Reviews

Forza: Horizon – Review

Platforms: Xbox 360
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes
PEGI: 12+

This game was provided free of charge by Microsoft for review.

What do you get when you combine the open roads of Test Drive: Unlimited with the deep handling model of Forza? The answer is Forza: Horizon, a massive departure from the norm of the Forza franchise and the first game in the series not developed by Turn 10. And so it’s important that we get something cleared up right away: this isn’t Forza 5, nor is it trying to be Forza 5. This is a spin-off, a new beast bearing the Forza branding, and that means it can’t be judged too much against the previous four Forza titles. Take heed hardcore Forza fans, take heed.

Though the marketing team would never actually admit it, Horizon is clearly designed to be far more accessible than the previous games, and to entice new-comers with a more friendly, fun vibe in comparison to the series usual…. uh, deadly serious approach to racing. Don’t let these words fool you, though, because while Horizon boasts a friendlier demeanor and is definitely a more accessible title for newcomers to enjoy there’s still plenty on offer here for racing fans to love. As for the Forza purists, as long as you’re willing to go into the game with an open mind, even you should enjoy it.

Forza: Horizon is built entirely around the premise of the Horizon festival, a massive annual event featuring live music  and huge parties where racers from all around the world converge to compete in a massive tournament to determine whose the best driver of them all. As the newcomer on the block your rather lofty goal is work your way through the tournament and take on Darius Flynt, the winner of Horizon for the past three years and now global media sensation – predictably, he’s a bit of a dick. And straight away it almost looks like Horizon is going to dare do what few racing games have ever tried and tell a story. After a tutorial race that eases you into the driving mechanics a brilliantly rendered CGI cutscene introduces you to Horizon, and the  beautiful PR girl who’ll be the voice in your ear for much of the game. And with a few cocky racers to take on along the way aside from Darius himself it almost looks like it could be the basis for a simple little storyline about your rise to fame. It’s not, though. After that the beautifully rendered cutscenes are never seen again and the closest thing you’ll come to a storyline is the obnoxious competitors you’ll encounter along the way, each of which are about as generic and annoying as you could possibly imagine, spouting one-liners that could have been written by a five-year old. Rest assured I’m certainly not going to be knocking points off of Horizon’s score for not having a storyline, after all you don’t pick up a racing game expecting some brilliant plot, but for just a moment I found myself genuinely believing that Horizon might give it a shot. And in a strange way I’m almost disappointed it didn’t: the festival could have been the foundations for a simple but fun little plot to help spur you on through the racing. Of course racing games don’t have a very good track record (crap joke ahoy!) when it comes to stories, so if they had given it a shot it would have probably just given us all a headache, so it’s probably for the best, especially since what is here is….crap. Still, I can dream can’t I?

Working your way through the festival is a simple enough thing: there are events scattered all around the map, each one offering up points for victory. Earn enough points and you’ll earn, in keeping with the festival concept, a color-coded wristband which denotes that you’re allowed to enter the next level of events where the competition and prize-money obviously gets a little bigger. Every time you earn another wristband you’ll also be given a chance to go one-on-one with your main rival from the previous set of events – win and you get the pink slip to their car, bragging rights and, of course, the satisfaction of wiping the grin off of their annoying faces. Interspersing all of this are the Showcase events that are unlocked with another of Horizon’s new features: the Popularity meter. Winning races is one thing, but being popular with the crowd is quite another. Sliding your car around, getting air, performing great overtakes and generally just demonstrating your mastery of car control and looking cool while doing it all earn you points that see you jump up the popularity ranks – all the way from 250th to number 1. As you progress through the ranks Showcase events will unlock. Showcase events aren’t about advancing through the tournament – they don’t earn you points toward the next wristband – they’re about entertaining the crowd, after all, it is a festival. You might find yourself racing a plane or a hot air balloon, or perhaps you’ll be in a massive race full of minis. No matter what the Showcase events are always great fun to compete in, and a victory means you get to keep the ride that was provided for you by the event’s sponsor. Sometimes it’s just a crappy little thing, other times it’s a real prize. The Popularity concept is mostly superfluous, but any excuse to perform one-eighties and drive like an idiot is a welcome one.

But the Horizon festival’s primary role is simply to set the tone for the game. It’s a blaze of music, crowds and neon lights that can be clearly seen during the night from a considerable distance away. Crowds stand and cheer at the start line for races, bursts of confetti from cannons greet you at the finish and there’s three radios station to choose from that constantly pump out a fantastic music selection and chat about what is going on in the world of Horizon. To be completely honest, I didn’t really venture off the Rock radio station.  The atmosphere, then, is handled well throughout the game. It’s a stark contrast to Forza 4’s cold, white, sterile menus and general lack of charisma. Fans have long argued that Forza  has plenty of personality, and yet many would disagree with that, myself included. The festival aims  to constantly remind us that Horizon is a very different breed from Turn 10’s developments, oozing personality from its pink and black color scheme. As great as Forza 4 was it almost seemed like that in their haste to create a technically brilliant simulation they forgot the feeling of passion and excitement that cars and racing invoke. Forza 4 was about precision, about shaving tenths of a second off of your laps  –  Horizon is about racing and fun. They’re two different styles of game, each offering up a different side of motorsport, both exceptional in their own ways.

 The festival’s other role is to serve as a hub from which you can access your garage, upgrade cars, paint ’em and much more. Rather than navigating through everything using a good old-fashioned main menu you now drive around the centre of the festival in a circle to whichever thing you want to access. To be completely honest this isn’t really an improvement over a simple menu system. I’m all for coming up with slick new ways to handle the user interface, but driving around in a small circle just seems a bit pointless, and it’s made worse by the loading times that frequently pop up when navigating everything. Hit X to enter the Autoshow and everything is fine, but actually select a car to view it and choose a color and BAM! Loading screen. And then to upgrade my new car I’ve got to exit that and drive around the ring to get to my garage. At first it’s sort of cool: after all, this is about as much of the actual Horizon festival as you really get to see. As important as Horizon is for setting the fun-loving attitude up, it’s not like you’re in the crowds dancing and listening to music, or soaking up the atmosphere – you just drive through it every now and then. But the more and more you use the hub, the more irritating it becomes to have to drive around the place. Sorry guys, but… can I have my menu back?

Horizon lies at the heart of the new open world that Playground has created for you to have fun in and soak up the festival atmosphere. The map is essentially a shrunk down version of Colarado, a wealth of undulating roads, hairpins, dirt tracks, fast corners and beautiful views. Of course open roads mean that you’re not the only person cruising around. Not only are there other AI racers roaming the roads, each of whom you can challenge to a quick race, if you should so wish, but there’s also AI controller traffic to consider while you’re blitzing down a mountainside road at a 180mph. Don’t worry, though, Playground has carefully balanced out the actual amount of cars roaming the roads, so you don’t have to be dodging cars every few seconds, but there’s enough to keep yo on your toes and your eyes on stalks. As for the map itself it’s nowhere near the size offered up by Test Drive Unlimited 2, but that’s not a bad thing by any means. Horizon’s map is, in my view, almost perfectly sized. In a few hours you’ll have a passing knowledge of the layout, within a day or two you’ll know the roads pretty well, and within a week or two of solid playing you’ll know them intimately. You’ll want to know them intimately, as well, because they really are a joy to drive, and even more so to race on. Playground have done a great job in carefully picking out what roads to use in their races and the results are usually far more entertaining and fun than the majority of modern-day “real” tracks created specifically for motorsport. Gone are the perfectly smooth surfaces of race tracks and their lack of elevation changes, replaced by dips, undulations, kinks, cambers, bumps and awesome corners. Sanctioned Horizon events take place on these roads but with access to the public closed so you don’t have to worry about accidentally plowing into some poor guys car when he’s just trying to get to work, and damn are they fun to race on! It’s not just tarmac, either, as a first for the series also has you tackling dirt races, but we’ll get back to those later on when we delve into the handling. Outside of the sanctioned Horizon events there are Street Races to take part in, because quite obviously when you host a massive freaking party for people with fast cars they’re not always going to obey the law. Street Races don’t earn you points or help toward your ranking at the Horizon tournament, but they do offer far larger cash prizes for victory. They also take place on public roads, which means you’re going to have to do some traffic dodging to claim that win. Don’t worry, though, Street Races are entirely optional events, so if racing through traffic isn’t your thing then you never have to take part in any of them.

As for the cars that on offer for you to cruise around in and tackle races with you’d be forgiven for just thinking that Playground would quite literally grab the entire roster of automobiles from Forza 4 and slot it neatly into Horizon. They didn’t, though. Instead there’s a considerably thinner roster of cars for you to spend your hard-earned in-game credits on, or, if you prefer, you can buy them with Microsoft Points. However, credits are plentiful in Horizon, so no matter what car you’ve set your eyes on it’s hardly ever going to worth spending real money on it. On one level it’s of course hard not to feel disappointed when you get less of something, but in reality the more streamlined car selection makes sense. Playground stated in the build-up to release that they attempted to select cars that would suit the festival atmosphere. To be honest it’s pretty hard to determine what cars constitute such a thing, but there’s no denying that the majority of cars on offer are pretty cool, although having said that there are some odd choices. For example there’s just two Aston Martins in the game,  , so if you’re like me and you love the DB9 you’re tough out of luck, because it’s not there. There’s a couple of other notable cars missing that I felt disappointed at having not been included as well, but in the end the car selection is solid. Plus, there’s going to be the invariable torrent of DLC cars, I have no doubt, so maybe I’ll see my beloved DB9 after all. Not that I’ll be buying it in DLC form.

 

Whatever car you pick you can head over to the Garage and upgrade it in pretty much exactly the same fashion as you could in Forza 4, turning old-bangers into beasts capable of taking on cars worth far more than them. Everything from the rims to the flywheel to the brakes can be upgraded. However, the ability to set up your car hasn’t made the transition from Forza 4, presumably in keeping with Horizon’s more accessible nature. No longer can you tweak the brake bias, adjust the gear ratios or just spend hours setting up your Ford GT to hit the red at the end of the maps longest straight. It’s a shame to see this feature vanish, and yet really given the nature of the game it’s not that big of a loss: setting up a car is about shaving fractions of a second of your lap time, and Horizon just isn’t about that. But you can at least still paint your car in numerous stupid ways! That’s right, the entire painting suite from Forza 4 has also be stitched into Horizon, and so if you’ve got the time and patience you can create absurdly detailed artwork from your car using the expansive options. Or, like many, you can just draw a giant penis on it, and then attempt to sell it online to other players who also want a car with a penis on it but can’t be assed to create one themselves. Sadly, though, unlike selling decals the ability to sell cars online hasn’t made the transition.

The festival atmosphere, open-world, music and even the splashes of vibrant colors that adorn the event entry tickets all scream Arcade racer at the top of their lungs, and yet oddly Horizon has its roots firmly in the territory of realism. As I stated the start of this long-winded review Playground have transplanted the handling model of Forza 4 straight into Horizon with just a few tweaks made along the way to ensure that it suits the more accessible and fun tone of their game. So that means with all the customisable driving assists on, which for the uninitiated there’s plenty to tweak to make the handling match your skill, it pretty much drives itself, but turn them all of and you’ve got the full-fat Forza 4 handling, which means cars feel connected to the track and handle with a reassuring weight, predictability and realism. Playground have tweaked the handling to make it a little more forgiving and a bit looser – more prone to sliding and drifting, and easier to control and correct when it does – making racing feel a little more on the edge and visceral, something which Forza has been missing in previous installments. The roads you’re racing on also ensure that far more car control is required this time around, as well as the ability to judge how a banked corner or bump will affect your ride. In fact the only thing that’s really missing now is a realistic camera that actually looks around corners, like the one in the Shift series, but I guess we can’t have everything. The result of this package is that driving cars is an absolute joy regardless of whether you’re actually in a race or just out for a quick drive around the map. And rest assured just cruising around the mini-fied (That’s a word, right?) version of  Colorado in a beautiful car soaking up the even more beautiful sunsets is quite possibly the defining moment in Horizon. As it turns out, this open-world stuff really does work for Forza.

The offroad handling isn’t bad, either. As I so subtly alluded to earlier for the first time in the franchise you’ll be able to take to the dirt in either pure off-road races or mixed surface races. Obviously Playground have had to adjust the handling a little bit more for this because otherwise attempting to hammer around a dirt track in some of faster machines wouldn’t go too well. Make no mistake Horizon isn’t going to be a rival for the DiRT series any time soon, but Playground have done a good job on the handling, and in particular the surface change between tarmac and dirt keeps mixed surface races fun.

Playground have also tried hard to integrate that whole social aspect thing into their game. Scattered around the map are speed traps where you can compete with your friends for the best speed and bragging rights. More important, though, is the whole Rivals concept. Every time you finish a race you’re presented with a Rival  – sometimes it’s a friend, other times it’s just a random person from live – to take on and defeat. There’s usually a credit prize for doing so, but mostly again it’s for bragging rights, so you can happily lean back in your chair and utter, to the world in general, f*ck yeah, I’m that good. Head back to the Horizon festival and to the Race Central and you can also find even more Rival challenges for you take on, constantly driving you to become better and better. As good as all of this is, however, Playground did drop the ball slightly with it. You see, any time one of your friends goes faster through a speedtrap or beats your time in a race you get an instant in-game message to let you know, which is great, but what’s not great is that you can’t just jump straight to the speedtrap or race via the message. No, if you want to and beat your Rivals time you need to go back to the festival, into Race Central and then trawl through the menus to find the race or event. Oh Playground, why didn’t you just let us jump straight to the event from the in-game message? It would have encouraged so much more competitive play, but as it stands I just couldn’t be bothered about Rivals beating my times because I didn’t want to trawl through menus to take them on. The concept is solid, then, but the execution is lacking.

The other competitive aspects are fine, though. As you would well expect Horizon has multiplayer as well as singleplayer, allowing you to take on all manner or random people who believe they can best you on the track. Horizon offers up a beginners zone for those new to the game where you can race until you’ve gained a few levels, at which point you’;re booted out into the cold and merciless online world. Obviously your standard races are completely catered for with the option to use cars from your own garage or get one on loan to compete with. There’s a Pure Skill section as well that turns off upgrades and limits the entire field to the same car, ensuring that it’s just skill which determines the winner – or whoever is most vicious when it comes to battering everyone else off the road, although at this point it’s worth mentioning that the crash physics are far more forgiving in Horizon than previous games, so somebody slamming into online now doesn’t equal race over for you. The bad news, though, is that those more forgiving crash physics have come at the expense of the damage modelling, which is to say there’s really none. And if all of that seriousness doesn’t sound very appealing then there’s a couple of more manic modes to try out, like King, which is essentially tag with cars. And when you win online events the game has a simple but awesome reward mechanic wherein a little wheel gets spun and you win whatever it stops on! It might be some cash or it could be a badass new car for use in both singleplayer and multiplayer! Nice! Still, as fun as multiplayer is I do feel disappointed that the open-world which Playground worked so hard to create isn’t really utilised as well as it could have been here. It’s possible to set up an online free-roam session with friends where there’s a variety of co-op challenges to take on like achieving so many near-misses with other cars or getting several people to pass through a speedtrap at 200mph within five seconds of each other, but a clunky menu system makes it feel a bit awkward. Want to take on a speedtrap challenge? Great! But the default setting won’t actually tell you where the speedtrap is. And only the host is actually allowed to select challenges for the players to take on. Finally, to check the details of the challenge your own you have to pull up a menu, rather than just having them displayed on the HUD. The real shame, though, is that there’s no way for friends to just drop straight into your game while your playing. Multiplayer is kept entirely seperate from the singleplayer, which feels like a wasted opportunity. Complaints aside, though, the multiplayer is a blast.

For you lot that also enjoy getting a mate or two round and playing some split-screen, there is none in Forza: Horizon. I’m just sayin’. You’ve been warned, right? However, if you do fancy teaming up with your friends a bit more than Horizon does offer up the ability to create car clubs. Members in a club can share cars with each other, assuming that they believe in sharing and don’t throw temper tantrums. And of course clubs can challenge other clubs to determine who is more awesome.

Alright, so far everything is pretty positive, which means obviously I’m just waiting to unleash a few extra criticisms. You’d be right, I am. Primarily the AI still sucks. I know that sounds harsh, but it is true. The AI in the Forza series has never been that impressive and nothing has changed here. They still have a tendency to brake hard in bloody stupid locations and they’re still not very capable in wheel to wheel racing, making overtaking them a dawdle unless they suddenly break out in one of their sudden aggressive phases, in which case expect to get smashed into for a few corners before they suddenly become very calm again. Although, to be fair, the AI is better than it was. Another flaw is that the games presentation can often feel like it’s just trying too damn hard to be completely different from Forza 4, like it’s jumping up and down waving a neon pink flag screaming, “HEY! LOOK AT ME! OVER HERE!”, sort of like the DiRT series.

Finally, there’s no race creation tool! Okay, now to be fair this isn’t a flaw as such, just a missed opportunity, but with the open world that Playground have created a race creation suite would have been utterly amazing!

So, Horizon has some flaws. But what Playground have done is marry the handling of Forza 4 with the open world of Test Drive Unlimited, and the result is a superb racer that certainly isn’t lacking in character. The open roads are a joy to drive, the handling is satisfying, the online play is fun and damn does it look good! Purists may scoff and continue awaiting Forza 5 without ever giving it a chance, but Horizon is an outstanding title and easily the best racer I’ve had the pleasure of playing this year. My hat is off to Playground Games.

The Good:
+ Beautiful open-world.
+ The handling is great.
+ It actually has character!

The Bad:
– AI still isn’t very good.
– Rivals aren’t integrated as well as they could have been.
– Damage model is all but gone.

The Score:

Graphics: 9
The cars all look great and the open-world is beautiful to behold. The presentation sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard, but the Horizon festival does at least give is some personality.

Sound: 8
The cars all sound great and the radio stations pump out great tunes. Sadly I’m not a fan of techno, dance or any of that gubbins so I stuck mostly to the Rock channel. Sorry.

Story: 1
Technically, it does actually have one. But it’s crap. And the characters are crap. And it’s crap.

Gameplay: 9
The awesome handling of Forza 4 has been tweaked a little to be more forgiving, a little more on edge and plenty more just plain fun! It’s not about precision, it’s about sliding around corners, but doing it realistically. If that makes sense.

Lifespan: 8
Do just enough races to advance through the tournament and it’ll take you ten hours. To doe ver race, event etc. around 30-hours. Throw in multiplayer and general goofing around and you’ve got a pretty big game.

The Verdict: 9
Forza: Horizon isn’t Forza 5, and for that I’m thankful. What Playground Games have created is an open-world racer brimming with character and packed full of brilliant racing. Put aside your snobbish attitude toward it and actually give it a shot: you might just find you have a liking for Horizon, a game which I can easily call the best racer of the year. So far, anyway.

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