There’s something inherent to the idea of annual iteration that gamers find irrepressibly ugly. However a precedent has been set that portrays the audience at large as a group of individuals who will say one thing and then financially support something altogether differently. This has of course lead to many bid name franchises promoting yearly iterations – not just sports titles – and still welcoming a large enough userbase to be financially viable. While Forza Horizon may be another title sporting the ‘Forza’ branding, it’s far from a simple case of more of the same. Forza Horizon bucks the trend by providing something genuinely exciting in this latest in a string of three successive releases in as many years.
Developed by Playground Games, Forza Horizon is a Forza videogame in name only. It’s clearly a case of developing to an already established audience rather than taking a risk on brand new intellectual properties (IP) this late in the console lifecycle (though one must wonder why Microsoft Studios chose Forza over Project Gotham Racing, which would arguably have been a more suitable franchise to brand this videogame with), but even then Forza Horizon provides enough visual clout, clever ideas and heart pounding gameplay to warrant commercial success whatever name graced the front cover.
As stated above, Forza Horizon is an altogether different beast to Forza Motorsport. It’s an open world racing experience that takes place in a fictional interpretation of Colorado. It has off-road racing, fantasy cars and forgiving handling, points for drifting, near misses and trading paint and, above all else, a story. Entirely superfluous and ham-fisted though it may be, gifting Forza Horizon with a narrative draws comparisons to Need for Speed that will only be a benefit to the experience for millions of gamers.
Elsewhere Forza Horizon takes influence from a more frequently commendable franchise than Electronic Arts’ hit-and-miss tyre squealer, Codemasters Racing’s magnum opus DiRT. The handling, variety of events and even the physicality of car-on-track all smack of the best thing to happen to fantasy racing since Mario Kart, and this is exactly where Forza Horizon should be looking for it’s inspiration. Just as DiRT has split into two for it’s fullest repertoire of rallying and playground racing antics, so to does Forza need to keep it’s simulation far away from it’s action racing.
Events available to the player are divided into those which allow you to progress the story and those which don’t, with races against your friends’ ghosts available after every event. Event types consist of everything from circuit racing to point-to-point, single rival to multi-car chases, on- and off-road. In addition to all these familiar set-ups however, Forza Horizon also features Showcase Events; a pure fantasy race against airborne vehicles in which, should the player win, the get to keep the vehicle that they are racing in (though sadly not the various aircraft).
There are a number of events in Forza Horizon that are very cleverly scripted. Every play will feel slightly different, but in order to progress the story the outcome will always be similar. The opening race to the Horizon festival is a perfect example: despite the fact you will struggle, you will make it. No matter how poor you may be, this is a moment of exhilaration and spectacle, a joy to drive at high speed against an impressively idyllic orange sky to some adrenaline pumping music. It’s supposed to be fun, not punishing. While it may not sound like the ideal solution for that undefined quantum between videogame success and videogame progression – and it’s not – it is a forgivable crime given that Forza Horizon does almost everything else perfectly.
Forza Horizon also takes inspiration from the best Need for Speed videogame of recent memory, Criterion Studios’ Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Namely the Autolog feature, Forza Horizon offers immediate updates on speed cameras past, events completed and the current success of your friends in almost all areas imaginable by way of constant streams of information at each one of your own achievements, giving you the option to have another go and outdo your friends, or make it that little bit harder for them to do the same to you. Forza Horizon does also feature regular multiplayer experiences of course, with a familiar lobby system and series of race selection options, but it takes second place to the opportunity to directly assault your friends’ best.
The visual quality of Forza Horizon is fantastic, backing the fantasy races with stunning rural American vistas. Wooded areas with orange and brown trees and the sun breaking between light brown trunks, rolling green hills, sharp drops with a perfect view across a rocky cliff ranges, these and more compliment your high speed thrills. There are three virtual radio stations at your disposal but it’s often very clear that the track playing at the start of an event has been perfectly chosen due to it’s suitability to the task at hand. From thumping bass when sprinting in a point-to-point race where your average speed rarely drops below 100 MPH to The Hives’ Hate to Say I Told You So when racing a Mustang against a plane; whoever may have been in charge of marrying to too clearly comes from the Tarantino school of audio-visual relationships.
While Forza Horizon may be relatively slow to start, the wealth of content included quickly makes up for the initial half hour. The storyline is entirely superfluous to the in-game action but for many will be a welcoming bookend. Instead however, it’s the variety of event types and gameplay options that take the starring role on Forza Horizon, delivering high-speed thrills in a number of vehicles against a remarkable varied terrain. Choosing to take the franchise than the fictional route has given Playground Games an excuse to experiment, and in doing so they have created a true gem worthy of its inherited audience. Forza Horizon is the epitome of modern racing videogames: slick, polished and ambitious.