The annual Horizon festival has returned to Colorado, its siren song luring lovers and racers of cars the world over. For three days, racers take to the streets of Colorado to show off their talents and compete for a coveted spot in the Horizon finals. While some games like Need for Speed have eschewed the Underground racing culture seen (or parodied) in the Fast and Furious films and Project Gotham Racing has taken to going for balls out style and flash merged with civilized circuit races, Forza Horizon is a little of everything, plopping you in an open world and letting you explore, serenaded by Avicii and his contemporaries.
Okay, maybe “serenaded” was a poor choice of words…
With the backdrop of the Horizon Festival as an annual “Burning Man”-esque destination for car and music lovers comes a new emphasis on story, a first for the Forza franchise…and it’s easy to tell. Of course, the familiar “nameless mystery racer arriving to take the world by storm” trope is followed to a tee here as you gain entry to the Horizon Festival competition by a combination of serendipity and driving skill.
You’ll rise through the ranks, earning colored wristbands and taking down one arrogant, overconfident douchenozzle after another, the kind of douchenozzles who still manage to be cocky pricks even after you’ve beaten them a half dozen times until you inevitably take down the biggest douchenozzle of them all, Darius Flynt, the reigning three time Horizon Festival champion. In that last rambling, overlong sentence, I’ve summed up the Forza Horizon story. Sorry for the lack of a spoiler alert but that’s basically what it is. It’s that simple and that bad.
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Fellow Horizon racers can be seen (and challenged to impromptu one on one races) driving around the festival and so are civvies, driving around in their mundane little Ford Focuses and Toyota Priuses (and even a few buses can be spotted as well) but unlike a game like Burnout, their presence as mobile obstacles is not really to be respected. Hitting a civilian car doesn’t result in a catastrophic crash, as you’ll merely swat them aside and keep on trucking.
This isn’t Forza as you’ve grown to love it, rather an interesting side project that serves to try a few new things apart from its bread and butter. One major difference from Forza 4 is its framerate, which developer Playground Games cut in half, back to 30 frames per second, which hasn’t been seen in a Forza game since the original a generation ago. Honestly though, I didn’t miss the higher framerate as much as I thought I would. Obviously, the step down is significant but the lowered processing overhead has allowed the developers to enhance the overall visual fidelity to make Forza Horizon one of the sharpest looking racers on the market.
Day and night transitions, a first for the Forza franchise are handled flawlessly and look fantastic in the way the shift from day to night is gradual and surprisingly subtle. Many times I’ve been roaming around the Coloradan countryside and I didn’t really notice the sun was setting until my headlights switched on, owing not only to the brilliance of the visuals but also to the striking depth of the handling model.
And really, much needs to be said about the driving physics because they are simply wonderful in how thoroughly engrossing they are. While I gush about this game’s many aesthetic qualities, a racing game is only as good as its handling model and the fact that Forza Horizon’s is so good is the main reason (at least for me) why the game world is so entertaining to explore. Every car has its own unique character which makes flying down a lonely highway in a Lamborghini Aventador just to see how fast you can go, drifting around sleepy little burghs in a Scion FR-S just because you can and barreling down a back country dirt road in a Lancer Evo X very distinct experiences.
Speaking of dirt roads, this is the first Forza game to feature roads comprised of something other than paved asphalt or stone. Off-roading is implemented very well in Forza Horizon, to the point where traveling on dirt, asphalt and asphalt with a small layer of dirt (or freshly fallen leaves) on it are three very different things to which you’ll have to adjust your driving style appropriately. This becomes especially important during the many mixed surface races you’ll encounter scattered throughout the Festival.
Though some have been quick to label this as an arcade racer, it has more in common with previous Forza titles than the likes of Need for Speed. As with every Forza title, there are a myriad of assists and difficulty tweaks that shift the balance from unforgiving realism toward a decidedly arcade feel. Since the focus is more on the open road and point to point races than traditional closed circuit competitions, the full mechanical damage from Forza Motorsport titles is wisely omitted, though cosmetic damage persists, and can be toggled on and off.
Despite the lackluster bad “story”, I actually enjoyed the atmosphere of the Horizon Festival itself. Yes, there’s a lingering sense of artificiality handing around it that simply won’t go away but driving at night and seeing fireworks exploding over the central hub, hearing the cheers of the crowd as you race past and seeing confetti flying about as you cross the finish line, it’s all quite immersive. Even the DJs on the three in game radio stations comment on the goings on within the festival, which is a nice touch.
One big problem I have with Forza Horizon is its longevity. Fourteen hours after arriving at the Horizon gates, I’d become champion and sent Darius Flynt home thoroughly emasculated and that was with a fair amount of dicking around in between races. I was taking my time exploring the landscape and driving around for the hell of it and I’d still finished in a relatively short time. Three hours later, I’d completed every single race in the game.
Certainly the lure of multiplayer is enticing and there are a decent selection of online modes such as traditional races and less traditional cat and mouse, tag and infection modes to play but everything is scaled back from Forza 4. A huge missed opportunity with the online free roam mode holds it back from primetime in that there’s no traffic to keep you company and only a few co-op challenges to keep you busy. I would’ve loved the idea of a seamless merger of single and multiplayer, seeing a few others drop into your single player world, MMO style to populate things a bit further but alas, that dream remains unrealized.
There’s a decent amount of content here but the dearth of post credits content lingers like a bad smell. This game doesn’t have the tail of Forza 4 and I can’t see Horizon staying in my rotation anywhere near as long as its predecessor. Multiplayer is just kind of…there and once you’ve won every race in the game and bought every car you care about, little remains to keep you coming back. I know there’s the promise of DLC down the road but I don’t like the idea of depending on DLC to round out the game as it cheapens the game itself.
But I can’t deny that I had a ball driving around Forza Horizon’s beautifully rendered Colorado landscape. It immerses you in a pop culture presentation of car culture from the very beginning and keeps you immersed for the duration. While old-school car guys might scoff at the dubstep and new school indie rock blaring out of your car’s speakers, Forza Horizon also recognizes that the most important aspect of car culture is the cars themselves. The celebration of the car in a way that perhaps tries a bit too hard to be hip (hello douchenozzles) is at the center of the experience and is done very well as it allows you to enjoy the act of driving on the open road in a very pure form. Forza Horizon may be a relatively short ride but it’s a damn fun one to take while it lasts.