Jack of All Trades: Forza Horizon preview

forza horizon october

When I ask Dan Greenawalt, creative director on the Forza driving series, why he thinks it is that interest in racing games has declined over the past decade, he stops me. “Let me be clear: Forza’s doing just fine. It’s not racing that’s disappearing. It’s not the big franchise like Forza and Gran Turismo. It’s the mid-tier racers. We’re doing just fine.”

Then why does Forza Horizon exist?

Developed in conjunction with Playground games, Forza Horizon is a game of its time. In the past, racing games were a thriving subsection of video game design and one of the hallmarks of technological progress. When new gaming machines came around, there would always be a new racing game. “It’s always cars and water that define the new tech,” I say to Greenawalt. “And hair!” he responds.

Today, only the heavyweights remain. Activision, Disney and others have all tried to launch new racing franchises like Blur and Split/Second in the past 5 years but none have succeeded. What’s more those studios have all closed. Blur’s Bizarre Creations, Split/Second’s Black Rock Studio, and even established racing studios like WipeOut creator Sony Liverpool have all shuttered.

Horizon was born out of one of those studio deaths. Members of both Bizarre and Codemasters’ shuttered Dirt/Colin McRae Rally studio formed Playground and Forza Horizon is its first title. Unsurprisingly the game is a strange amalgam of the past, an attempt to do everything racing games have ever done in one single package. It’s an open world game (Burnout Paradise) where driving stylishly earns you points to upgrade yourself and build a reputation (Blur). It’s set in a fictional region of Colorado, where all types of driving including off-road (Dirt) is available. Meanwhile it pours in hundreds of cars, classic and modern alike, from the ST1 to an MG, and renders them as attractively as the Xbox 360 can. There’s the Forza lineage.

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The world’s open for exploration and discovery. Barn Finds for example are rumors from a DJ that tell you what region of the map you might be able to discover a classic car. It encourages both exploration and gear head impulses, but eventually the need for accessibility rears its head and the game’s Greenline, a shining arrow on the road will tell you how to get there. Greenline will tell you how to get to any goal picked right off the game map.

You almost expect to find a kitchen sink and a bag of chips waiting in the pause menu.

So again, why does Forza Horizon exist? If Turn 10 and Microsoft are doing okay, why the need to become a Jack of all trades? Greenawalt says that Horizon’s goal is to wash away the simulation stigma that surrounds his series. People say they want “arcade” racing rather than “simulation,” but Greenawalt says that arcade immediacy isn’t what people are looking for. Why did Blur and Split/Second fail? “They’re disposable,” says Greenawalt, “What people really want is motivation, not mechanic.”

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Thus Horizon’s looming list of features. It’s got race events, it’s got the collecting aspect, it’s got the showroom modes that Forza obsessives love. The whole thing is themed around a fictional music festival whose aesthetic and 5-hour playlist was picked out by Bestival DJ Rob Da Bank. The goal is to give players a million different ways to fall in love with Playground and Turn 10s cars so they’ll keep playing.

Does it work? Is Forza Horizon the game that will expand the franchise’s reach beyond what remains of racing’s audience?

Tough to say. Two months from release, Forza Horizon’s look isn’t quite as luscious as you’d want it to be. The cars are beautiful as always, even if they are rendered by the aged Xbox 360, but Turn 10’s Colorado countryside is a little drab in the sections I saw. These screenshots you see here simply aren’t indicative of the game I saw in motion. I still can’t speak for the driving, as Greenawalt guided the demo while we talked. This is a game meant to soaked in rather than sampled a la carte, so anything but a surface impression will have to wait for a full play.

The philosophy of its creators is laudable but you know what they say: A Jack of all trades is a master of none. Forza risks its unique identity in a shrunken landscape with Horizon. It’s a worthy gamble to try and find an even bigger audience, but Turn 10 should be careful it doesn’t lose the audience it’s got.