Review: Forza Horizon

ForzaHorizon

Let’s make this clear up front: Forza Horizon is not Forza Motorsport 5.

Forza Motorsport is known as Microsoft’s rival to Sony’s Gran Turismo franchise in the race to be the best damn simulation racing video game money can buy. Horizon has the Forza DNA pumping through its engine, but eschews the series’ usual simulation focus in favor of free-roam action racing heavily influenced by underground music festivals and street racing culture.

Forza Horizon takes skilled drivers to the idyllic Rocky Mountain state of Colorado for the Horizon Festival, a rave-like event where players party it up and compete against other top racers for cash, cars, colored wristbands, and street cred. The whole Fast and the Furious “we’re cool because we drive fast cars and break the law” attitude is a bit of a turn off, especially once you factor in the generic personality stereotypes of the festival stars you face off against (black hip-hop cool guy, cocky returning champion, sophisticated foreign dude who thinks he’s better than everyone else, tough girl trying to prove she can hang with the boys, etc.). But who really plays a racing game for the story? I sure as hell don’t.

What I care about in any racing game is, well, the racing of course, and racing is what Forza Horizon does best. New developer Playground Games has basically condensed the M.O.O.R. racing model innovated by Test Drive Unlimited into a smaller open world racing environment built mainly for the solo driver. Single player and multiplayer are two separate entities in this game, not a unified massively multiplayer online format like TDU where other live players can be seen and challenged from within the same world. Ghost rival races, paint design trading and integrated leaderboards are pretty much the only features that connect the single player experience to the online community at large. To actually race against other players, you must first quit out of single player mode.

Horizon’s authentically fictionalized recreation of Colorado is smaller than other free-roam racers you may have played, taking no more than 10 minutes to drive from one side of the map to the other in a fast car. However, in the context of solo play it’s plenty large enough to keep you busy cruising the streets for tens of hours. I’ve put around 15 hours into the game up to this point, which has been enough to complete the main festival storyline and play around some on the side, but only amounts to an overall completion percentage of 51%. There are still leftover festival races to wrap up; street races to be won; probably more than 100 licensed cars still to collect; PR stunts (photo shoots, speed traps, skill challenges) to complete for discounted quick travel; a few junked classic cars stashed in secret barns to find; hidden discount signs to run over; and a popularity ranking to max out. This game does not skimp on content or replay value, I assure you.

Behind the wheel, Horizon operates at peak performance, borrowing the impeccable physics engine from Forza 4 and injecting it with a smooth, easy riding approachability for gaming drivers of all skill levels. Assists, such as the driving line and a real-time rewind mechanic that allows players to immediately turn back time and erase a spinout or poor turn from their record, open the game up more to casual drivers and to those of us who don’t enjoy rerunning races that were only lost because of one braking error on the final lap. Enthusiast drivers can just as easily turn these assists off and rev up the difficulty level for a more realistic and demanding experience, with an increase in bonus credits to be earned for playing with less hand holding.

Horizon does not attempt to achieve pure sim realism—car damage is merely cosmetic, the upgrade system is fairly basic, and reckless driving is rewarded over proper racing etiquette—but it’s not some fluff arcade racer either. Certain showcase events will have you racing from point to point against an airplane or hot air balloon, but that’s as crazy as this game gets. Don’t expect to find nitro boosters, weapons, or over-the-top crash animations here, because Horizon is not that type of racer. Playground Games managed to find an ideal middle ground, balancing accessibility with skill-based control, realism with an aggressive arcade flair. The mix works, and the game is loads of fun to play as a result.

Another example of this meeting between skilled driving and pedal-to-the-metal aggression can be seen in the stunt system. Whether you’re cruising the open road or engaged in lap-based circuit races, performing skills such as drifts, drafts and one-eighties or driving like a daredevil by near-missing other cars on the road and smashing over roadside signs and fences rewards you with skill points, and by combining multiple skills in rapid succession a multiplier gradually builds. If you’re able to complete a stunt or maintain a skill combo without crashing into another car or bumping a wall, the points will eventually be banked and contribute to a global popularity ranking, and by rising in popularity you can earn extra credits and eventually even bonuses from sponsors like Oakley, Adidas, and Bose. You are never not accomplishing something.

The convergence of arcade and sim also extends into the multiplayer mode, where up to eight drivers compete in standard lap and point-to-point races, or more fun-focused events such as Infected, in which infected cars attempt to smash into and infect “survivor” cars until the last man standing wins, and Cat and Mouse, in which two rival teams attempt to escort their designated mouse driver to the finish line while the cat drivers try to impede the other team’s mouse.

Multiplayer is solid overall, with a roulette-style unlock system that randomly rewards you with sums of cash or a new car upon each level gain, along with steady online performance and helpful matchmaking filters that put you in appropriate races according to your skill and car quality. But as mentioned earlier, it’s disappointing that single player and multiplayer are not more harmoniously tied together. You can join friends in a co-op free-roam mode, but the two halves of the game are disconnected in such a way that just seems like a step back from what games like Test Drive Unlimited have been able to pull off in the past.

The most annoying thing about the game, though, is how hard it pushes micro-transactions and DLC. Seriously, it’s like there’s a used car salesman AI built into the game constantly reminding you that Microsoft Points can be used to buy unlock tokens, which in turn can be used in place of in-game currency to purchase cars or to buy cheats that reveal hidden items on the map or give you a short-duration popularity spike for doubled skill points. What is this, an iPhone game? The problem is how convenient the whole token system makes unlocking content, almost as if the developers purposefully made higher end cars so expensive so that players would forgo hours of grinding out enough credits the old fashioned way in favor of spending small chunks of real money to unlock a hot ride in a matter of seconds. The Season Pass DLC seems rather shady too. 4000 MS Points (that’s almost the price of the full game!) for an expansion pack coming in December and monthly car add-ons through April 2013? Ummm… No thanks.

Thankfully, DLC and tokens are completely optional, and the content provided straight out of the box makes this one racing festival worth attending. Although lacking seamless online integration, Forza Horizon totally delivers on its promise of a robust sandbox racer. A refreshing change from the tropical locales and dark cityscapes seen far too often in racing games, the Colorado scenery of small rural towns, majestic, snow-capped mountains, gushing geysers, and forests bursting with the colors of autumn, is also a joy to take in as you pound the open road in your Mini Cooper or Bugatti Super Sport. As long as you know going in not to expect the next Forza Motorsport simulation, Forza Horizon’s brand of action racing will have your gamer engine purring like a kitten.

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Pros:
+ Diverse open world littered with events and side activities
+ Colorado-inspired scenery is absolutely beautiful
+ Good balance of traditional Forza realism and accessible arcade qualities
+ Optional assists cater to newcomers but don’t spoil things for Forza enthusiasts

Cons:
– Disconnect between single player and multiplayer
– Tokens and DLC seem like a greedy cash grab
– Music festival attitude feels forced and artificial

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Playground Games
Release Date: 10/23/2012
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8 (2-8 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!