Imagine for a moment if you will what would happen if you created a team of developers who had previously worked on Project Gotham Racing, Split/Second and Dirt, gave them the code from Forza 4 and said “make it fun people” - well you’d have Forza Horizon, that’s what.
Forza Horizon is a bit of an odd one at first - set in the sunny hills of Colorado, you are thrust into the world of the Horizon festival. As the new kid on the block the game lovingly holds your hand through the early stages, detailing just exactly what this open world version of Forza has to offer. Gone is the warp to the track to take part in a set race across a tarmac covered round surface and in comes the rolling hills of Colorado, a sunny, glorious open world littered with race opportunities. It’s different to what we have all come to expect from a Forza game but none of it ever comes across as ‘bad’, for the most part it all feels like the right evolution of the franchise.
Worth noting that whilst the entire game is open world and billed as such, the first few hours at least there is effectively a campaign storyline, bursting with characters, game-play introductions and tons of dialogue all of which are a world away from the serious simulation market that the Forza series has made its own in the last few years.
Your first few hours with the game are funky, fun and bursting with colour, it’s like driving around in a Wiley video - in fact the opening hour or two is like an advert for the best car festival ever created, suitably setting the tone for the game as a whole. It’s a celebration of cars set against the backdrop of the sun setting with a gorgeous girl on your arm. At first it doesn't feel like Forza, it isn't corporate enough but given a little time it starts to feel like this is what Forza should be from now on, it just feels right.
As the game slowly reveals its charms to you in the form of open world challenges, set races and random barn finds (more on that later) it also does a great job of releasing you into the wild. Your hand is firmly held for the first few hours but after the core mechanics are laid out for you the game begins to back off and simply let you experience its many delights for yourself. The festival itself acts as your central hub and you use this as your base of operations. Within the festival you have the ability to take part in car auctions, upgrade your car, join car clubs and be given race assignments.
Utilising this hub and a well designed overhead map you are free to cruise around looking for chicks or alternatively you can partake in a huge number of planned or ad hoc races. Drive up behind a named opponent and you are given the ability to challenge them to a race for fame points (the game’s XP) as well as cold hard cash which can be used to buy new cars as well as upgrades. Fame is the core XP currency within the game and the game is littered with the ability to gain fame points. There are literally hundreds of ways to do this so we won’t discuss them all here, but as examples: close shaves, high speeds, huge jumps, drafting and so on all give you the ability to slowly build your fame level. Starting out as the 250th most famous driver on show you have an awful lot of ‘close shaves’ to get through to build that up, thankfully racing often provides big rewards.
As well as the ad hoc races there are more formal events to enter throughout the Horizon map, each of which are mapped to specific car classes and/or types. Festival events require you to simply have the correct wristband colour (acquired through winning event races) and then you are completely free to take part in these in any which way you please. If you want to leave them for a quick scout of the open world, crack on, that is totally fine. Other races pop up throughout the map as you progress and you are free to enter those if you simply pull up alongside the start line. Races for money take place in the more built up areas, providing some variation in terrain as well as big cash rewards if you are saving up for that special car. The amount of variety could be overwhelming but as you are introduced to everything at just the right pace it simply works - pulling you in, gradually building up the myriad of features and letting you go at just the right moment, before you know it you have been playing for six hours and have a fleet of cars to choose from.
Car classes remain as per all previous Forza releases, along with a huge selection of perfectly presented suitably shiny vehicles. Customisation isn't anywhere near as detailed as the previous Forza releases and no doubt this will not impress some, arguably though this isn't a massive issue for the majority and many will not even notice. The upgrade system is nicely streamlined for the more casual player also; sure you can tinker with the individual car parts but if you simply want it to be the best it can be in any given class then you are presented with a cost and if you want the mechanic to sort that out for you it is a button press away. Such nice breezy features provide accessibility to a much larger audience whereas previous Forza iterations have come across as hugely daunting.
For those worried about the move to a more casual approach to Forza racing fear not, it still feels like Forza (well almost). The handling is noticeably less forgiving and your ability to brush off 200 mph head on collisions invokes Need for Speed references but it doesn't hurt the experience at all. It still feels for the most part like you are playing a Forza game, it’s just the world around you is a living, breathing, fun place to be. The terrain itself plays a part here also as no longer will you find yourself simply driving around oval tracks, the handling needs to be more forgiving as you will be flying across farm tracks, taking part in street races and more, the variety in terrain and environments needed everything to be a little more forgiving or it would not have worked...and work it does.
The game boasts arguably the best soundtrack not only for a racing title but one may be so bold as to say it is the best soundtrack of any game for some time. Three radio stations are on offer throughout the entire adventure, each offering an eclectic mix of modern tunage - The Chemical Brothers setting the tone nicely right at the start of the game. The soundtrack perfectly matches the visuals and further pushes forward the feeling that yeah, this is the best car festival, like ever and I want to be a part of it.
The all round excellence doesn't stop there - Forza series set the bar last year for looks and Forza Horizon continues that excellent form. Car models are expertly modelled, borderline flawless in their presentation and whilst the environments provide some colour and variety (new to the series standard grey tracks) it doesn't seem to hinder the titles graphical prowess in any way.
Whilst the single player experience breathes fresh new life into the traditional racer the multi player side of things doesn't quite match up. There are many modes on offer, ranging from the standard cat and mouse affair to some more wacky options like King which show off the game’s new physics perfectly - sadly it all feels quite contained and doesn't match the open nature of single player. There is a free roam multi player mode which goes some way to matching the single player experience but it’s a bit half baked and doesn't appear to provide you with the activity present when playing single player. The on-line community will likely swell into the millions upon launch so hopefully this is a side effect of limited numbers with the game in hand rather than ‘the way it is’ on-line.
Forza Horizon marks a new direction for the series and one that deserves your attention. Not only does it provide top notch visuals, a fantastic summer soundtrack and a wealth of racing options, it makes a traditionally sterile racing simulator just down right fun. It retains most of the things that Forza fans fell in love with and have followed for years, all the while making it a little less stuff, more forgiving, accessible without compromising on core values.