Forza Horizon Review
The Forza series has gone on strong for seven years now, and while it may be my favorite sim racing series ever, I also must admit that the last couple of entries have been a bit too formulaic. Forza Horizon greatly benefits from Playground Games’ development since they mixed up Turn 10’s formula, by combining some of the best aspects of not only Forza, but other racing franchises on the market both past and present to create the most exciting Forza entry yet.
The festival theme reminds me of DiRT, and adds a lot of personality to the series. The open-world environment keeps things interesting too since you’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and you’ll be able to explore a lot of each as you go around toppling each colored ribbon-based series of events. Score enough points in a series through either a slew of first place wins to cut down on the amount of races, or simply do well enough in a lot of them to move on. You’ve got many goals throughout the Horizon Festival.
Beyond the ribbon races, where you’ll not only compete in large races, but also one-on-one races against wacky stereotypical drivers that might be on loan from last-gen Need for Speed: Underground games, you’ve also got street racing, at night even. Forza fans have clamored for night racing for years and now it’s here. While it’s hurt a bit by not having neon-covered cars, at least it does let you have the most customizable paintjobs of any street racer yet. Also, while you’ve got an open world environment, during races, the courses are closed off. This might not make some happy, but as someone who struggled to come up with the most efficient paths in Midnight Club and Burnout Paradise due to them keeping things wide open, I’m glad to see it here.
I also love seeing the return of kudos from Project Gotham Racing. Outside of an achievement name, they aren’t really called that, but that’s basically what they are. One of your goals in the festival is to be as popular as possible, thus giving the game a logical reason for them since you want to go from 300 all the way to number 1 in popularity. Doing so with crazy driving makes perfect sense during races since there are spectators, but how fans are impressed by things that happen on roads they’re nowhere near during the open-world driving between the races, I’m not sure. Logic issue aside, I’m just glad to have them back. It feels so good to earn kudos for things like near-misses, getting huge air, destroying stuff, and chaining them all together without hitting anything major and earning tons of kudos thanks to a multiplier. Kudos are also tied to sponsor challenges, so if you do X amounts of drifts or draft behind a certain car, you’ll get a massive amount of credits deposited to your in-game bank account, making this the easiest Forza game to earn money in yet. Doing all this stuff brought back so many great memories of the PGR games, and helps make the demise of that series easier to deal with.
Racing fans who love the new NFS Autolog feature will love it here under the rivals moniker. Just like Autolog, you’re able to compete against your friends’ best times and ghosts, and earn bragging rights. Beyond the kudos system, this setup serves as a great way to encourage replaying the game. Outside of traditional races, there are now special challenge races that pit you against things like hot air balloons, helicopters, and PLANES. It’s certainly a bit bizarre, but it works, and adds some personality to the goings on. The whole environment has life to it now, with fireworks going off at night, the aforementioned hot air balloons soaring during the day, and the roar on the street as a plane goes overhead. On their own, these things aren’t amazing, but combined they really do make you feel like you’re a part of something special.
Of course, all the bells and whistles wouldn’t do much good if the racing wasn’t good, and like any Forza game, this one is quite awesome on the track. The controls are as effortless as ever, and you can still do as much or as little car customization as you want. As far as the racing action goes, you can do more with the cars than before. I don’t remember being able to flip them in other games, but here, I was amazed to see my sweet red ride go flying in an orange ribbon ’80s frenzy race. It went flying vehicular ass over tea kettle before I smacked into the guardrail. It shattered every window, popped the hood a bit, and generally turned my car into a beautiful mangled mess. It was an unforgettable moment, and something I wish I’d either recorded a video of or at least taken an in-game screen of, but I was just too focused on winning after that – thankfully, I did. It’s worth noting that the ’80s frenzy race name amused me, but not as much as the Chevy Chase. Sadly, Forza Horizon doesn’t feature the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, although I wouldn’t mind that being made DLC along with a challenge for it. Truckster versus A PLANE (with “Holiday Road” cued up as a custom soundtrack) – WHO WILL WIN!? It’ll be the greatest battle since the Sharktopus battled the Mega Shark.
The large open world lacks both Mega Sharks and Sharktopi, but is still a lot of fun to explore. It’s also easy to do thanks to an awesome in-game GPS. An in-game GPS is something we’ve seen for many years and it tends to work pretty well. However, I’ve never seen one work as well as this one. Beyond the handy Kinect voice-detection allowing you to bark orders at it, its sort of ¾ overhead layout on-screen makes it much easier to use as a navigational tool since you know exactly where you need to go – even in a crowded area. You can set a waypoint wherever you’d like in the world and can teleport around if you don’t want to explore. I’d recommend doing that as much as possible though.
It’s a blast to go through and see grassy areas, then travel around a bit and see a regular city full of houses and buildings. Exploring not only lets you become more familiar with the area, and earn an achievement if you travel down every road, but gets you bonuses in the form of ‘barn cars’ found throughout that have been abandoned and discount signs you can smash through to (eventually) get free upgrades since there are 100 signs around the world and each one is worth one percent off your upgrades. Even with rumors highlighting general areas they’re in, finding the barn cars feels like a needle in a haystack given that there are only nine of them and the world is huge, but it does feel incredibly rewarding to finally find one. You can’t really go wrong with a free car, and the discounts are great too since you’ll probably need to upgrade a current car for a certain race, unless you feel like outright buying a new one.
To the game’s credit, that can be done with a simple menu and doesn’t require you to trek to the central hub circle every time, and you can fast travel to various mini hubs when you find them. The developers found a setup that pleases those who either love or loathe backtracking in games. I usually don’t like it, but here it works, and I find myself not wanting to take the instant teleporting option since I like to just go around either accepting random challenges from other in-game festival racers, go searching for discounts and cars, or simply stack up points. One never knows when they’ll find that sweet area that nets them five figures of popularity points, and those kinds of thrills keep me coming back for more. Even after getting to number one in popularity, you’ve got new things to keep you playing like sponsor challenges and PR stunts – there’s always a goal to shoot for, and it’ll take a long time to accomplish every little goal the game sets out for you.
And that’s just the single player – there’s a whole other side of the game in multi-player. You can earn your own separate XP for the online game and earn either new cars or massive credit bonuses with each level increase. Beyond regular races, you’ve got stuff like King, where one player has to try and catch another and whoever has control of the golden crown-clad gamertag the longest wins. There’s infected, which is kind of the opposite and pits you against INFECTED GREEN GAMERTAG players, and instead of seeking them out, you’ll want to avoid them. Get hit and the game ends. The cat and mouse game from PGR 4 is back, and there is even an assortment of co-op challenges available. These free-roaming events see you either try and avoid damage or trade paint 100 times, or do far more specific things like drive a certain vehicle type, possibly from a particular era, to a point on the map and then go from there. They’re awfully specific, but enjoyable for longer play sessions. I really see the King mode being a huge hit since you can do it either short bursts or marathon runs. The traditional stuff you’d expect from the Forza series like the storefront and auction house are back, and you can even load up your saved Forza 4 vinyls for your Horizon cars.
Visually, Forza Horizon is both the best and worst-looking Forza game yet depending on the area you’re looking at. Environmentally, it’s the best since the world is huge, has a lot of detail to it and there’s never any slowdown. The draw distance is fairly impressive as well, and textures tend to look good when you’re not still – which rarely happens since this is a racing game and you’ll generally be going too fast to notice them. Horizon’s got the most variety of any Forza game yet with regular-looking streets and town areas mixed in with off-road racing full of dust, dirt, and sparse grass. As with any Forza, the car models look amazing.
While the environmental graphics impress on the whole, and I can’t think of a thing to knock on the car models, there are some serious issues with character models that drag the presentation down. Much like Test Drive Unlimited 2, the models look very, very fake – almost last-gen in execution and if they weren’t here, it would be a case of addition by subtraction since they drag the graphics as a whole down. They clash sharply with the gorgeous-looking cars, skies, and lighting effects that impress at night since they’re done so well. I’m also disappointed that there isn’t any dirt buildup on the cars – it’s something that made Rallisport Challenge look incredible a decade ago and would’ve fit in real nicely here given the off-road nature of the game. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with the car licensors, but the lack of it here hurts the presentation a bit. Thankfully, the car models look amazing except for that, and look better than even Forza 4 due to all the different kinds of lighting placed on them with the day and night cycle. Your mind will be blown away during sun-baked days and dark nights with the lighting, and this is one of the few games out now that really made me think there’s plenty of life left in current gen graphics as long as care is put in them.
The audio is definitely a mixed bag. The acting for the festival promoter is fine, but the rival racers, like the yo yo yo homie yo street racer, valley girl, cocky defending champ, and silly foreigner who will crush you like Ivan Drago, are way too stereotypical for my liking and feel like a huge step down in characterization for the series – and that’s with it starting at zero since there really aren’t any characters in it. The wacky radio DJ is another character I could do without, but thankfully, he can be turned off. The silver lining in everything that hurts the storyline (bad character models, acting, characters) is that it really doesn’t take up a lot of time – the bad stuff in it just sticks out horribly because the rest of the game is so good.
The soundtrack gives you three stations to choose from – a rock station and two kinds of dance music. When the (thankfully optional) GPS voice isn’t cutting the music off, you can expect to hear a lot of dubstep and dance tracks, so if you like that, you’ll love this soundtrack, and if you don’t, you may want to mute the music and make your own playlist from your HDD. I think the music fits the festival setting perfectly, and I absolutely love the internal logic of it being played at the in-game concert as well. While it’s not my favorite racing soundtrack of all-time, I certainly did like it. The sound effects are outstanding – engine roars from a packed corner full of cars add a lot of excitement, and the crash crunches sound as intense as they should. Everything involving the sound effects sounds correct to the ear and adds to the thrill of the race.
All in all, Forza Horizon is the best kind of side-game one could hope for from a series since it does enough of the old while bringing in enough new stuff that works. The festival setting is outstanding, and other than shoddy character models and relatively short cutscenes full of poor acting, is a resounding success. It’s certainly got more life to it than the comparably sterile feel of the regular series’ menu-heavy campaign. Outside of the poor character models and lack of debris buildup on cars, I love the graphics as well. The soundtrack is addictive and the sound effect work is terrific too. Forza Horizon has some flaws, but the sum of the parts makes them seem incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. If you’ve loved the Forza series before, you’ll enjoy this, and if you thought it was a bit too stuffy but wanted to get into it, this is the perfect starting point for you. There’s a ton of content here, and thanks to its lack of an online pass, it actually makes for a great rental as well.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
This review is based on a retail copy of Forza Horizon for the Xbox 360 provided by Microsoft.