(Xbox 360 Review) Forza Horizon

Developer: Playground Games / Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Racing / Arcade
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Forza Horizon is a spin-off of Turn 10 Studios’ popular Forza Motorsport series. That’s important to keep in mind because, with development duties headed up by Playground Games, Horizon is as different from previous entries in the series as it is similar to them. The structured races and courses have been replaced with an open world that hosts myriad events and activities, and its inviting but staid approach, with regards to everything from fine-tuning cars to choosing races, has given way to a system teeming with the kind of ‘tude that Need for Speed gave up on in the mid-2000s. But for all of its silliness and pandering to pop culture, Horizon stands as an enjoyable and addictive arcade racer.

For longtime fans of the series, one of the more surprising aspects this time around is that there is a story. As threadbare as it might be, it’s there—for better and for worse. You start off as a new racer out to make a name for themselves at the Horizon Festival, a huge celebration of music and racing set throughout Colorado. To do this, and eventually face local celebrity Darius Flynt, you must place within the top three spots of races to unlock wristbands of various colors, with each new band allowing access to a new set of events. As you make your way through the circuit, you will encounter rivals, woo sponsors, win over crowds, and of course, amass a fleet of vehicles.

The festival itself serves as an excuse to take the racing from the structured circuit approach of before and shift it into an open world. As you roam about the map, or skip around to the various discoverable Outposts (if you have the extra credits), you will encounter a wide array of activities that take advantage of this new freedom. The events range from sponsored races to tracking down and appropriating dilapidated cars to refurbish and add to your collection, setting records in Speed Zones or at triggered Speed Traps, finding and demolishing upgrade signs for discounts, and challenging other roaming AI drivers to one-on-one races. With a point system similar to Project Gotham Racing‘s kudos setup, you will frequently be leveling or receiving some sort of reward due to how you drive, with points given for running into signs, passing cars, drafting behind nearby vehicles, lightly dinging the sides of other cars, and drifting around corners. Successful moves can be linked together for combos, which will result in bonus points for those who manage to pull it all off without crashing. The points earn you the cred that increases your popularity, and as you become more popular, you gain entry into special Showcase events that range from the mundane (races restricted to specific vehicles) to the exotic (racing against hot air balloons and air planes). There’s always something to do, even if you only have a few minutes to spare, whether it’s for credits to purchase new vehicles or upgrades, gain a new wristband, or work towards winning over the crowd.

Returning fans will be in for a surprise if they boot up Horizon expecting Forza 4 in a Burnout Paradise-style open world with a touch of Project Gotham Racing-style flair. Instead, they will be greeted with dubstep and some of the most wantonly irritating throwaway characters this side of a straight-to-video Fast and the Furious rip-off. The influence of other racers is certainly felt, but it’s all wrapped in ridiculous over-the-top packaging. The soundtrack, filled with licensed tracks from Black Keys, Nero, Skrillex, and others, fits the mold of a sprawling outdoor festival but wasn’t much to my liking; fortunately, the tunes are funneled through three radio stations that can be shut off at any time. But music, especially when licensed, is subjective enough to where I can recognize that the songs fit well within the game world but just weren’t a fit for my taste. The characters, however, are another matter.

Throughout your ascension up the wristband-sporting hierarchy, you will run across mouthy hotshots that will taunt you until they are shut up after being bested in a one-on-one Star Showdown race. The fact that you will receive their prized car after defeating them is actually secondary to no longer having to hear their downright painfully lame quips. Then again, it doesn’t help that you aren’t much either because, well, you aren’t much of anything. Looking like a somehow blander Robin Thicke, your character just shows up to get their wristband and mills about for a second before getting back into his car. The positive side is that you won’t dislike your own character—I cannot imagine his dialog being any better than those of the rivals—but the downside is that it’s a missed opportunity to create any sort of connection to the world. Even though the cars can be customized at the Paintshop, with importable designs from Foza 4 as well as with created or downloaded decals, your character cannot. Any sort of customization would have helped to make your character seem somewhat human, even if it was just their gender, but instead, he’s a silent blank slate whose sole purpose is to meet one poorly conceived caricature after another.

While the callback to an unmissed era of smarmy personalities and misplaced aggression lands with a thud, that is only one element of Horizon. What the game manages to do well is marry the sweet Forza formula of fantastic physics, a sprawling library of cars, diverse handling, helpful driving aides, and robust tweaking options (e.g., auto and manual upgrade/downgrade) with a fast-paced, arcade-style approach. The concoction isn’t always successful, as when the AI intentionally slams into you out of spite or the point system’s encouragements to drive recklessly, both of which are the antitheses of the series’ traditional focus of learning to drive smarter and safer, but it often makes for a potent combination.

The open world is also used to great effect in its ability to provide a wide array of terrain to set its many event types. There are start-and-stop races around tight corners on courses set within small towns to longer one-way races that go from asphalt to gravel, challenging you to not only rack up points but also just to maintain control. And, since the courses are set within chunks of the world, you will be familiar with the layout of many of the areas simply by traversing them as you make your way from one event to another.  The flora that decorates the roadsides can be surprisingly resilient, though, and you would do well to avoid bushes—they can bring your car to a dead stop. If you make it to an event in a ride that isn’t appropriate, either not up to snuff or too upgraded, the game will inform you of the problem and offer to auto-adjust for a nominal fee for quick play. You can always back out of an event and head to a garage to carefully upgrade your car with hand-selected parts, which is surprisingly easy to do thanks to a menu system that is as helpful and easy to understand as ever. And as with previous entries, the aides that are turned on to help you come to grips with the mechanics, such as assisted steering, traction control, time rewind, and the break line that has now become something of a genre standard, can be decreased or turned off to earn additional credits from difficulty bonuses. The steady stream of credits that fill your coffers from all of the bonuses and events allows for you to participate in most races without having to grind for the extra cash to purchase an event-appropriate vehicle.

The world also plays hosts to a few online elements. As you pass Speed Traps and Speed Zones, a window will appear to indicate not only how fast you went but how your speed compares to those on your friends list who have also passed the same areas, and occasionally your general position on the global leaderboard. Subsequent panes will show any rank adjustments, and messages will be sent to inform you whenever anyone has adjusted the rankings by beating your record. Rival challenges will also appear after events for extra credit, which will pit you against the ghost of a friend or an unknown player. There is no jump-in/out play, unfortunately, and that’s because, despite these hints of a wider world, the multiplayer component itself is actually separate from single player.

Multiplayer proper delivers all of the benefits of the rejigged Forza model but without any of the embarrassing attempts at hipness. It’s also a truer representation of the spirit of the series, offering a set of modes that allow newcomers to work their way towards testing their skills against old hands. It also takes advantage of the open-world environment by allowing drivers to wander around in Free Roam, assisting one another with co-op challenges and posing for pictures using the screen-capture feature. The initial layout allows you to find a regular a game, find or create a custom game, and adjust the difficulty.

Choosing to find a game loads a playlist that allows for quick access to the main events: Beginners, Social Racing, Veteran Racing, Pure Skill, and Playground. Beginners is a great way to jump in and play without worrying about being smoked by pros, and is exactly what it says: racing with new players. Social Racing switches things up a bit by allowing participants to select their car and upgrades but requires that everyone sticks with the default difficulty settings. Veteran Racing is similar to Social but allows for players to also adjust their difficulty settings. Pure Skill eschews all of the options and requires that everyone uses the same random car and upgrades. Playground is the more experimental of the bunch, with players taking part in Cat and Mouse, Infected, and King races. Cat and Mouse has two teams comprised of a single mouse and several cats, with the cats trying to stop the other team’s mouse, the only teammate capable of winning the race. Infected is an open-area event that starts with one infected car that sets out to spread the carnage by wrecking into others; the last uninfected driver taking first place. King doles out points to the player who holds the crown and challenges their opponents to grab it for themselves by chasing the king down and smashing into them in open areas, and then trying to hold on to it for as long as possible. Surprisingly, as much as I enjoyed the more traditional races, I spent most of my time having a ball goofing off in the Playground events.

There are some nice touches as well, including the roulette prize of either a car or cash whenever you level, the ability to borrow a car from a game-wide or Car Club (re: guild) garage so that you have a ride appropriate for the course, and the occasional choice between three car classes to vote on for the upcoming race. Despite some helpful mechanics being somewhat inconsistent, such as when crashed players sometimes turn into ghosts to prevent pileups, the experience is very smooth. All told, with the varied play styles, mixture of closed and semi-open courses, helpful features, and planned free downloadable Rival races, multiplayer adds a lot to the package.

Forza Horizon is an attempt to fit the tried-and-true Forza formula into the mold of an arcade-style racer, using a pop-culture-heavy festival theme to tie it all together. For all of the pomp involved, with fireworks constantly shooting off and bands playing in the distance, Horizon is at its worst when it tries to ape the festival culture and its best whenever it sticks to the actual racing. As grating as the characters are, as threadbare as the storyline is, and as inconsistent as the new approach can be to the series’ tenets, Horizon also offers a wide range of exhilarating races, a large collection of vehicles to master, and a great multiplayer element. It may not be Forza 5, but it is a solid addition to the series.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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