STAFF REVIEW of Forza Horizon (Xbox 360)

Thursday, October 25, 2012.
by Khari Taylor

Forza Horizon Box art In last week's preview of Forza Horizon we were given an opportunity to acquaint ourselves to Microsoft and Turn 10's latest racing offspring; a wilder, hipper Forza child prone to wanderlust and staying out well past curfew. Our 20-minute test drive with the game left us with a good impression, perhaps even a little infatuated, much like the feeling one gets after a first date that went REALLY well. Since then we've received our review copy, driven it off the lot, and put her through the paces to answer the question everyone wants to know: Is Forza: Horizon worthy of a spot in your garage?

In terms of driving, the Forza DNA is undoubtedly present in Horizon. It's almost as if you went to bed with who you thought was your wife and upon waking realized it was actually her twin sister, except without the awkwardness and inevitable divorce. Turn off all the assists and you will be in Forza 4's simulation territory, or at the very least, a convincing replica of it. I even broke out my coveted Microsoft Wireless Racing Wheel to heighten the sense of realism and did not find myself wanting. Simultaneously however, Horizon is also a very different game from its predecessor, throwing players into an open world with much more varied terrain (over 64 different types), civilian traffic to avoid, and much longer play sessions as they explore the fictionalized playground that is Colorado between events, so you might want to stick to the default controller unless you really want to give your arms, wrists and braking foot a Kinect-level workout.

And what a workout you will get. As detailed in our preview, Horizon's solo campaign will have players criss-crossing Colorado to participate in a multitude of festival races, earning points towards colored wristbands that will in turn grant access to higher-level events and ultimately, a showdown with festival champion Darius Flynt for the Horizon Festival title. But in addition to these challenges, many more await players on the open road, including unsanctioned street races that earn players cash, one-on-one challenges from key rivals you will meet as you move up the ranks, and other events that you will unlock through exploring and uncovering new locations, such as Horizon Outposts. Horizon Outposts are essentially Race Central satellite hubs where players can fast travel to other locations on the map for a fee. That said, it’s to your benefit to be a cheap bastard, as each Horizon Outpost you drive up to will unlock a variety of events that will each grant a significant discount on fast travel from that outpost. Complete all of the outpost's events and fast travel from that location is free, so not only are stingy players rewarded with more gameplay; they're also given a more practical incentive to explore the entirety of the Colorado landscape. Other incentives are the 100 "Jay's Garage" signs hidden in plain sight all over Colorado, each one providing a 1% discount on upgrades when the player smashes through them (do the math, that's a potential 100% discount), and "barn find" rumors that lead the player to abandoned vintage cars in dire need of restoration. Jay the Mechanic will fix these classics up and add them to your garage for free.

Best of all, Horizon rewards you with popularity points and cash for almost everything you do, be it playing cat and mouse with traffic, smashing a shortcut through a picket fence, hitting new style or speed benchmarks while free-roaming, or beating your friends' best lap times by racing against their ghost car. Layer on top of all this a selection of over 60 cars on the disc, car customization (not as deep or granular as Forza 4's), the Paint Shop (every bit as deep as Forza 4's), Car Club interactions and online multiplayer with its own assortment of special "Playground Games" modes and you have a title that more than justifies its $60 price tag.

Perhaps the only area in which Horizon falls down is in how the game's difficulty seems to arbitrarily spike at times, particularly during races against key rivals, Skill Events, and Showcase Events. For example, an early one-on-one race had me facing off against off-road champion Ramona Caravache in a nighttime race with what was then my best off-road vehicle, (for which I specifically had to pay for a mandatory upgrade just so I could enter the event). Attempt after attempt, Ramona's beast of a truck shot ahead of me at seemingly impossible speed, yet hugging the road as if it were on a relaxing Sunday drive, while I struggled desperately to keep her tail lights in my sight. Midway through the race after a particularly difficult bend in the road, she would always disappear and the race would end long before I could get to the finish line. This was despite the fact that I had schooled her repeatedly in similar off-road events with other racers on the track, with the exact same vehicle. Fortunately, almost every event in Horizon is optional, so I eventually chose to move on and continue earning points towards the next wristband elsewhere, but it was not without a good deal of frustration and much swallowing of pride. I suppose one could alleviate the situation by going into the difficulty settings, temporarily turn on all of the assists and lower the AI difficulty to easy if one really wanted to just get through it, but I think it's safe to say that no racing fan worth their salt wants to win this way. We don't want our hands held; we just want to suck less. Unfortunately, while all the tools to win any race or skill event are apparently at the player's fingertips, such as manual upgrades, the racing line, ghost rivals, etc., there is no clear way for players to know what they are doing wrong, short of going to the Forza Motorsport Forums and posting a thread about it to get advice from the community.

Enough has been said about Forza Horizon's visuals in both our preview as well as countless early reviews on the web attesting to how dead-drop gorgeous the game is, so I won't bore you with more flowery language on the subject except for this: To expect impeccably authentic-looking cars in a Forza game is natural, so to say that nothing has changed in Horizon goes without saying. But while Forza 4's environments were equally stunning from a photo-realistic and dare I say clinical standpoint, Horizon's gritty, picturesque Colorado compels exploration. When you see a breathtaking mountain in the distance, glance at the cavernous Red Rock canyon as you traverse it via the interstate or catch a glimpse of a Hoover Dam look-alike worthy of a "wish you were here" postcard, you'll want to drive there. And chances are, you can (or at least get as close as you can realistically expect to get on four wheels).

Horizon also fires on all four cylinders in the audio department as well. The sound of each vehicle is distinct and unique as a fingerprint. When you get behind the wheel of your first Ferrari, Lamborghini or Viper and revel in the high pitched buzz and wail of the engine as you tear down a city street straightaway, you will quickly learn that you are driving a vehicle that demands your respect. Meanwhile, the radio chatter provided by the festival’s organizer, local DJs and other key characters seamlessly pop in and out occasionally between songs, keeping you up to date and informed on what is going on at the Festival, where the latest barn finds are rumored to be and what you probably should be doing if you have a challenge or mission outstanding. The large selection of licensed music curated by DJ Rob Da Bank is a welcome departure from the generic “lounge muzak” of previous Forza titles, with its eclectic mix of rock, dance, house, dubstep and electronica lending a level of authenticity that the soundtracks of many similar games lack, and keeps the music festival vibe going without smacking too much of commercialism (e.g. EA Trax).

To conclude, Turn 10 and Playground games have accomplished something very special. They’ve created the perfect companion game for Forza 4, one that retains its stunning visuals, its attention to detail, and most importantly, the Forza gameplay DNA. And like a classic fish-out-of-water Hollywood movie, they’ve taken that DNA out of its element and placed it in the open world to run free and thrive. That new experience is what Forza fans should and will initially come for, but with Playground Games’ mixed pedigree of successful racing franchises such as Burnout, and Project Gotham Racing under their belt, the best elements of those great games can be felt here in Horizon as well, and that is what will keep players coming back long after the bloom has come off the rose. A must-buy for racing fans.

1) Allow the racing line to be visible when using Kinect voice-enabled navigation during free-roam, even if you have the racing line turned off in the difficulty settings for actual races (as having it turned off increases race bonuses).

2) Provide interactive lessons as DLC that can teach players how to become better drivers. Ghost racers and racing lines show players what better drivers do or can do, but they don't teach players how to properly use a handbrake, or use manual shifting effectively.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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