Four installments into the Forza series, you can't blame Microsoft and developer Turn 10 for wanting to branch out. They understand that driving isn’t all about shaving 1/100ths off a second, though getting first place is always nice. As a Forza title, Horizon is a huge shift, going for the open-world design of Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited. It’s an environmentally diverse Colorado-based map themed around a summer music festival that acts as the game’s hub.
Throughout the game world are many, many driving objectives and races. It’s a Forza that wants to stretch its legs, the kind of driving game with over 65 surface types, which means the inclusion of off-road and rally racing. There are no detrimental weather effects, but there is a day cycle, where the festival’s vibrancy is showcased mostly at night time.
The last driving game I could think of that had a similar 'festival' feel was the X-Games backdrop in DiRT 2, one of my favorite racers this generation. Whereas the "all access" motif of DiRT 2 was designed around textured plastic badges on lanyards, Forza Horizon focuses more on wristbands, an equally communicative status symbol. And along with races sponsored by the likes of Oakley and G-Shock, you won’t be able to miss the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.
With Forza Horizon being the franchise’s first departure from the mainline series, does this move signal an attempt to annualize Forza, in the same way Call of Duty, Transformers and DiRT are outputting games?
“Annualizing might be the result, but that’s not our goal”, says Turn 10 head, Dan Greenwalt. “It’s about giving Forza greater capacity, capacity with another world class developer.”
Horizon is significant for being the first project by U.K.-based co-developer Playground Games. It's the one major aspect of the game that makes me optimistic about Horizon, especially because of the rich history and deep talent of British racing game development. It’s hard not to appreciate Turn 10 and Microsoft for giving this opportunity to the pool of veteran talent that makes up Playground, many of whom came from other British racing game studios.
It's always a good thing when a studio can get extra mileage and return on investment out of a previous game's engine. For Horizon, Turn 10 gave Playground the Forza 4 engine as the basis for this game. And when so much of Horizon's enjoyment is in its feel and driving mechanics, I'm pleased to say that the it certainly plays like a Forza title. The series' deep option menus have helped Forza win over driving fans of many play styles ,and Horizon provides the same kind of driving assist toggles to let you customize how challenging you want your experience to be.
You can also activate greenline assists, not only to show you the best way to navigate a turn, but also to take advantage of Horizon’s GPS system to get around this large map. Layered on top of this is Kinect voice functionality intended to minimize the time spent referring to the map screen and keeping you in the game. Some voice commands include “GPS Festival” and “GPS Next Race”.
By open-world game standards, another bold move that Horizon makes is in separating the single-player and multiplayer modes. It might seem like a step back, but this design choice is actually a response to the minor shortcomings of previous open-world racers. Such problems include other gamers getting in the way of your single-player objectives and the time-wasting issue of waiting for your friends to drive to a particular spot on the map.
The differences between the single-player and multiplayer modes go beyond swapping out AI-driven cars with drivers on your friends list. There’s also a story in Horizon’s single-player campaign. I fondly recall the novelty of having narratives in racing games in such titles as Pro Race Driver and R: Racing Evolution.
Horizon’s presentation is equally familiar--borderline cliched, actually--starting with the “rising up the ranks” premise for your playable Volkswagen-driving protagonist. It feels all too familiar when you’re greeted by Alice, a young attractive woman who manages to find time to encourage you despite her presumed duties as CEO of the racing event.
There’s also the aged mechanic who thinks the young drivers are too reckless, and I came across a couple generically cocky rivals who are clearly threatened by your talents and disguise their insecurities with pointless trash talking. What I do like about the story is the quality of the cutscenes, with character designs that aren’t ultra realistic but at least feature near-human face and body proportions.
Forza Horizon has also been categorized as an "action racer". To be more specific, it's a driving game that rewards good and eye-catching performance, not just winning races. Taking cues from Devil May Cry and other such games that give out style points, Horizon will give points for driving maneuvers worthy of highlight films. Of course the Burnout series has done this for ages, but Turn 10 and Playground want to make it an even more involving, deeper feature.
For example, the game not only recognizes near misses but also at what speed you were at during the near miss, giving different designations for different speed levels. There are layers to these kinds of performance rewards, where combining two skills in a single move will bestow additional recognition.
It is only in Horizon's open-world design that these rewards work, with so much road to both learn and execute moves. While the game doesn't have any cops, Horizon does have a lot of speed cameras, the kind that reward you for fast driving, both as high speed single-point passes and point-to-point time measurements. It also helps tremendously that the game has a lot of skill points to hand out.
Don’t be surprised to find road challenges focused on skills like drifting and drafting, not just races to get first place. And as a side, Horizon wastes little time in showing how different it is from past Forzas, as evidenced by an early competition where your drive a Mustang while racing against a Mustang fighter plane!
With the emphases on the festival setting, American locales, and action racing, Top Gear is not involved with Forza Horizon although Turn 10 continues to have a relationship with the British show for future racing titles. What does give Horizon a slight U.K. angle is its soundtrack, kicked off by The Chemical Brothers’ "Hey Boy Hey Girl" once the game is fired up. Curated by BBC Radio One DJ, Rob da Bank, the tracks have been split into three radio stations with songs filed as either rock, electronic, or indie. Greenwalt said that the soundtrack comprises of about five hours worth of music, about 60 songs.
It’s an adequate length for something as time consuming as an open-world game, though I would’ve been more comfortable with at least two additional hours. That said, Forza Horizon will continue to stay on my radar well into launch, especially after seeing that the studios named one of the achievements after one of my favorite songs of all time, Underworld’s "Born Slippy."
You’ll actually get to experience this summer driving festival in the fall when Forza Horizon ships exclusively on Xbox 360 on October 23.