Forza Horizon is a change of direction the venerable racing series. Replacing the clinical and somewhat cold presentation of past Forza games is a new, vibrant look as well as an open-world focus. Forza Horizon succeeds on its energy and mechanics, despite some missteps along the way. The changes will not be for everyone, however, and veterans of the series might find themselves left out of the fun.
Forza Horizon maintains the series’ taut mechanical prowess. Every new car presents a new set of challenges as each one drives differently. Some must have gentle throttle applied lest they spin out, while others might twist and slide with even the slightest nudging. The difficulty scales well, even though the default settings might be a little too easy. I found myself winning most races handily until reaching the higher levels.
The game’s focus on providing an open world creates some gameplay opportunities that are new to the series. There are assorted speed challenges littered throughout the world, as well as hidden cars and collectibles, street races in open traffic, and other fun and interesting challenges that can be accessed by simply driving throughout the game’s recreation of Colorado. There is a distinct de-emphasis on the advanced cornering that has been present in past Forza games. The roads are generally wider, providing more subtle turns and a greater sense of speed.
The location of the Horizon Festival is an interesting one. Colorado is a state rarely used in media, and the game’s Autumnal setting is unique in gaming. Beautiful browns, reds, and greens fill in the background as you drive through the different areas around the festival. Players will see breathtaking scenery throughout their travels, with waterfalls, mountains, rivers, and even a dam all providing a gorgeous distraction to the driving action. There’s also a day/night cycle in the game, and the sunrise and sunset are awe-inspiring. Be sure to drive around late at night as well, as the moonlit forest is reminiscent of Alan Wake. The visuals draw you in and hold you in their grasp and keep you there long after you’ve stopped playing.
The visuals aren’t the only elite aspect of the game’s aesthetic. The audio is fantastic. If you have a good sound system (or a good set of headphones), the directional audio will clue you in as to the position and speed of cars behind you, providing a gameplay advantage for players who have the fortune to experience the game’s audio in its full glory. There’s also voice acting in Forza Horizon, but it’s not as well done as the rest of the audio. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either.
There’s an energy to Forza Horizon that I found infectious. Past Forza titles were more like museums, but Forza Horizon is a big party (literally). The soundtrack is comprised of dance, house, dubstep, and rock, and for fans of the type of music played (think Skrillex and The Black Keys), Forza Horizon will be heavenly. However, those who dislike electronic music or the game’s more laid-back approach to racing will not be satisfied. The cars remain the focus of the game but true gearheads will find themselves shunned by this new approach to the series. Customization isn’t necessary to advance, and isn’t even really introduced in the normal course of playing the game. If a player picks a car for an event that is under or overpowered, the game will automatically change the components in order to suit the needs of the race. It’s a hands-on approach to customization from a game that used to throw players into the deep end.
The game also features, for the first time, some semblance of a story and characters. Players will start the game as a newcomer to the Horizon Festival, building up their skill and reputation by competing in Festival Races which are broken up into different colored wristbands. By completing events players will earn points, and these points will unlock new wristbands and new events. Throughout the events of each wristband level is a Rival character that taunts the player as they compete. The problems with these Rival characters are two-fold. On the one hand, their driving style isn’t demonstrably different from any of the other racers, despite the insistence of the game’s DJ and loading screens. Characters labeled as reckless and aggressive won’t deviate in their actions from any other AI racer, and the “boss race” against them that punctuates each wristband level isn’t particularly difficult or different from any other race.
The Rivals are heavily influenced by ethnic stereotypes, unfortunately, and it’s an ugly side to what is otherwise an amazing experience. The non-white characters speak some broken form of English and have some feature to their personality that are pulled straight out of the “Punch-Out” of ethnic stereotypes. There’s a headphone-wearing Black character who speaks in what could best be described as “Ebonics,” and he also happens to run the illegal street races (groan). There’s also a Mid-Eastern character that is (of course) a rich, spoiled prince in his home country and speaks with all of the arrogance and distaste of a classic Mid-Eastern movie villain. There are others, too. It’s unnecessary and tone deaf, and it will definitely offend some players.
Rounding out the experience is a complete suite of multiplayer features, including car clubs that you can use to team up with your friends, customized paint designs that can be bought and sold for in-game credits (earned by completing races), as well as 8 player races on tracks pulled from different areas of the Colorado landscape.
Additionally, there’s a set of playground games that are unpredictable and fun. The best of these is cat and mouse, in which one player (the mouse) on each of two teams is given a lower-ranked car than the rest of the players on their teams (the cats), with the winner of the race being the team whose mouse crosses the finish line first. It’s chaotic and great fun with friends and strangers alike.
Despite some racial insensitivity, Forza Horizon has an undeniable exuberance. The game builds a sense of place in its visuals, music, and presentation that will keep players engaged throughout. Players in tune with the game’s style will find countless hours of enjoyment, while those who do not connect with the changes to it will find comfort in the game’s mechanics, if not what surround them. What Playground Games (the team behind Forza Horizon) has done, however, is inject some electricity into a series that has been inaccessible and cold, making it fresh, exciting, and youthful. That new direction appealed to me, but might be problematic for some players, who should probably wait for the next numbered installment in the series.
A copy of Forza Horizon on the Xbox 360 was provided to us by Microsoft Game Studios for the purposes of this review