Cruising the countryside in a classic car, the top down, cool tunes on the stereo, wind in your hair, and the sun shining down, there is nothing like it. Now with winter finally here it's the long wait until next summer, or is it? Forza Horizon looks to take the cruising and street racing car culture and mix it in with the realistic simulation racing that the Forza series is known for. What is the result? Pull on your shades and driving gloves, let's drive.
You are a car guy. You've come to Colorado with hopes to get into the Horizon Car Festival to prove yourself and make a little money along the way. While parked at a diner you hear Horizon CEO, Alice Hart, on the radio announce that the next ten people to get to the festival grounds will not only get into the competition, but they will get in for free and be the final entrants for the Horizon Festival. Without hesitation you jump into your VW Corrado VR6 and race your way to the festival gates, along with everyone else that was parked at the diner.
And so begins your racing adventure in Forza Horizon.
Controls and Gameplay
Forza Horizon's controls stick close to what the main Forza series uses. Your gas, brake, steering, e-brake, and rewind are in their familiar positions. For the uber-sim masochists the clutch and gear up/down buttons are here too. Difficulty can be changed as you wish. From as easy as just holding down the gas and steering, to as difficult as having to "clutch in, shift, clutch out, gas" steering. The more assists you turn off the more simulated or harder the driving is. You are rewarded for this in a percentage bonus to each assist turned off. New to the control scheme is the radio station tuning on the D-pad. Yup that's right, now you have a radio to listen to as you race around.
The gameplay is basically the same as past Forza's. You enter into races set in various places around Colorado. Vastly different is how you get to those races. Forza Horizon is set in a huge open-world. You drive everywhere; in effect you are driving in the menu. Want to buy a new car? Drive to the Autoshow. Want to participate in a race near the dam, drive to the sign up booth near the area. To keep the dive from place to place from becoming boring you can earn style points for driving "with style" by doing things like drifting around corners or maintaining the top speed of your car for a set period of time. The style points can also earn you money as you move up the ladder in popularity. There are other A.I. controlled drivers on the road to watch out for. A number of these A.I. drivers can be challenged to impromptu point to point races.
If you don't want to drive from race to race there are Outposts were, after finding them, you can "Fast Travel" to. It does cost you in-game credits to use the Outpost system though. On the other hand each Outpost has three events. Completing an event will give you a discount on the Fast Travel, complete all three events for each Outpost lets you Fast Travel to that one for free.
Because it is a festival of driving, a number of the races you can participate in are showy spectacles. These "Showcase" races will have you racing against things other than cars, such as airplanes and hot air balloons. Win these races and you get to keep the car. While you can buy cars, a good number of the cars can be won. Besides winning cars in the Showcase events you can win cars in the regular events by beating the star racers. There are also "Barn Finds." At certain points in the game Alice Hart will tell you that a Barn Find has been spotted in a general area on the map. Drive around that area and eventually you will find a barn with its doors open. Inside you will find a rare car like a 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona. The Horizon Festival mechanic, Dak Stewart, will take the car back to the garage and fix it up to showroom quality. Eventually he'll let you know when it's ready for you to pick up.
Another way of winning cars is playing the online multiplayer. You earn experience points as you participate in races online which, in turn, give you levels. Each time you level up you randomly earn money or a new car. The higher you go in levels the rarer the cars can get. How random is subjective, I got three BMW M3's and two Jaguar XKR-S' before it spit out a Bugatti Veyron SS. You can keep or sell these cars as you wish.
The online racing is broken down into beginner, social, veteran, party and free roam. The beginner, social, and veteran racing is circuit, street, and point to point races, each have their own options available to coincide with the level of expertise. After players reach a certain level the beginner option goes away to keep things balanced for new players. The party mode consists of various specialized race games made more for fun, like "King" which is a form of the playground game of tag. Free roam is just that, you can drive around the whole game map with other players online. The person hosing can select free roam challenges for the others to participate in if they want to, but they do not have to.
Graphics and Sound
Much has been said about the beautiful sunsets in the Forza Horizon demo, and they are just as beautiful in the full game. It's always clear sunny day or moon lit night in Forza Horizon's Colorado. I loaned a friend of mine, who grew up in Colorado, the game and asked his opinion on how close it looked to the real thing. Very close. While nothing looks exactly like it does in real life it is close. For example, at first glance the Red Rocks Amphitheater looked like it was right, but he noticed that things weren't quite in the right place. My guess is licensing issues would have come into play.
The graphics do realistically capture not only Colorado, but the cars and people of the festival.
The sound effects enjoy the same level of realism. From the raspy whistle of the air cooled engine of a 1967 VW Beetle to the low rumbling roar of the 2013 Dodge Challenger each engine sounds unique to its vehicle.
The music soundtrack plays a larger role in Forza Horizon than in past games of the series. In the past the music was just in the menus and nothing more. Now you have three distinct radio stations to choose from. All three have a good selection of music that fits well with driving and racing. One plays rock, one plays club hits, and one plays a more adult contemporary fare. If none of these tickle your fancy the radio can be turned off.
The other new sound factor for the series is the voice acting. Overall it is good with each actor putting in great performances. The only fault I can give it is if you just cruise for long amounts of time the lines can become repetitive.
The Forza series is the definitive car racing simulation series on the Xbox 360. It has been compared favorably in recent years to the granddaddy of all car racing simulations, Gran Turismo. But like Gran Turismo it was starting to be seen as a little stogy. It needed something fresh and new to break up the sameness of the series. Enter Forza Horizon. At its heart it is still the same car racing simulation, but with a thick coat of car culture to liven it up and make it a party. It's true you can't go in and tweak every setting of your car, but you can buy and swap out parts to improve performance and class of your car. That is the extent of the mechanical sim side of the game. The focus of Forza Horizon is the celebration of driving.
I've spent hours just doing that. Early on I bought the 1967 VW Beetle, left it "fresh off the showroom floor" stock and just drove. Twisty mountain roads, flat highway straights, and small cities with alleys and side streets, you can drive them all. Then for fun if you ever wanted to bomb around on a golf course in an exotic foreign super car, like a Bugatti Veyron SS, you can. I haven't made it halfway through all the races available and yet I've already had hours of enjoyment.
Because the difficulty can be adjusted to the player anyone can enjoy it. I let a curious friend of mine who shies away from full racing simulation games try it. Dialed down the difficulty for her and she enjoyed herself. Forza Horizon is all about the joy of driving and it does not disappoint.
There are a few gripes. The A.I. racers can be "rubber band-like" at times. I took on a low end Honda in my Bugatti Veyron in a point to point race and was easily beating him. Then one slight miscalculation that caused me to crash allowed him to suddenly zip by me and win. In reality he should have been miles and miles behind me. Online races have some lag issues where other player's cars will suddenly jerk around or briefly "submarine" into the ground. These issues can be very annoying when you are trying to pass them. Still, its problems are overshadowed by the sheer amount of fun that is had.
Forza Horizon is possibly the best amalgamation of pure racing simulation combined with a pure arcade racing game, with a heavy dose of car culture atmosphere ever to be released for the Xbox 360. As such I give it a 5 out of 5.
Forza Horizon is rated T for Teen for Drug Reference, Language, and Suggestive Themes by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).
Forza Horizon is available now exclusively for the Microsoft Xbox 360. For more information see the Forza Motorsport web site.