world, where exploration plays as big a part as the racing was a bold design decision, but apart from the sometimes irksome need to drive to a new event, there is plenty to like about this iteration.
Even if you tire of entering events, players can just cruise the map challenging AI drivers as they wish, or searching the countryside for barns containing classic cars to restore and add to the garage. I also liked features like improving your personal best velocities past speed cameras, and simply causing mayhem in and around the music festival can be fun.
Forza Horizon is well constructed, easily accessible fun that has much of what makes the Forza name successful (including in-car cockpit views of each vehicle – Need For Speed: Most Wanted, I'm looking at you!). That Microsoft are planning on supporting this game to the hilt with lots of downloadable content available in future is a smart move, and even without it the game has dozens of hours of gaming on offer.
Forza is a series that hits a sweet spot somewhere between fun and simulation and if you have an Xbox 360, love cars, and have a hankering for fun, Forza Horizon comes highly recommended.
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