Forza Horizon Review
A new direction for the racing franchise thrives in its debut
Forza Horizon is what happens when you throw in a mix of Need for Speed, DiRT, and Test Drive Unlimited with some classic Forza. Accessible, fun, and engaging, this is the latest entry in the long running Xbox exclusive racing series. But Horizon isn’t the simulator that fans have come to expect, but rather a spinoff project from developers PlayGround Games who use the series’ foundations to create something that feels quite different. Borrowing some of the best elements from other racing games, Horizon ends up being one of the best arcade open world car experiences in recent memory.
Horizon takes place in a fictional open world, a first for the franchise, based loosely around the Colorado rural areas. You’ve got mountains, forests, and desert environments all seamlessly blended together with miles of open road to explore. The game doesn’t have the scope of TDU2 or the urban city of Burnout Paradise, but this is still a very colorful and varied environment to explore. As any good open world game, there are many activities that promote discovery and feel worthwhile.
The open world mechanics allow you to explore the roads in the game (your progress is tracked, but not much else), and at any time fast travel back to the festival location which is centrally located on the map. This is the game’s main hub, where you can drive up to the various stations in order to enter the car marketplace, garage, etc. so there is no game menu to speak of. As you explore the world you’ll come across a few outposts which you can also fast travel to – however travelling to these costs money. In order to reduce the cost, you can participate in three special events, completing which reduces your fast travel cost to this particular outpost. It’s a nice gesture that promotes more gameplay variety during exploration.
Cruising around you also frequently come across other drives, which can be instantly challenged to a quick race for some credits. You can also find some classic abandoned cars hidden throughout the map to be restored and actually become drivable. There are also special sales signs, smashing which nets you a discount on all car upgrades going forward. Although you can fast travel between the festival and outposts, all races must be driven to in order to participate. In other words, the open world of Forza Horizon is fairly expansive with a lot of things to do on the go and a reason to do them.
But, eventually you’ll have to start participating in proper racing events. Under the banner of Horizon Festival, players assume the role of a nameless driver who arrives on the scene and begins his journey to the top. Through your career, like other Forza games, you’ll be tasked with earning a certain amount of points in order to progress to the next wrist band and new level of competition. Earning points means winning race events, each with highly varying entry requirements; from brand- and class-specific all the way down to special cars. As you progress through wristbands, each one will have a special one on one race with the boss character of sorts, but these aren’t particularly difficult. In other words, the progression is fairly standard and something that fans of racing sims like Forza should be accustomed to.
As you win races and accumulate credits, you’ll be able to spend them on new cars and upgrades. The vehicle selection in Forza Horizon is decently large and extremely diverse. Most of the cars found in Forza 4 make an appearance here, so fans will feel quite happy with their available choices. All of them are wonderfully detailed with exterior and interior views, though sadly the AutoVista mode is not included with Horizon. Further, Forza’s extensive car customization is in full effect here, so players can choose to tweak their rides as much as they could in the simulation-based predecessor. Further, those who don’t want to mess around can use the game’s automatic upgrade option to quickly get their car performance up a level or two. This means that the game has both great accessibility and depth, depending on which one you prefer.
While the game’s career mode is straightforward, there are some minor balancing concerns. Money flows in fast and in large amounts, which it’s not going to be a concern for most players. You can even participate in special Street races which provide bigger cash bonuses. Also, the AI isn’t all that great. If you recall from Forza 4, the AI loved crashing when in first place, and Forza Horizon has a similar but more subtle problem. Essentially, the player is usually in the middle of the pack for most of the race, but in the latter half you’ll find the AI in the lead slowing down or driving too cautiously, letting you slip into the lead in the final stretch. It’s certainly not your driving skills that suddenly improve, so the AI seems to be allowing the player to catch up and take the lead as the race enters the final stages. After getting to the lead, just blocking the cars behind you from passing is enough to hold on. It’s a bit disappointing to see and can be rather obvious in some races, regardless if you’re driving a better or worse car than the opposition. Still, it’s decently enjoyable to compete offline and some races do go down to the wire.
On the track, Forza Horizon is largely an arcade experience. There’s no mechanical damage and the visual damage can be turned off so you can admire your car without any scratches. Driving mechanics feel just right, with enough difference between the various types and classes of cars, and feel highly comparable to Dirt 2 or Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. Off-road racing is also present in the game, though it’s not a huge game changer; taking your Lamborghini across some back country roads does feel rather freeing. There are still no changing weather conditions, but that might just be nitpicking.
While you’re cruising around exploring or completing races, the game offers another gameplay distraction, a so-called popularity meter. Whenever you perform stunts, be that drifting, near misses, or other dangerous driving styles, you will earn points. The more stunts you put together without crashing, the higher your multiplier and end score will be. With this system, sponsor bonuses are incorporated, granting you cash prizes when you reach certain stunt milestones. Also, reaching certain popularity ranks unlocks special events, where you get a chance to race against an airplane or a helicopter. Yes, you read that correctly and it’s as thrilling as it sounds.
After you’ve sufficiently explored the world and finished your career, which can easily take over 20 hours and that’s only doing enough races to rack up the cash and wrist bands necessary, the online competition offers more reasons to play. The successful Rivals system from Forza 4 returns to challenge you at every race to beat a ghost car of another player. It’s an indirect and yet highly addictive way to compete with others. Some cash is offered as well but it’s hardly worth it; the desire to best an anonymous rival far superseding anything else.
The rest of formal online modes include the ability to roam with up to 8 friends and compete in open world challenges, formal circuit and sprint races, and some special games such as Infected or King. Players can level up their profile in online play (but not via Rivals), and with a chance to win cars and cash every time you gain a new rank. The online action itself is stable and while your driving is fine, online opponents tend to spaz around the track and even drop below ground. Not a huge issue, but hopefully resolved within reasonable time. Overall the multiplayer options are extensive and feel as abundant as the offline components.
Being a Forza game means Horizon needs to live up to certain levels of polish in both technical and presentation aspects, and the game does so without a hitch. The developers have managed to create one of the best looking open world driving games of recent times, with awe-inspiring backdrops and what’s further, the ability to actually explore many of these distant locations. Indeed, the gorgeous open world combined with a high level of detail in the environments – between forests and deserts to the small towns littered in between – and a full day/night cycle create a rather lasting impression. As mentioned all of the cars look great as well, and though the lighting effects and textures aren’t quite as super-high resolution as those in Forza 4, it’s not exactly a big deal. And best of all, it all runs at a rock solid framerate and without any technical hiccups.
Where many games have tried to reign in the party atmosphere of something like a racing festival, Horizon gets it almost perfectly right. The whole festival area in the middle of the map is simply fun to drive around and it feels as though you’re part of the atmosphere. Seeing the distant lights of the party at night adds further to the feeling. The game actually opens with a surprisingly well done cutscene, but sadly it’s the only one in the whole game, and in fact the final race feels rather anticlimactic. Also, the various characters you defeat at each wrist band level often start their races by mocking your ability, which is a disappointing throwback to the worst of Dirt 2, and takes away from the otherwise pleasant atmosphere of the game world.
Aside from the visuals, a special mention must be had about the game’s soundtrack, which works just as hard as the open world visuals to create the atmosphere. Horizon features three radio stations – Bass, Rock, and Pulse - with great DJs that make you wish they were on the real radios. But most importantly, each radio channel features some simply fantastic tracks, obviously hand-picked by the developers. You get everything from Digitalism, Wolfgang Gartner, Ladyhawke, to Arctic Monkeys and Lostprophets. Simply put, this is probably the best licensed soundtrack of the year, not only thanks to great track selection but also because how well everything fits together.
It’s no easy task following up on our Best Racing Game of 2011, Forza Motorsport 4. Not only that, but also attempting to create the first accessible and arcade-focused entry in a prominent sim franchise. And not only that, but also trying to create an open world racing experience that has been largely absent in recent years. In all these aspects, Forza Horizon succeeds. A couple of slip ups in presentation and AI aside, this is a fun arcade racing experience for any and all car nuts out there. It takes the best elements of other games and puts them together into a beautiful and expansive world, creating an almost irresistible mix of exploration, racing, and car tuning. What first seemed like a risky spinoff or even just a cash-in, Forza Horizon has instead blossomed into an experience that shouldn’t be missed by racing fans this year.