The Open Road Dream
Forza Horizon is something of a rarity - a racing game with real-world driving physics and a real world to drive around in. Well, almost. The game gives you the US state of Colorado as your playground, but it's a miniaturised version, with the state's vast plains, canyons and mountain ranges reduced to a more manageable map of stunning scenery and winding roads.
There have been plenty of open-world racing games before, most of them lightweight and fun games with arcade-style handling, like several entries in the Need for Speed series, or Burnout Paradise. But none have managed to to combine this kind of setting with the realistic car handling of Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport before - although the rough-round-the-edges Test Drive Unlimited games were a pretty good attempt.
The appeal of taking to the open road in a simulated version of your dream car is obvious though, and at last it's been fully realised. As an offshoot of Microsoft's Forza Motorsport circuit racing series, Forza Horizon takes the amazing technology of those games - beautiful graphics, intense handling, impeccable car models, a wealth of performance upgrades and great online modes - and sets them free on its wide-open map.
Festival Of Speed
The game has a story, of sorts: you're a new competitor at the Horizon festival, an event that combines music with motor-racing. The setting's well realised: you can tune into three distinct radio stations with cool playlists put together by Radio 1 DJ and Bestival supremo Rob da Bank, and the festival installations dotted around Colorado, with their crowds, tents and laser lighting, definitely look the part. The story sections, as you hunt down a series of silly rival racers, are pretty cheesy, despite some no-expense-spared animation and voice acting . Thankfully they don't get in the way of the racing.
And the racing is nothing short of superb. That trademark Forza handling is in there in full and can be adapted to suit you with a wide range of assists and difficulty settings. Whether you go for easy riding or tough simulation, a pad or a steering wheel, it always feels great and lets you have a bit of fun with the car, but it will bite back - unlike those arcade games, it's easy to lose control if you get too cocky on these wild roads.
Where the game really wins out over the regular Motorsport games is in variety. There's off-road racing for rally cars, SUVs and all-wheel drives. There are point-to-point races on sweeping freeways where you rarely have to brake and can sustain speeds of 150mph for minutes at a time, if you can weave through the traffic that is. And there are tight little circuits on town streets that more closely resemble the Forza experience you're used to.
Alongside the regular races, there are Showcases which play out like Top Gear stunts (in which you might race a plane or a hot air balloon), showboating skill challenges for drifting and near misses, speed camera records to go for, and more relaxing activities like hunting classic car wrecks, or photo shoots. All of it is brilliant fun, and all of it has been structured into a satisfying career with a good difficulty curve - unlike the Motorsport games.
Forza Horizon's Colorado may not be the biggest game-world you've ever seen, but it is one of the prettiest, with the game engine doing a great job of drawing the rolling foot hills, dusty red-rock canyons and majestic Rockies, as well as the gleaming car bodies. There's a spectacular 24-hour cycle too, and night racing is a real thrill.
It's a pleasure just to explore, and although fast-travel is possible, to begin with you'll mostly enjoy travelling to and from events in your favourite car. You'll meet other racers on the road, and can challenge them to one-off races on random routes too if you like.
The car selection is great - not as huge as Forza Motorsport 4's, but with a few tasty new additions and lots of exotic supercars and classics to collect. Lots of these production road cars make more sense on Horizon's open roads than they ever did on racing circuits. You can customise your car with paint-jobs (which you can buy from other players or make yourself) and performance upgrades in true Forza style, although the option to fine-tune your setup isn't there.
The only slight disappointment is multiplayer. Although Forza Horizon has the great Rivals system from Forza 4 for challenging friends to time trials, and decent options in the race lobbies (including some fun casual games like cat and mouse), it's hard to imagine it attracting the dedicated racing community of the main games - and it would have been nice to see more options for multiplayer gaming in the open world.
Hopefully these will be added (along with weather, and a bigger game world) in a sequel. But it's offline that Forza Horizon really excels at - in fact, it's the best single-player racing game in years, probably since the great Project Gotham Racing series bit the dust. It's a must for petrol-heads and racing game fans alike, and if you're both, it's heaven.
- The full Forza driving experience takes to the open road
- Superb handling, stunning graphics and almost all the options you could want
- Varied racing and activities across a well-paced career that will keep you busy for ages
- The festival story is cheesy and uncool - I mean, Bluetooth headsets?
- The map could be bigger
- Multiplayer feels a bit underdeveloped