What's DiRT and Test Drive and Forza all over?
If you're wondering why Burnout Paradise isn't in that headline, then you already get the point. Forza Horizon is a casual open-world reinterpretation of the familiar Forza Motorsport franchise, but it's hardly the first game of its kind. Fortunately, Playground Games takes this into account, finding inspiration and taking some of the best elements that current open-environment racers already offer. As a first installment, Forza Horizon surprisingly executes its ideas well, though several of them need more mileage in their development.
The Horizon Festival is a racer's paradise, where fame, fortune, and fun collide in the sprawling, auburn landscape in the heart of Colorado. Darius Flynt, for the past three years, has won the prestigious Horizon Festival Championships and has successfully built an international brand on his name alone, along with an inflated ego. It's about time that someone like you, a no-name outsider, show him a thing or two about humility.
Toward this path to stardom, you need to prove your racing prowess by placing well in various events and earning enough points to acquire the next colored bracelet, much like climbing the ladder of martial art belts, which grants you access to the next, more difficult tier of events. As with the main Forza entries, you earn more credits for turning off racing assists, like the familiar suggested racing line and rewind feature, and you can automatically upgrade or downgrade vehicles to meet any entry restrictions. Progressively, you're challenged to compete in races with longer tracks, more laps, and faster vehicles ranging from D-class to R1-class. The major difference in Horizon is that, instead of instantly hopping around the globe, you need to drive to each event on the map.
Though the rougher presentation that some fans of DiRT 3 will recognize is more than appropriate here, Forza Motorsport veterans will likely snarl at the casual undertones throughout Forza Horizon. Races can sometimes devolve into bumper cars, and even on the easiest difficulty setting, the rubber-band AI effectively nips at your heels no matter how well you brake and accelerate out of a corner. Some of the more technical aspects of the Forza series, like the four-bar grades for every turn and drift, could have made it through too.
At each bracelet tier, you face off against one trashtalking rival who mocks you on in-game radio segments and before every event with obnoxious comments, not because they are actually obnoxious but because the scriptwriters think that it's obnoxious. Obviously fabricated animosity is obvious. Once you gather enough points to reach the next tier, the rival gets pissed enough to challenge you to a head-to-head race where you can win the rival's car and, more importantly, shut them up. This scenario repeats itself six times before you reach Darius Flynt in the final showdown.
It must also be mentioned that you play as a generic white guy, as much as cut-scenes and loading screens try to obscure the image of your avatar, which is a slight disappointment given the title's wide multiplayer options. They should have been either no avatar at all or customization options available.
Ultimately, though, the threadbare story doesn't matter much compared to the grand scale of the new open-world gameplay. Immediately upon securing your first car, you can skip all of the racing events and fulfill your wanderlust, exploring the gorgeously modeled plains, waterfalls, and canyons while experiencing the wondrous transition from day to night. Meanwhile, you can bust through any one of a hundred discount signs you find for reduced prices on upgrades from Dak's garage, post high speeds on online leaderboards for speed traps and speed zones, and challenge any named AI racer on the road. You can also locate various Horizon hotspots that serve as fast travel waypoints. As long as you accomplish the three PR stunts for a waypoint, teleporting to that location is completely free.
On top of that, performing stunts in free roam or in races awards you popularity points that give you access to Showcase events, where you face off against helicopters, biplanes, and even hot air balloons for the prospect of free cars. Like the Burnout series, you can build a chain of near misses, wreckages, and high speeds that earn an enormous amount of points as long as you don't crash.
However, there are more than several issues than spoil the joyride. Unlike the three solid music stations available on the in-game radio, the commentator Alice Hart frequently interrupts the moment by reminding you about nearly everything that you haven't done yet. A part of the lure of Forza Horizon is the freedom of that Sunday drive where there are no distractions and no obligations—a spell that's broken nearly every time she speaks. Apart from a few open fields, a golf course being a notable one, you're also mainly confined to the boundary guardrails around the roads themselves.
In fact, compared to the open-world environment of Test Drive Unlimited 2, Forza Horizon feels half-full. Despite its technical flaws, TDU2 has avatar creation, numerous areas for avatar customization, seamless multiplayer integration in single-player free roam, a ridiculous amount of open road with two full environments, and hardly any boundaries on exploration. Comparatively, you can drive on all the roads of Forza Horizon in about four hours, and completing the entire single-player campaign, including all of the street races, Showcase events, and PR stunts, takes at most 20 hours.
Additionally, Forza Horizon frequently tempts you to purchase tokens through Microsoft Points that can be used to acquire a treasure map that will show you the locations of every discount sign or procure a vehicle in the autoshow gallery instead of using in-game credits. It's a microtransaction model that's understandable but, given the content, hardly necessary.
The multiplayer offerings fare better, with options to create and sell car designs in the open marketplace (I purchased a Mortal Kombat Sub-Zero skin myself) as well as a bevy of additional modes. Coupled with the easy-to-use lobby system, several variants like Cat & Mouse, Tag, and King provide a welcome alternative that rewards players with high online levels with additional cars and more opportunities to earn thousands of credits through co-op challenges in free roam.
Forza Horizon does more for the Forza franchise than it does for the open-world racing genre. It shows off the freer side of the series with high-production visuals and music, though it sometimes tries too hard to be cool and could have included a stronger range of content and weather effects. Still, as a casual departure, Forza Horizon deftly navigates the world between technical and casual racing, and is worth well more than the usual test drive.
Copy provided by publisher.