What is Forza Horizon?
This question has had me scratching my head since Turn 10 debuted the teaser trailer for its new racing game for the Xbox 360 console way back in March. Now that I've gotten hands-on time with the title, I have a better idea of what it is and what it's not.
Forza Horizon is an open-world racing game that blends free driving with a variety of on-track events. Turn 10 and Playground Games have created a massive, fictional version of Colorado that players can just drive around in. There are country roads, freeways, canyons, and, in the center of it all, the Horizon Festival -- a massive car and music festival that serves as the hub for all of the game's activities and the plot device that give drivers a reason to enter events. The game doesn't really force the driver to enter events in any particular order after the first half hour of acclimating to gameplay and it's possible to just drive around exploring the miles and miles of open road (which, coincidentally, I spent a lot of time doing.)
Forza Horizon is not some sort of massively multiplayer online racer. This isn't World of Warcraft on wheels. Horizon features very distinct single-player and multiplayer modes, so you'll be able drop into the game and play solo without worrying about griefers until you feel like dealing with the Xbox Live community in the separate multiplayer mode. I wasn't able to dig into the multiplayer aspect of the game, but it was explained to me that players will have control over who they play with, so you'll be able to play with only your friends, if that's what you like.
Forza Motorsports' Car Clubs make a return appearance in this new franchise, so you'll be able add cars to and borrow cars from a shared club garage and schedule meets from the Club interface if you choose to join one.
There's more to do in Forza Horizon than just race. It's an open world, so you'll probably spend quite a bit of time driving around on public roads with civilian vehicles and other computer-controlled racers. While you're navigating from point A to B (with the help of an in-game GPS navigation system with spoken turn-by-turn directions, no less), you can earn perks by basically driving like a complete toolbox. Drifting around corners, almost hitting other cars, doing burnouts, jumps, and over 30 more hoon-tastic behaviors earn your driver "popularity points." The more popular you are, the more access you get to upgrades, special events, and sponsorships.
Additionally, Turn 10 and Playground Games have expanded the more esoteric multiplayer game-types from the previous Forza titles to better take advantage of the larger world. Multiplayer games like car soccer and infection tag should be a lot more fun without the constraints of playing them on a racetrack where there's not very much room to maneuver.
Forza Horizon is still Forza. Many longtime Forza fans worried that Horizon would be a watering down of the series -- an "arcade" racer that dilutes Forza's "racing sim" cred. However, beneath the pumping dubstep soundtrack, hoon-based merit system, and glossy, hot-pink aesthetic is the same Forza physics engine that made fans of the previous games turn their noses up at Gran Turismo players. In fact, it's possibly even a little better thanks to its expanded catalog of driving surfaces (which we'll discuss in detail below). Like Forza Motorsport 4, the difficulty is customizable -- brake assist, traction control, steering assist, instant replay, and other assists can be toggled on and off from a difficulty menu -- so, you can easily dial in a very realistic and challenging racing sim with the right mix of options. Likewise, you can turn those assists back on and toss the controller to your nongamer friend to enjoy.
Music and the Horizon Festival
I mentioned earlier that the fictional Horizon car and music festival serves as the hub of the many events that take place in the game. It's also central to the plot, which involves working your way up through the ranks of the festival's elite.
I liked the smooth way that the game transitions the player into the story. The first few moments, the story flows smoothly between a sequence where I piloted an SRT Viper for a few moments before an in-game radio announcement triggers an instant transition into the shoes of the main character for a mad dash to claim a spot in the festival in a '95 Volkswagen Corado VR6. In that brief transition, I was introduced to the world, my avatar, and the true main character of Forza Horizon: the car. From there, the narrative continues to unfold and new cars are quickly unlocked.
While behind the wheel, the player can quickly cycle through three "radio stations" themed around rock, indie pop, and electronica (read: wub-wub-dubstep) featuring hours upon hours of music, commentary from characters that you meet in the game, and, occasionally, information about special events and in-game secrets. I'm pleased to report that the music (while not terrifically bad in Forza 4) has been dramatically improved for this outing.
You can thank British disc jockey Rob da Bank for the tunes. The developers worked with him to curate the in-game music and the look and feel of the Horizon Festival, drawing on his experience with the Bestival U.K. music festival. If the aesthetic of the festival rubs you wrong or the placement of the virtual portaloos seems odd, you can blame Rob. To my eye, however, it looks pretty cool.
Turn 10 Creative Director Dan Greenawalt kept coming back to that term "curated" when discussing the music choice for the game, emphasizing that the in-game music isn't just a slapdash of random songs. Music is one of the central parts of this game.
I heard firsthand just how much thought went into the music when I entered one of Horizon's many Showcase races where I, the driver of a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 409, was pitted against a WWII-era P-51 Mustang airplane in an insane canyon run set to the tune of the "Hate to Say I Told You So" by the Hives. The race turned out to be a remarkably close one due to the fact that the plane needed to take a rather roundabout path through the checkpoints. As I was charging toward the finish line, just fractions of a second ahead of the plane, I noticed that the song was also rising toward its own cacophonous finish, ending just as I crossed the finish line. Turning to Greenawalt, I asked if the similarity between the race and song length was deliberate. After tossing around the terms "curated" and "cinematic" for a bit, I eventually got a simple "yes" out of him.
In addition to open-world driving and better music, Horizon brings another new addition to the Forza series: off road racing. U.K.-based game studio Playground Games handled development of Horizon for Turn 10. Playground was founded by former developers of other popular racing games, most prominently Colin McRae: DiRT, one of the best off-road rally racing games of recent memory. Thanks to the expertise of the DiRT developers, Horizon now features about 65 surfaces types ranging from smooth asphalt to grass to loose gravel to sand.
Horizon also features dedicated off-road races that will finally let you take advantage of some of the more beefy all-wheel-drive vehicles on the Forza roster, such as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru WRX STI, or Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Interestingly, I did not see off-road tires as an option in the vehicle customization menu.
A few notes for dedicated Forza players
If you're like me, a longtime fan of the Forza series, you've spent countless hours tweaking and customizing the cars in your virtual garage, so there may be some hesitation to start over from scratch without your precious digital babies. Turn 10's Greenawalt emphasized that Forza is about building relationships with what he called "nondisposable cars" that you don't immediately ditch when a better car is unlocked. I know all about this; I've been tweaking and driving the same NA Mazda Miata since Forza Motorsport 3 was released back in 2009.
Well, the bad news is that you won't be able to import your cars from Forza 3 or 4, but you will be able to recreate some cars fairly easily. For example, while you can't wholesale import a saved design from Forza Motorsport 3 or 4, you can save and import legacy vinyl groups that can then be applied to your new ride at the Horizon Festival. Likewise, Horizon features many of the same tuning tools that are present in the previous games, so you'll be able to recreate your setups.
However, the option for engine swaps and drive-train conversions was missing from the prerelease version of the game that I played and likely the final game, which was disappointing.
Of course, all of this depends on if the car that you're trying to reproduce is even featured in Forza Horizon. The full list of featured cars hasn't been fully revealed just yet. I have no doubt that I'll be able to, at some point, recreate my Miata -- I find it hard to imagine any racing game that doesn't feature the greatest Roadster ever built. However, I very seriously doubt that my mildly infamous 335-horsepower Toyota Prius that has perplexed many an online opponent will make the cut.
Forza Horizon is already available for preorder on the Xbox 360 console in standard and limited-edition flavors and is expected to hit shelves on October 23.