Forza has been embroiled in a long battle with Gran Turismo over the years, as fans of both would spring to the defence of their chosen title to claim that it was the best sim racer of on consoles. However for Forza Horizon, developers Playground Games have chosen to go in a new direction.
Instead of structured races on the famous circuits across the world, Horizon takes to the open roads of Colorado. Gone are the structured menus of previous Forza games and in come events and options that must be driven to to enter. It’s more Test Drive Unlimited than straight up racer.
It is a new developer too, as Turn10, while overseeing development have handed over to Playground Games for the most part. From the start it is obvious that it was a good decision. Visually Horizon is every bit as stunning as previous Forza games, the Colorado locations are a beautiful backdrop that really do immerse you into the game, offering up many opportunities to take some amazing photos.
Yes, the photo mode makes a welcome return, yet offers up a lot more variety thanks to the the glorious setting of Colorado. The usual options are back, offering up little new, so you still can position the camera, choose a range of visual effects and choose between basic and big shot options, which can then be shared on your store-front or on forzamotorsport.net. Simple to use, but the photos that are already coming out are jaw dropping, it is very easy to get lost in the photo mode as you try to show off just how beautiful everything is.
Another returning feature is the ability to paint and decorate your cars, again this isn’t feature light, it’s as in depth as it was in Forza 4. The ability to import all your old designs is there too, so had you spent many hours creating designs to be used on your favourite cars, there is no need to start from scratch. There are limitations of locked designs however, but the fact that some things can be imported is very welcome. Again all your designs can be shared on your store-front, where you can also buy and download other peoples shared vinyls and designs.
There is one area that will split opinion right down the middle and that is with the presentation. Horizon takes place at a festival, with the idea being that every year the worlds greatest street racers descend on Colorado and take place in many events to show who is the number one. This adds a little bit of a story to proceedings, as you battle against various characters as you level up through the game, earning new wristbands as you go, with said wristbands replacing the traditional levelling of older games.
The characters you come up against range from making you want to turn the sound off, to mildly irritating., Well, depending on your demographic that is. That said, as your progress the interruptions of the narrative become less frequent and a little less galling. If you’ve played Dirt 2 or Dirt 3 then some things may feel a little similar, as the design of events splashes and the general look of festival area are very reminiscent of Codemasters efforts, it’s no bad thing though, as Codemasters know how to do presentation, so if you are going to be influenced, it may as well be from the best.
Where Forza Horizon does excel though is on the track… Sorry! Road. There were some slight fears about how the developers could possibly transfer the sim handling of the previous games to a semi arcade open road experience. Well they did it and they did it well. There are no options for tuning cars in Horizon, but upgrades are still possible and the handling has been tweaked rather than reworked, to make it a lot more controllable, but without really neglecting what made Forza stand out originally. In truth, the team at Playground Games has got the balance between arcade and simulation nigh on perfect. If anything it throws up memories of Project Gotham Racing, which is very, very welcome.
Speaking of PGR, there is at least one thing that is a direct influence of that series. The Kudos system is worked into Horizon, although under a slightly new guise. Players are rewarded not only for how they perform in races, in terms of wins and such, but also for how they drive. Style type points are awarded drifting, reaching top speeds, making passes, near misses, drafting and more, chaining these together will earn multipliers which help get more and more style points.
So what are the point of these? As well as competing in races and events, there are numerous sponsor challenges that can be met, which will earn you more credits to buy more cars. There is also a popularity meter, with the aim to be the most popular driver at the festival. You start in 250th place and the better you drive, the more entertaining you are, the more popular you become. As you become more popular new events unlock, with the proviso being that these are special events that only the most popular can enter. It is a nifty little way of rewarding you as well as keeping you driving around the open world between events.
If you’ve played Test Drive, or even Burnout Paradise you’ll be familiar with the layout and how to access events. Instead of bringing up a menu and choosing an event, then starting it. You are encouraged to drive from event to event and sign up. While you can unlock way-points that allow for fast travel, this will cost precious credits (apart from fast travel back to the central festival area), so has been designed to keep you behind the wheel as much as possible.
Aside from the main events and the showcases, there is the ability to drive up behind any one of the 250 other racers at the event and challenge them to an on the spot race, which will earn you even more credits. This does nothing more than earn you quick credits, but is a nice distraction between just cruising from one end of the map to the other. There are also discount advertising hoardings that can be smashed, these will earn you discounts on upgrades. There are nine hidden barns across the map too, clues as to their locations are given every now and again and these contain some rare classic cars.
That’s not all though, there are speed cameras and average speed checks too, yet unlike being flashed by one of these on the M6, you won’t get a ticket for speeding. Instead your speed is recorded and added to the leaderboard so it can be compared to your friends instantly. Seeing yourself less and one MPH off your rival’s best speed is infuriating and you will find yourself trying to go back and show them who is boss.
Rivals and leaderboards are integrated throughout the entire game, whether that be via speed cameras, or leaderboards for each individual event. Yet unlike other games where you get a simple leaderboard, Horizon lets you earn rewards for beating your rivals. At the end of every event, you are then shown a screen that is almost mocking in nature, telling you that a rival has completed that same event faster than you did. The offer of credits for going out and trying to beat their time instantly is often too good to pass up.
There is multiplayer too and whilst the action is excellent and plays just as well as the single player game, it is a shame that it is a totally separate affair and not integrated in any real way, bar being able to still find discount signs and earning credits. You need to leave the single player experience to play online. However, once online there are plenty of options, ranging from the standard circuit races and point to point, to infected, cat and mouse style events. You can also free roam around Colorado with up to sever other friends and even create some races on the fly by setting a way-point for everyone to get to.
At the end of every race, you are rewarded for your efforts, it is in levelling up that things have changed a bit. You still get to level up depending on your performance, but instead of set prizes you are shown a slot machine style reward system that can earn you either credits or a new car, what you win is totally random though.
You can find existing games, set a party or search via a set of custom rules. The best time comes from entering free roam, where you and your friends can take part in a series of challenges across the map. There a tons of these too, that range from quick speed based challenges, to taking certain cars from one point on the map to another, it is simply a joy to play. It makes online every bit as fun as the single player, but the niggle that you need to leave one to go to the other, just takes out from the experience somewhat, this however is only a minor niggle.
Forza Horizon isn’t exactly ground breaking, games like Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout Paradise have already tried the open world experience. However Forza Horizon does it better than both and offers up an amazing experience that doesn’t stop giving from start to finish, it is simply glorious.