Forza Horizon is the game that MotorStorm wanted to be on the PlayStation only Playground Games managed to deliver on the full “Burning Man Meets Car Show” festival experience. From the very opening cutscene to the moment you are seamlessly dropped behind the wheel of your relatively crappy (yet competitive) car and challenged to race to the Horizon car festival taking place in the middle of the Colorado desert to the end of the game (assuming there is an end) you are never, for one second, removed from Horizon’s engaging festival presentation.
Nestled at the base of the Rockies you’ll find 216 interconnected roads, highways, and logging trails waiting to test your driving and racing skills in any of a staggering array of cars from standard consumer makes and models to high performance exotics that are far from street legal. At the center of this roadway network is the Horizon Festival, a celebration of music, cars, and scantily clad women that serves as your central hub for most of your racing activities including buying and selling cars, upgrading cars, and collecting a series of multi-colored wristbands to signify your progress through the ranks.
As you explore Colorado and engage in various race events you will earn credits that can be used to purchase new rides and upgrades or even fast-travel around the map. You’ll also be earning XP that will eventually earn you new wristbands and unlock higher level events. And all the while you will also be striving to increase your popularity by performing various driving skills, all of which are individually ranked in tiers that will earn you bonus cash for each new level; everything from drafting in a race to dangerously close passing, catching some air, or drifting around turns just to name a few. As your popularity increases you will get invited to Showcase events where the big prizes are found.
As you can see, there is a lot going on but the game never bogs you down in the details. All of the stat tracking takes place behind the scenes and you only have minor pop-ups to indicate when you performed a cool skill move or your popularity meter gets a boost. The short loading screens also highlight various stats much like the style found in the Codemasters’ racing games, and you can always visit the Stats screen in the menu if you really want to track your progress, but Forza Horizon is mainly concerned with keeping you on the road and racing as much as possible.
For collectors and completionists out there, you’ll find 100 signs placed throughout Colorado, and for each one you destroy you get a 1% discount on future upgrades and parts purchases. This can lead to tremendous savings, so you might want to explore the map early in the game. There are also nine barns hidden around the map that are slowly revealed over the course of the game. Inside each is a valuable rare car that your mechanic will fix up and add to your garage for free. And much like the Test Drive Unlimited game, there is an achievement for driving on every road in the map. The roads are filled in as you drive on them making it easy to see where you need to go to complete this massive undertaking. This is one of those tasks that will probably happen through normal gameplay, but for some reason I was compelled to do it early on if for no other reason than to sightsee.
Forza Horizon is without a doubt the most beautiful racing game I have played to date on any system period. At times the game borders on photo-realistic, especially if you take the time to pause and go into photo mode where you can snap your own postcard-worthy photos and share them online. Additionally, the game offers full replays from a multitude of camera angles with full editing and sharing functions. The scenery is breathtaking whether it’s a snowy mountain peak on the horizon or a cascading waterfall or an architectural masterpiece of a bridge spanning a gorge with a giant dam below. There is a night and day cycle that provides you with a variety of lighting styles and color pallets, and night racing adds the challenge of limited vision. Plus, I just loved driving around the festival at night watching the concert light shows, carnival rides, and nonstop fireworks display in the moonlit sky.
But it’s not all wild country. There are cities, small towns, farm communities, and such scattered about the map, some large enough to host their own street racing series of events. You also locate numerous Horizon hotspots that offer their own events and remote access to your garage as well as a fast-travel destination. With a map so large and complex it was refreshing to find a GPS that not only worked, but was also voice-activated thanks to some brilliant Kinect functionality. By merely saying, “GPS” I was presented with a short list of verbal commands to plot my next destination; all without having to open the map. And the pleasant female voice also provides ample warning for upcoming turns while simultaneously lowering the volume of the radio.
Speaking of the radio, you have three channels of music to choose from include throbbing techno and dubstep DJ mixes, classic rock, and indie flavored tunes, all of which fit the racing genre and the festival-like presentation perfectly. And between the tracks you also get cool DJ ramblings about current and upcoming events as well as subtle nods to your recent activities, making you feel like you are really part of the festival. There was no obvious support for custom soundtracks but the music is so good and there is so much of it that I have yet to get bored even after 20+ hours of play. You’ll also get private communications from your female race host, telling you about events or boosting your ego with congratulatory remarks.
The controls are excellent and the cars all handle remarkably well with some fairly realistic physics; probably not Gran Turismo level of accuracy, but this isn't meant to be a racing simulator. The game supports, and you will most certainly want to play with a good racing wheel if at all possible. There just isn't enough distance of travel in a gamepad trigger to keep the tires from breaking traction, especially in the meatier muscle cars that will roast the rubber down to the rims off the line. That's not to say the game is unplayable with a gamepad, but you will have to overcome some analog issues on a few cars.
Difficulty can be fined tuned prior to each race. This not only includes the opponent AI difficulty but a variety of driving aids and assists like your speed line, car damage, and in-race rewinds. These can all be individually toggled on or off, and the more you turn off, the more difficult the race becomes and the more bonus cash you'll win at the end. Of course it is fairly easy to win the earlier wristband events on Hard or even Insane difficulty, but once you get up there near Pink and Red you'll be struggling to place in the top three on Normal.
Forza Horizon offers an astounding amount of content with all forms of racing including circuit style and checkpoint sprints on both dirt, pavement, and combinations of both in rural and city settings. Checkpoint races are my favorite since you are allowed a bit of freedom in picking your own path to each checkpoint, as the provided race line isn’t always the optimal path. A strategic shortcut through an alley might take you from fifth to first. There are some creatively original race events like the Mustang Challenge, only one of the Mustangs is a freaking WWII fighter plane. You also go up against hot air balloons and a helicopter, and if you win you get to keep the cars.
Races are ranked with letter grades, which dictate the type of car you are allowed to enter. There may also be manufacturer or year restrictions in place. If your current car is ineligible but you have a car in your garage that is, you are allowed to choose from those or make a quick detour to the Car Show and purchase an eligible vehicle. They will even filter your shopping experience to include only the cars you could possibly enter then take you right back to the starting line. If all of your cars are overqualified, you are even allowed to downgrade to make the eligible.
As far as upgrades, tuner enthusiasts won’t find the most robust garage experience out there but you can upgrade individual components ranging from tires and rims to engine modes, spoilers, bumpers, side skirts, and weight reductions, just to name a few. These all factor in to the letter ranking of your car or you can just go in and pick the letter you want your car to be and the game will handle the upgrades for you. For owners of Forza 4, you can import your vinyl groups from that game, so all your hard work was not in vain, and if the game detects a Forza 4 save file you also get a nice bundle of cars added to your garage as well as one of the coolest named achievements on the Xbox.
Taking the Forza experience online is just as satisfying as ever with racing action for up to 8 players, but more importantly, borrowing on the social competition of EA’s Autolog, you also have all these passive challenges going on. There are speed trap cameras set up all over the map and the game tracks your highest speeds through these cameras and ranks them on camera-specific leaderboards against your friends and the world. You can also race the ghost times of your friends in the Rivals mode. The only way this could have been better was if they had gone full-on MMO like Test Drive where everyone on the road could potentially be a real person waiting for a high-beam challenge.
There are really only two racing games coming out this year that I even care about…this and the upcoming NFS Most Wanted, and if you had asked me 20 hours ago which game was my expected favorite, you would have likely gotten a different answer. EA and Criterion have their work cut out for them if NFS can possibly hope to compete with the sheer spectacle, scale, and dynamic racing action I’ve already experienced in Forza Horizon and plan to keep on enjoying until something better comes along. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, as Forza Horizon could very well be the best racing game for this console generation.