Here’s the dilemma: You are Turn 10, the developer of arguably the best racing/car sim game series of this generation. Your last game, the fourth numbered game in the series, won every major racing game award, and was the highest rated racing game of 2011, according to Metacritic. Your game series has attracted gearheads and causal fans equally, and the name “Forza” now carries serious weight in both the gaming AND racing worlds. How are you supposed to top all of that?
How about making a game that takes the plot of every bad ’80s “find yourself” sports movie, like North Shore and Hot Dog: The Motion Picture, and mash your award-winning car franchise to it? The end result is Forza Horizon.
To be fair, the idea is good on paper. Combine racing – primarily street racing – and music, and a story, and voice acting, and create a game that transcends multiple genres at once. Then, partner with U.K. based Playground Games, who is made up of veterans of the racing game world, and together you bring in all of the biggest names in the business to collaborate on the project. We’re talking the programmers, designers and producers of every major racing game in the past decade. Set the game somewhere in the middle of America, and add as many cars as you can to fill out the experience. The big question is: does it work? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t that simple. If you are looking for a racing/car simulation, Forza Horizon is not it.
Forza Horizon focuses around a fictional festival that is held each year in Colorado called the Horizon Festival. Racers and car aficionados gather in this little part of the Centennial State to race all day (and night. When they aren’t racing, there are live bands playing on huge stages along with food, games and fun.
The game opens with a nameless protagonist snatching up one of ten free entries into the 2012 Horizon Festival competition. This protagonist happens to be a nobody racer trying to make a name for himself in the world, but the three-time defending Horizon Festival champion, Darius Flynt (yes, that is his name) stands in the way. Luckily, the organizer of the festival happens to be a hot, twenty-something woman who takes a shine to the nameless hero and helps him find his way through the maze of races that make up the meat of the story. Of course, there 70 or so races lead up to a final confrontation with Flynt, and… well, if you have ever seen a movie with this set up, you know the exact outcome after the dust settles.
There are a good variety of races and race-like events. They include simple street races, which can be instigated by hitting the X button as you drive close to another competitor. There are rival races that help you earn cash and street cred, and there are showcase events that move the “story” along. “Start showdowns” are the Forza Horizon equivalent to a boss battle. If you beat the driver, you not only win their car, but you are allowed to move up into the next tier of rankings.
Each race, festival event, and even illegal “pinkies” races give you points to earn colored wristbands. The more wristbands that are won, the more events there are that can be unlocked. This is the bulk of the game.
Now, there are many other things to do, and Turn 10 and Playground have shoved as many customization elements as they could into Forza Horizon. There is the Autoshow to buy and sell cars; Dak’s Garage for upgrades; Paintshop to paint and create customized decals for your rides; Marketplace to purchase tokens and other add-on content; Race Central, which is the hub for the game’s story; and a Car Club where you join with friends and compete to see who is the best, or even race other clubs.
Also, the Colorado countryside is peppered with barns containing new and classic cars that if you find them (they are hidden really well) you get to keep the car. With this being said, you will quickly learn that the law does not exist in this alternate version of Colorado, as racing and property destruction, and apparently grand theft auto is encouraged by just about everybody, right down to the DJs on the three radio stations that cover the Horizon Festival.
The Colorado of Forza Horizon, while free of any police presence, is beautifully rendered and includes many different areas to race in. Long, straight strips of four-lane interstate can quickly turn to treacherous mountain roads that throw curves at you at every turn. Though the setting is fictional, it feels realistic, which is a calling card in all Forza games. The trees and fields and mountains all explode with color and the spotlights and fireworks that are shot into the night sky each evening are wonderfully realistic. Playground Games did an excellent job recreating a perfect, and graphically stunning, environment to race in.
One way to become popular in Forza Horizon is to drive with style. Huge points are awarded for long drifting, which there is almost too much of for my tastes, as well as near miss collisions and even wrecking, if the wreck is particularly devastating. There are also Horizon speed traps which reward the driver for fast speeds at set intervals, as opposed to tickets and fines for what amounts to insanely reckless driving. As you can imagine, speed – consistent speed – leads to high cash rewards and popularity. And of course, everything is recorded so the player is constantly trying to better their speeds, scores, or whatever.
The aforementioned music is one of the highlights of Forza Horizon. There are three radio stations, complete with DJs that spin the tunes and constantly chatter (ala Grand Theft Auto), that sponsor the Horizon Festival: Horizon Rocks, which is obviously a rock station, Horizon Bass Arena, which plays house and dubstep, and Horizon Pulse, which plays eclectic pop and indie fare. Each station plays around 20 songs from nearly as many bands. Most of the music is remixed specially for this game, and all the music serves to create an incredible soundtrack to the life of a competitive street racer.
Forza Horizon utilizes Kinect support with an interactive GPS. The player can say “GPS, Next Event” and the map will automatically configure to lead the player to the closest event. As with most Kinect features, it works about 80% of the time, and only after shouting over the roaring engines and thumping music. The player can also bring up the map by pressing select and choosing the route themselves.
It wouldn’t be a Forza game without a decent multiplayer mode. Forza Horizon supports up to eight players via XBOX LIVE, and the players can race in free mode, co-op challenges, games, such as cat and mouse and road tag, and certain players can become rivals, which open up new levels of challenge. Of course, you can always go with a “Hopper,” which is basically a quick race against up to seven other challengers.
Forza Horizon is a bold new direction, and choice, coming from a developer that has built its reputation on realistic graphics and realistic racing physics. Giving the player an open world to play in, and coupling it with a story (no matter how cheesy or cliche) and then adding what is known as the “Forza DNA,” Playground Games and Turn 10 have created a new experience that takes the racing game enthusiast to a whole new place. Forza Horizon will appeal to a diverse crowd, and that is the point.
The best way to describe Forza Horizon’s place within the franchise is as a side story. It works on many levels, and there is plenty to do, better times to achieve and bigger and better cars to unlock or outright buy. When racing, it is 100% Forza, and that is what makes it great, regardless of the silly story. It’s safe to say that Turn 10 will supplement this game with regular doses of DLC to keep the game fresh, even after Darius Flynt is left choking on your exhaust.
Shop for Forza Horizon for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 23, 2012 release date).