Forza Horizon – more roads, less kitty litter

Test Drive Unlimited was one of those early games on the Xbox 360 which showed where the newer generation of consoles could take players. It was an open world racing game that covered the geography of an entire island. In addition, players could jump into common sessions and share the roads together. It was a unique driving experience that garnered a lot of fans.

The sequel arrived about twelve months ago and offered more: an additional island (including the original), more cars and a greater community focus with better clubhouses and events. But on release it all went wrong. The game was buggy: it crashed often and attempting to connect to a session was an exercise in frustration. Though later patches resolved the problems, the damage was done.

And how does Forza Horizon play into this conversation? Well, on face value it is very much a natural evolution of that franchise (and other open world racers) in its goals and ambitions but polished up with the community and technology that made the Forza Motorsport games top of the racing pile. A couple of hours in and you can see that the developers have also taken positives from other racers including Project Gotham Racing and Burnout Paradise.

The first Forza spinoff continues the series tradition of amazing visuals.

The first Forza spinoff continues the series tradition of amazing visuals.

At the beginning of the single player game you are introduced to the Horizon festival; and event being held in Colorado for all of the hoon persuasion. Through a tonne of events, you will slowly work your way up the pecking order in your quest to be the best.

From the outset, the game goes out of its way to offer you spectacle and action with a bit of a Top Gear vibe. When my second event involved racing a P-51 Mustang through checkpoints, how can I not make that kind of comparison?

Events like these are scattered across a huge map that offers a satisfyingly wide variety of environments to tackle. While the environments at first appear to allow you to travel anywhere you like, barriers will only allow you to travel within the confines of specific roads and terrain. So though it looks like TDU at first you have a lot more restrictions here in travelling around the map. It’s not really something you notice until you are hunting for collectables in the game as some of those are located via gaps in the barriers.

When it comes the the driving, the game feels very much like it belongs in the Forza garage. Though I am not a seasoned driver, I did find the handling was familiar enough for me to easily jump from Forza Motorsport 4 into this without any adjustment. That’s always a good place to start for any game, especially one that has the potential to spin off into its own franchise. Once you start driving for an extended period though you can feel how the change in environment has lifted some of the hardcore restrictions that its predecessor had in place. That first time you go wide into a corner, finding you have room to powerslide through the dirt and recover brings a smile to a frustrated Forza driver often trapped by the “kitty litter” in those games.

Additionally, the paint shop has been carried over, allowing players to paint the cars of their dreams. A nice touch is in the game’s ability to import Forza 4 decals; a nice touch. The upgrade aspect is there too making us of the Performance Index (PI) system used in prior games. However, don’t expect to be able to fine tune a car… that is still the bread and butter of the simulation games.

Though it is great to have these traditional Forza features in the game, the method to access them is a right pain in that you have to travel to specific locations, thankfully grouped together in the festival hub. I wish it were all just a menu option away.

Earlier I mentioned spectacle in terms of events but it also describes the game visually – the game is a sight to behold. Not only is it pretty in the moment but the transitions to night and back again can leave you amazed.    One of the impacts of the pretty visuals has been a drop in framerate to 30fps but it still seems to be as smooth as butter and in all honesty doesn’t impact on the experience. That the Xbox 360 can continue to amaze us with its graphics capability is a credit to the developers.

For those of us who feel that they are going to grind a lot longer to get those sweet cars, a micro-transaction system has been included that allows players to purchase tokens than can be spent on vehicles and unlocking features within the game. It’s certainly not a cheap option but it is a method that EA has had some success with in games ranging from Tiger Woods to Battlefield.

I think the system does lend itself more to games such as this as there isn’t a real advantage to giving people faster cars earlier as most races have restrictions anyway. So why not let them enjoy the cars if they are willing to pay for a short-cut?

There's plenty of cars available and even more in DLC if you're willing to pay.

There’s plenty of cars available and even more in DLC if you’re willing to pay.

Beyond the campaign lies the multiplayer which offers a variety of modes familiar to Forza and PGR fans plus some of is own such as co-op specific challenges. Looking a little further on and you and your mates can simply enjoy the game world for what it is and do a little bit of cruising.

Such behaviour is encouraged; there are hidden barns with unique cars, signs to smash for upgrade discounts and pulling off clever moves that earn you status points for opening up the game further.

Forza Horizon is a welcome addition to a franchise that has built its reputation on detail and simulation but forges its own path creating the kind of game that can get the non rev head excited.

Presentation This game plays to the fictional festival with a lot of light and colour. Though may seems as trying to be “edgy” to be cool. Having to drive to areas in the game to make car modifications (when in Forza 4 it was a menu screen) is a total pain. 8.0
Graphics Graphics are a delight with beautiful cars and interiors, smooth day/night transitions and enough variety in terrain to keep players looking for more. 10
Sound Music is designed to fit with the theme and though there are optional radio stations, it can get tiring if it is not your preferred style. 8.0
Gameplay Once behind the wheel, the Forza magic is there in spades but with a sense of fun added to the areas where the simulation is gone. 9.0
Lasting Appeal The game will keep you occupied for many hours. Those who can’t get enough will find plenty of DLC on the way. 9.0
Overall A Forza Motorsport for the rest of us. 8.8

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