Forza Horizon review
It’s flashy cars as far as the eye can see as Playground Games steers Forza in a totally new direction…
Realism is everything. That’s pretty much the Turn 10 mantra with regard to Forza Motorsport, hands down the 360’s finest racing franchise. And even though this open-world spin-off isn’t strictly part of the Motorsport series, it still adheres to the philosophy of its creators and champions realism, if perhaps in a slightly different way to usual. Forza has always been about as close to real racing as gamers will ever get, but this time applies not just to driving but other features as well. With its loathsome presenters and hideous music collection, Horizon is the most realistic simulation of the horrors of listening to mainstream radio that we’ve ever encountered.
In fact, it’d be a contender for Worst Licensed Soundtrack Ever had EA not shipped Burnout Dominator with no fewer than four versions of Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend on the disc, essentially claiming ownership of that dubious honour for the rest of recorded time. There are a few choice cuts but they’re incredibly rare – gems like New Order’s Blue Monday and She Bangs The Drum by The Stone Roses are buried under a steaming heap of du jour dubstep and limpdick indie rock, all bound together by hateful presenters gibbering on about things that you’ve already done. With just three stations, the radio approach doesn’t work at all well. There’s never anything good to listen to, making the fourth ‘Radio Off’ option generally the most appealing.
With that, we can safely put the negativity to one side, because pretty much everything else about Horizon is glorious. Fans of Forza’s usual clinical approach to racing might be put off at first – cut-scenes introduce characters you’ll never care about, gimmick events drag the focus away from pure racing and the open-world structure couldn’t feel less like traditional Forza. Only the first of these is really a concern, however, and even then you can skip the awful cut-scenes if (read: when) you don’t want to be shouted at by stereotypes and assholes. Even the fact that it doesn’t strictly feel like Forza isn’t a negative in and of itself, since the game takes influence from pretty much every great modern racer. Presentation and tone have an air of Dirt about them, structure is reminiscent of Burnout Paradise or modern Need For Speed games, and the scoring system could be straight out of Project Gotham Racing, making us cross our fingers that there’s some truth to the rumours of Turn 10 working on a new PGR.
It’s this scoring system that really gives Horizon an edge over most current racers. Rather than earning boost for your dangerous driving, stunts like near misses, awesome powerslides and precision passes all earn you skill points that boost your overall popularity rating with the fans. On their own, these flashy driving displays are worth minimal points, the key being to chain them together into as long a combo as possible. Certain combinations unlock unique bonuses – drifting through breakable objects will net you the Sideswipe bonus, for instance – while milestones in the popularity rankings unlock new Showcase events, unique races that always have a pretty tasty prize car attached to them. These are a fairly hit-and-miss affair, though, to be honest. The novelty and spectacle of racing against planes, choppers and hot air balloons is undeniable, yet it can be extremely hard to know how well you’re actually doing in these events, given that your opponent isn’t playing by the same rules. Each has its own hazards that make it that little bit trickier too – the chopper kicks up so much dust over dirt tracks that it can be nearly impossible to see where you’re going, while the planes have a tendency to buzz you near checkpoints, sending both screen and controller into a rumble frenzy that makes it tough to hold down your line.
Far better are the Outpost events. Each of the game’s ten discoverable fast travel locations houses three challenges, each reducing the cost of quickly teleporting to that point by a significant factor and mastery of all three making it totally free to do so. The challenges are uniform, so only the cars used – you’ll be riding rentals and usually high-end ones for these events – and locations differ, though that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. At each outpost, there’s a Speed challenge (hit a speed camera going faster than the target speed), a Photo challenge (snap your dream car, undamaged, with the listed landmark in the background) and the more straightforward Stunt Run, in which you simply have to tear up the highlighted route with your best driving skills. Speed takes a few runs, if only to learn the corners that lead up to the relevant camera, while Photo is a cakewalk but a welcome change of pace. But it’s the Stunt Run that wins out here, the only challenge of the three that isn’t made stupidly easy by the rewind feature, since rewinding doesn’t reinstate a dropped multiplier.
Horizon’s many races, by contrast, are fairly basic. Eight cars compete in either circuit courses plucked from the open-world road layout or point-to-point events, though don’t go expecting Burnout Paradise levels of route choice – here, you stick to the roads mapped out for you. On the default settings, Horizon is far too easy, but the wealth of options in the difficulty menu make this easily remedied. To keep newcomers sweet, the game defaults to having all driving assists on, though each variable can be tweaked based on your ability, your setup and your optimism. As ever, each assist disabled also leads to a bigger payout at the end of a race – you’ll soon start drowning in prize money, even if you limp along with all the driving aids on, though brave players who push themselves will quickly earn significantly more disposable income for their efforts, in turn leading to more new cars and better upgrades.
Not that you really need that many cars, in truth. Basic events are purely based around Performance Index, so with tricked-out B, A and S-rank cars, you’re set for the majority of events. As more stipulations are introduced, you might find that you need to expand your garage, though even then there doesn’t tend to be much in the way of variety to these specialist event grids – manufacturer events tend to favour one or two specific vehicles, which you can buy straight from the race sign-up screen if you just want to jump in, although you’ll obviously have a better shot if you go pimp it first. Tuning options for individual engine and performance upgrades will be missed by Forza purists, though it’s not something that will be missed by many; those still looking to tweak an engine to breaking point can do so in Forza 4 after all, leaving Horizon to benefit from a more level playing field for all competitors.
In fact, tackling Horizon on its own terms is a far better way to play in general. Go exploring the open Colorado roads and you’ll find roaming opponents to challenge for a cash injection, billboards to break in order to earn discounts on vehicle upgrades, and derelict classics tucked away in barns, each of which can be lovingly restored by the hard-working garage owner in a remarkably short space of time. There are also the aforementioned outposts to locate, each making it easier to get around the map, although some may just prefer to drive everywhere and drink in the gorgeous scenery. Horizon looks beautiful on a decent setup and absolutely jaw-dropping on anything better. Car models are the best they’ve ever been, landscapes roll on forever and manage to be surprisingly varied considering the size of the map, and even the cut-scenes don’t look awful. Not bad considering neither studio involved has much experience in rendering people.
There was a very real danger that Horizon could end up losing the essence of the Forza series in its attempt to pull in new fans, though with the exception of the attempt to add narrative where none was needed, this really isn’t the case. The series’ exemplary handling model served it brilliantly in the track-based format but the open road is just that much more exciting for seeing what these luxury supercars are really capable of. Similarly, the new mechanics lend themselves brilliantly to the experience, making it easy to burn hours just flashing roaming competitors, exploring the vast environment or simply burning rubber and seeing how far you can push an incredible skill chain. But elements of the classic Forza experience remain too. Even without tuning options, car modding is insanely deep and the paint shop is as conducive to artistic expression as ever. You can even transfer custom liveries and decal sets over from Forza 4.
So while the paint job might have changed, this is still classic Forza under the hood. Horizon sacrifices purity for spectacle, trades tuning depth for racing equality and shifts to an open road setting where once were trackside barriers and preset circuits, though none of this detracts from the glorious driving mechanics that Playground Games has superbly re-created under the watchful eye of Turn 10. It’s not Forza as we know it, sure. But few will be able to resist that new car smell – or claim that Horizon isn’t an excellent racer – all the same.