Sunday Drivers, Beware

Forza Horizon
Reviewed On
Xbox 360
Available For

The Forza Motorsport franchise has come to epitomize the racing genre in the last several years. Through meticulous, painstaking detail, the series has become a gearhead’s virtual paradise. That level of detail and realism comes with a price, however. In crafting such an authentic experience, developer Turn 10 has forged a franchise that can be difficult for newcomers to pick up.

Enter Forza Horizon. It’s got the Forza name. It’s got the Forza physics engine. It’s got the same Forza controls. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Forza Horizon is as close to an arcade racer as the series has ever come. The game thrusts players into the driver’s seat from the first moments, immediately distinguishing itself from prior Froza games. Whereas prior entries in the franchise were about racing in a sophisticated, controlled manner on a closed circuit, Forza Horizon is about a setting speed records in a large, open-world environment.

It’s in this area of the game that Playground Games does its best work. The sense of speed in Forza Horizon is incredible. Gorgeously crafted landscapes meld into a blur as the speedometer rapidly increases while the engine audibly strains to exert every last ounce of horsepower it can. The open-world nature of the game also adds to the sense of speed, as players will need to take special care avoiding much slower-moving traffic.

Of course, driving like a maniac is rewarded in a game of this nature, with progression points given for maintaining high speed for a prolonged period of time, close calls with other vehicles, and even for property damage.

To compensate for how quickly vehicles drive, the developers also modified the game’s handling system. While drifting required a special car setup in other Forza games, all cars and trucks in Forza Horizon are pre-tuned to drift simply turning quickly. Although this may not sit well with some purists, it becomes clear from an early stage that drifting isn’t just a racing tactic in Forza Horizon; it’s a requirement.

The way vehicles drive isn’t the only thing that sets this game apart from other racing simulations. One of the game’s first events is a race between two Mustangs. There’s just one catch: one of the Mustangs is a P51 Mustang ‘ as in a plane. Players control a 1970s Ford Mustang during the race on a course that winds back-and-forth downhill around a canyon wall.

The race is designed to be close, with the plane moving faster in a straight line but having to make much wider turns. As a nice touch, the race is also set up so that the plane and car are actually moving in opposite directions, so each checkpoint sees the two pass each other head-on.

Forza Horizon boasts loads of other events like this, including racing a hot air balloon. Street racing, rally events and stunt challenges also help to keep the game feeling fresh and exciting.

Yet with all of the adrenaline-packed, heart-pounding competition, one of my favorite things to do was just ride around and relax. This illustrates what Forza Horizon is really about: having fun. There are few games I can think of that rival the simplistic ease this game has. The free roam mode is almost like the equivalent of zen mode in Bejeweled. There’s no intense thought process. It’s a great way to unwind, and it’s extremely easy to lose track of time zooming from place to place.

Forza Horizon’s beautiful vistas don’t make it any easier to put the controller down. Based on a number of Colorado towns, the game’s open world pulls every color it can out of the Crayola box and features scenes that look like they belong hanging on the wall of a travel agency. What’s more, the game also includes a photography mode, which allows players to pause the game and swivel the screen around to any angle they please for the perfect shot.

The cars look fantastic as well, and the most ardent fans will undoubtedly spend hours visually detailing their cars. For the less artistically gifted (like me), the option to purchase someone else’s design for in-game credit is also available.

For as much fun as Forza Horizon is, and for all of its aesthetic grandeur, it’s not perfect. While the number of ways to customize your vehicle is limited only by the imagination, the number of vehicles themselves isn’t. Although there are dozens of cars at launch with plenty more coming in downloadable packs, there are some glaring absences, the most notable arguably being the lack of any Porsches.

Additionally, the lack of car customization does have a downside to it. While it makes the game more approachable, it also diminishes Forza Horizon’s depth. Players can still purchase upgrades for their cars, but the ability to fine tune tire pressure, steering and other nuances is gone.

There’s also a 900-pound gorilla in the room that Playground Games tries to address: why are so many people suddenly racing around the streets of Colorado at break-neck speeds? The answer comes in the shape of a shallow, awkward, often times annoying story about a fictitious music/racing festival that takes place every year.

There’s a reason racing games don’t usually have stories, and Forza Horizon reinforces the point emphatically, frequently adding humor when none was intended. Periodic reminders from the race organizer also become tiresome after a while, especially when you’re in free roam mode.

The soundtrack doesn’t do the game many favors either. Players can choose from three different, but very similar, radio stations which play a mix of electronic music, remixed electronic music and rock. Fortunately, with a couple clicks of the D-pad, you can turn the music off altogether. Despite the soundtrack, the game gets it right when it comes to the actual cars. Each vehicle seems to have a distinct sound when it revs up, and the tire squeal is spot on.

Overall, Forza Horizon is a great game, though not perfect. Fans of arcade racers who haven’t jumped into the Forza series will find this game the most approachable one in the series, and veteran Forza fans will feel right at home with this worthy entry. Despite missing some customization features, the game is still a blast.

With a host of multiplayer modes and more downloadable car packs on the way, Forza Horizon has the replay value to keep going long for miles and miles. This is the game that shows what happens when Forza hits the street and cuts loose.

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