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Forza Horizon review: The king of the road takes to the country

Forza Horizon reviewI would not classify myself as a racing game fan. I enjoy them for the most part, and I certainly respect the genre, but I tend to play them and then forget them — with one notable exception. Forza Motorsport 4 was one of my favorite (and highest rated) games last year and it still remains in my gaming rotation. Although I do enjoy the odd car flavored news, and watching Top Gear gives me a momentary stat boost of +1 car knowledge, racing sims have not traditionally been my thing. There is just something meditative and tranquil about Forza 4 that keeps me coming back, but when Forza Horizon was announced, I admit that I greeted it with unveiled skepticism.

Taking a part of Forza’s identity – the racing physics – and dropping it into a different, even alien environment, felt like a half measure. It was not combining chocolate and peanut butter, it was combining chocolate and pickles. There are already plenty of racing games that have an arcade environment, but the Forza games just aren’t built that way. They are racing sims with a heavy, heavy emphasis on making you feel like you are actually in the car and racing on the famed Nürburgring, leaving skid marks on the Dayton asphalt. Sure, the two styles of racers share numerous similarities, but they are fundamentally different at their core, so combining them felt like a shallow attempt to perpetuate the Forza brand.

Turns out I was completely wrong. Forza Horizon is hands down the best racing game of the year. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t come close to surpassing Forza 4, but it stands on its own as an excellent addition to the franchise, and one I hope continues to grow.

Come for the Music, Stay for the Reckless Driving

The title of the game is a reference to the fictional Horizon festival located in the Colorado countryside. Although billed as a music event featuring bands like Friendly Fires, The Black Keys, and enough dubstep DJs to have you wub-wubbing for days, the real reason for you to be there is the accompanying auto show, which brings together 250 of the fastest and most insane people behind the wheel.

Forza HorizonYou, an unnamed rookie, are new to the circuit and trying to work your way up the ranks by winning races and completing challenges to gain popularity. As you begin to pile up wins, you unlock more races, discover and earn new cars, and face off against rivals – both AI-controlled and via the ghost data of your friends. There is a narrative to point you onward and give you more motivation, but it is more just a structure to invest your own ideals into. If you have played the other Forza games, you will probably appreciate what this is right away. After competing in dozens – even hundreds — of traditional races, it is natural to daydream a bit and imagine a rival you are chasing down, or give yourself illusory goals. Forza Horizon takes that to the next level, but doesn’t go much beyond that. 

There is an end game goal as you try to make it up the ranks to take on the champion, and there are a handful of cut scenes that pop up now and then, but they don’t really offer much. The story – if you can really even call it that – is quickly forgotten. In another game that might be a huge issue, but in Horizon it is barely missed. If anything it is a lost opportunity, but not a major issue with the game.

The Horizon festival is in the center of an expanse of Colorado that encompasses several environments, including twisting mountainous paths, open grasslands, barren deserts, and touches of civilization including houses and even a golf course. The map itself is huge, and it’s littered with objectives – some fixed, others like the dozens of AI-controlled competitors, are constantly searching the countryside for challengers to engage in a quick race for credits, the game’s currency of choice.

Forza Horizon reviewThe more races you win, the more wristbands you earn, which in turn also unlock tougher races. One of the things that the game does very well is to introduce you into the world of Horizon gently, then allow you to play at your own pace. Once you have a firm grasp on the world and have completed a few early races, it opens up exponentially, and at any one time there are dozens of things you can do. The races are what push the campaign forward, but you can earn credits and popularity doing other car related things like stunt driving, speed challenges, and even through some more novel approaches like trying to keep the damage on a borrowed car low as you try to get to a designated point to take a picture.

The world is massive, and there are copious amounts of things to do. Horizon doesn’t reach the levels that Forza 4 did with content, but completing every single race in Forza 4 requires a nearly pathological level of dedication. Horizon has plenty to keep you occupied for a long, long time, and that doesn’t even include the multiplayer.

Put Your Friends into the Wall for Fun and Profit

Multiplayer components to racing games are nothing new, and the Forza games have been one of the best when it comes to online content. That has not changed.

Along with the standard races and the variations that come with it, there are a handful of playground games and a free roam that is populated with challenges. The playground games are a highlight, and include games like “King,” where one person is king and gains points over time while others try to steal the crown by ramming them; “Infected,” where the infected car tries to hit others and enlist them to hunt survivors until none remain; and “Cat and Mouse,” where you have two teams and on each team is a single mouse that is trying to complete a lap while the cats are trying to slow down the other team’s mouse. If you want to play any of these events but don’t have a decent car, you can also borrow one for the event, which makes it balanced and fair.

ForzaEach of these playground modes are fun, and along with races they help you level up your online rank. When you do reach a new level, you then receive a shot a slot machine like bonus, which randomly rewards you with anything from a jackpot like a Bugatti Veyron to a bust of a few hundred credits. It is random and wildly addictive. It is also a great way to earn some decent (or potentially exceptional) cars for the single player campaign.

The free roam should be a huge draw to this game, but it feels a bit hollow. If you like, you can go and explore with friends, or you can attempt challenges that are specific to free mode and require a certain set of elements to complete. Some of these challenges are simple enough if you have coordination — things like having four cars all maintain a particular median speed through a speed check area, while others may require things like eight cars to cross a speed point at 200 mph within three seconds of each other. The rewards will vary based on the difficulty.

What’s missing is the integration with the single player campaign. It would have made sense to allow drop in play for the host’s campaign. Having my friend join me in a race event would have pushed this game in a fantastic new direction, but instead the free roam is a novelty that grows old unless you happen to have a dedicated group of eight friends to go after the more obscure challenges, which can be as frustrating as they are rewarding.

The Oil Spot on the Driveway

As you might expect of the Forza series, the graphics, especially the look of the cars, borders on incredible. Each ride has its own distinctive feel to it as well, and the physics that made the series what it is are present in Horizon. The more narrative-based presentation is a new thing for the series, and it generally works well. The rivals you will face all have a personality of their own as well, and while they veer sharply towards stereotype territory, they offer just enough color to be memorable as you beat them and move on.

Forza HorizonAccompanying you on your journey up the ranks is the mostly unseen voice of one of the event coordinators who becomes your ally. She can be flirty at times, but is generally a soothing guide. There is also a fairly broad selection of music from all genres to sort through. It ranges in quality, but that comes down far more to personal taste, and the inclusion in the game is a good one.

Despite my love of the game, there is one thing that irked me about Horizon: the token system. Microtransactions within a game are nothing new, and for the most part the tokens just act as shortcuts rather than necessities, but you are constantly being offered ways to spend real money — and it is not a cheap proposal.

One thing you will constantly be offered is a treasure map, which will unlock all the hidden items on the map for a mere five tokens. Those five tokens will cost you 400 MS points, or $5, and the map doesn’t really offer much you wouldn’t find on your own. If anything, it actually takes away from the game and robs you of the joy of exploration. Of course, it is optional though. If you want to buy more tokens, be prepared to put down some serious cash. This is a minor complaint since you can unlock everything with enough time and effort, but the emphasis to buy tokens is inescapable.

FHOne other issue that falls under the “not really a problem, but…” category is the garage selection. Forza Horizon begins with around 125 cars for you to unlock, which pales in comparison to the 534 that were available at launch for Forza 4. Sure, they are different games, but you can almost smell the tidal wave of DLC coming after Horizon. Having additional content for a game is never a bad thing in my book, but removing it from the game in order to sell it later is a bad move – if that is indeed the case. If not, even if I am totally wrong, then there are still fewer cars than in the previous Forza game. Perhaps that is the opinion of spoiled gamer, used to more-more-more, but part of the thrill with games like Forza is unlocking and playing some of the rarest and wildest cars in the world that none of us will ever in our lives actually drive, and may not even see in person.

Conclusion

The Forza series is already at the top of the racing sim food chain, and developers Turn 10 and Playground Games have made a claim for the top of the more arcade-like racing games as well. Forza Horizon offers you an open world and then crams it full of things to do. On the other hand, the narrative works as a means to further your progress through the game, but it doesn’t ever really offer you anything to engage with. You could remove it entirely and be left with exactly the same game. The free mode also feels like it could have been so much more, and while there are a lot of cars, the absences are notable.

All of that aside, Forza Horizon is still the best racing game of the year. It is far from perfect, but the attempt at something new feels fresh, even if the ideas themselves are familiar. Horizon doesn’t come close to the lofty heights that Forza 4 reached, but it is a worthy addition to the family of the best racing series around.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 using a copy provided to us by the publisher)