- Xbox 360
Forza and its main rival Gran Turismo exist for a different audience than the casual boy racer: they’re for car enthusiasts who will happily spend hours tweaking their suspension and tyre pressure, or adding another layer of lacquer to their go-faster stripes.
The problem is that many find that level of dedication pretty dull. While Forza Motorsport 4 did an admirable job of appealing to a wider base of players, there’s only so many times you can drive around the same circuits before you find yourself asleep at the wheel. We’re not ready for Forza 5 yet: instead, Forza Horizon is a rethought pitstop strategy, a game that dilutes the more hardcore aspects of racing simulation to capture the hearts of a more ‘casual’ crowd.
To the veteran Forza player, this change of tack is borderline blasphemous. There’s a thick application of hot pink lipstick to the menus, egregious video sequences with people in pimped rides listening to dubstep and using cringeworthy American slang. The inclusion of a story in a racing game, especially one where your character is a gormless dude with one-dimensional bogeymen as rivals, feels trite and unnecessary. The constant radio messages from the flirtatious course organiser border on sexual harassment. It’s a stark contrast between the refined, ‘cheese and wine’ European sensibilities of Forza 4 and the ‘burger fried on a car radiator, washed down with lukewarm Budweiser’ stylings of Horizon.
It’s not just the aesthetics which have been dumbed down. In a concession to accessibility, the handling model of Forza 4 has been simplified as well. Cars seem grippier, turning faster and with greater certainty. This alleviates the need for concentration when wrestling with a slippy RWD Ferrari 599 or the bouncy, Dukes of Hazzard chaos of a classic muscle car. Where previous Forza games used controller vibration to convey tyre movements – you could actually feel the grip slipping away – in Horizon it only indicates the obvious, like driving across gravel or shredding your tyres in a burnout.
There’s an obvious advantage to this simplicity: Forza Horizon is fun. A different kind of fun, sure, but it’s entertaining right out of the box. The Horizon festival is one big racing-themed party that stretches out across the Colorado landscape. Drivers cruise the desert highways, begging to be challenged. Illegal street races can be found in the small-town car parks. The centrepiece is the Horizon festival site, with auto shops and sound stages illuminated by fireworks. The environment is varied and beautiful, packed with incidental details like the sun rising over a canyon at dawn or the stabilising tail fin of a McLaren MP4–12C raising automatically as you reach top speed. Despite the crass nature of this world, you find yourself absorbed in it.
Horizon replaces linear race progression with an open-world map to explore, peppered with new races and secrets to explore. It never really takes full advantage of this as races, whether circuitous or point-to-point, follow predefined routes. In street races, drivers have limited freedom to interpret the race course as they see fit. Real individual expression comes from the new skill point system. While Forza series veterans may see this as an extension of Forza 4’s system, it’s actually much more similar to PGR’s Kudos – unsurprising given that the developer, Playground Games, include staff who worked on PGR.
Drifting around corners, smashing through scenery and drafting behind opponents before slingshotting past them all add to your points tally, which increases your position on the popularity charts. Points make prizes, unlocking cash bonuses for attaining certain numbers of near misses and ‘Showcase’ events where you can do daft things like race a Ferrari F40 against a biplane. It’s an addictive system that makes you want to arse about, sliding around a golf course for the sake of it. Skill is not as interwoven into the game’s fabric as Kudos was in PGR, with an emphasis on horseplay rather than sheer driving skill. You won’t get any points for following the racing line.
Skill points also exert influence in the multiplayer modes, acting as a multiplier to increase rewards. Despite the inclusion of ‘playground’ games like Cat and Mouse and Infection, online races are disappointingly formulaic. Much more impressive is the aping of Need for Speed’s Autolog feature with constantly-updated leaderboards. You’ll get a message when a friend busts a speed camera record. When you complete a race, you can challenge a rival’s best time for a healthy credit bonus. ‘Press X to bring it’, the game taunts, and you’ll find it hard to resist.
Falling halfway between the American anarchy of Burnout 3 and the European chic of Forza Motorsport 4, Forza Horizon doesn’t quite reach the glory of either. It’s a game where two game design philosophies collide head-on and somehow survive in spite of each other. What you lose in refinement, you gain in raw entertainment. Forza Horizon doesn’t take the road less travelled, but it’s a worthwhile journey nevertheless.