Forza Horizon review

Forza Horizon takes the Forza franchise in a new direction, moving away from the very similar Forza Motorsport 3 and 4 of the past years, into an open world. You're no longer tied to familiar tracks: the world now becomes your oyster.

For some, Forza Horizon might be too much of a departure from the driving game they know and love. You'll have less time to learn the subtleties of a particular circuit and you'll spend more time changing cars and, yes, you'll spend more time playing with aspects of the game are aren't straight competitive racing.

But is this a Forza sell-out, or is this a better manifestation of what Forza has always been about?

Brave new world

The most substantial change that Forza Horizon brings with it is an open world. You have a huge map to explore, opening up events as you progress through the game. It's based on Colorado, designed to give you a variety of terrains, from deserts to towns of various sizes, to forests, mountains and everything in between.

It's a substantial departure from Motorsport where the aim was to recreate race circuits with precision. In the world of Forza Horizon you won't be looking to hit the rumble strips on those corners, you'll be trying to avoid hitting street furniture and picket fences.

The Forza Horizon world feels big because you'll have to drive from race to race, giving you free roaming time, something you never had before. Sure, in Motorsport you could opt to drive around a track, but it was always driving in a bubble. In Horizon, things are happening around you: there's traffic, dawn and dusk, different routes to take.

Then you have the Horizon Festival itself. The Horizon Festival sits in the middle of the expanding game world and, like any real world Festival, is a hubbub of activity. There are stages, bands, fireworks, lights and masses of people. It's like driving into a wall of noise and the first experience of the Horizon Festival brings with it a wave of excitement. This is helped by the soundtrack, which includes plenty of licensed current tracks, which also play through the (changeable) radio in your car.

The Festival was brought to life by Rob Da Bank, of Radio One and Bestival fame, who worked with the game developers to bring authenticity to this virtual event. The effect is palpable: the Horizon Festival is somewhere we want to be, leaving us wishing that someone would host this party in the desert.

So the festival brings some sort of life to Forza Horizon, but it is also a central gamplay mechanic. Within the core of Horizon, you'll find your key areas: Race Central, Autoshow, Dak's Garage, Paintshop, Marketplace and Car Club.

These key areas would normally languish in the menus, but here they exist as venues at the festival. It isn't a new idea, as plenty of driving games have autoshops along various routes. The idea here is that the Festival has a gameplay purpose and this is pushed through various mechanisms that will see you returning for a particular reason, such as to collect a wristband and move up a level.

Navigating around the map is easy, thanks to the GPS system. This will let you pinpoint where you are heading and you'll then get in-game route directions. To make things easier to set, you can use Kinect to speak these instructions using on-screen prompts. With Kinect you can easily select the next race without having to return to the map itself, which is really handy.

Get on the road, and off it

The world of Forza Horizon brings with it a range of terrain, as we mentioned. This is the first Forza game that gives you offroad racing and in many races you'll have rally-style mixed surface racing. When we first tried offroad racing in Horizon we couldn't tell much of a difference from the rather slow D-class road racing, but as the game continues, you get more of an appreciation for the offroad courses.

Many are short lap-based routes which are rather frantic, but there are some beautiful mountain races that will see you gunning along dirt tracks for quite a way. We have to admit we rather like it and coming from the asphalt of Forza Motorsport 4, it's something we weren't expecting to enjoy so much.

Initially we felt slightly agoraphobic: how would we survive with so much freedom? Where's the structure? Take me to a race! But in reality, Forza Horizon hangs on this freedom, which brings the sort of casual roaming and ad hoc racing that games like Need for Speed take for granted.

That makes Horizon very different from Motorsport and we've yet to find an on-road race that really has the feeling of previous Forza games. But at the same time, where you might have thought that playing skittles in the Top Gear levels of FM4 seemed slightly at odds with the serious business of racing, Forza Horizon lends itself much more to fun, frivolity and variety.

Races, races and more races

There are many more types of races in Forza Horizon than you'll have encountered before. Not only do you have all the different classes of car and manufacturer-specific races and so on, but you have different terrains and a whole world of different challenges and gameplay features all working at the same time.

There are conventional races - go round this route, win the race - but there are also showcase challenges that see you racing aircraft, balloons and helicopters, there are rival challenges, PR stunts, street racing and plenty more.

That means there is always something different going on. It sounds a little like chaos, so Forza Horizon brings some structure with it. As this is a festival, different racing levels are defined by wristbands. These work progressively through colours, opening up more races and opportunities as you go. The higher you get, the better the standard, the fiercer the rivalry and the bigger the rewards.

The wristband system is the structure of the single-player world of Horizon and means that you're not instantly overwhelmed with choices. To progress you need to accrue a particular number of points from placing well in races, but as you move up, old races are still open to you, so you can go back, perhaps with a different car, and try again.

This brings some degree of replayability, although each time you step up a level you'll find that you have a variety of different race types open to you. This means you need to maintain a wider garage of cars: you'll need a good all-wheel drive car and you'll need good cars for the road, you can't just pick one car and only compete in those races.

And this is where we have our first gripe with Forza Horizon: the mixture of levels will undoubtedly present some you don't really care about. For us, it’s muscle car racing. Yes, we love the look of those American classics, but having to race those wallowing tanks doesn't compare to the sublime precision of a neat road car.

Because this is an open world, you do get the opportunity to avoid some of them, which you didn't in FM4, but there's a point in the first few hours of gameplay where Horizon feels like it is dragging its heels: you have the cash to buy a supercar, but no races to put it in. The result feels like you are treading water in C and D class races, just making up points to try to get to the big league.

This feeling might be exacerbated for those who have come from FM4, as Horizon will recognise your profile and gift you some cars. For us, the star was a Jaguar XKR-S. This became little more than a taxi for the first few hours: we drove it from place to place, entering races in lower-spec cars.

Freedom, I won't let you down

Fortunately the free-roaming nature of Forza Horizon takes the sting out of things. The single-player racing might have this dip, but there's a world to explore and fun to be had in showcase events and other tasks.

Sitting behind everything you're doing in the game is a popularity system. This basically rewards you for reckless, but safe, driving. Yes, that sounds weird, but just like plenty of other driving games, you'll get points for drifting, J-turns and burnouts, you'll accrue points for balls-out racing as fast as you can down the middle of the road and all sorts of other things. But Horizon doesn't reward you for smashing into walls or trees, that's frowned upon.

Increasing your popularity will see you invited to more showcase events where you can win big: they're also a lot of fun and help to mix things up.

With a world so big you might get the feeling you just want to get to your race and compete. That's catered for too, as you'll be able, for a price, to transport to a new location, once you pass various outposts. In reality, the game acknowledges that sometimes you want to get on with business and it lets you.

At the same time, the key areas of the Horizon Fesitval (remember - the paintshop, garage, etc) can fall into disuse, because when you really need something for a race, you get the option to instantly buy or upgrade. So if you arrive at a race well out of town and you don't have the right car, you can just buy one anyway.

That sort of makes the central Horizon Festival feel a little redundant at times, because you can get what you need, when you need it.

But Forza is about something more than what you need. It's about what you want. In many cases we found ourselves returning to the Autoshow because we wanted something specific: that Ferrari or the hot hatch you lack in your garage. And that's the real essence of Forza that runs all the way thorough Horizon: it's still a car lovers game, just as Motorsport is.

Of course there is multiplayer too. Our time with multiplayer has been brief and we wouldn't expect the full multiplayer experience to really come to life until there is a community of racers, but we'd expect there to be plenty of fun to be had. There is also a rivals system that rolls into the single-player game, so as your friends beat various speeds or times, you'll get notified so you can try to take back the glory.

The cars

Of course it's all about the cars and you'll find the cars are as beautifully recreated as you'd expect. The graphics are stunning, the authenticity is outstanding and the ability to customise and tweak your cars is ever present.

You can buy cars through the Autoshow with the credits you accrue, but credits aren't a barrier to getting a car that performs well. This tells the story how it is: the 1957 Ferrari 250 California costs 3,000,000 credits, the 2009 Ferrari California only 220,000. It's not about performance, it's about car love.

READ: Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 pictures and hands-on

There are holes in the car portfolio on offer, but we already know that DLC is going to play a big part in expanding the game in the future, so you can expect more cars to arrive as time passes.

On the road the cars handle more or less as they do in Motorsport but the terrain is more of an obstacle. There are more undulating roads that will see you bouncing at high speeds. The open roads mean you run the risk of meeting traffic when you take the racing line: drifting through a corner might see you slide your dream car into the front of a coach.

This makes Forza Horizon feel like a different game. The subtleties of Motorsport are lost and it's difficult to relate to the experience on the road because it's just so different. That's true of real life too – track racing and road driving are very different and in Forza Horizon you can't always just watch the corners and hang on to perfect timing, because the road surface doesn't always allow it.

This brings us to another change in Forza Horizon: there's no damage system. Well there is: smack into something and the body gets bent and windows break, but it makes no difference to the driving. A hard knock in other Forza games would see your car unable to compete, here it makes no difference at all, the only thing you lose is time.

There are plenty of ways to save time too, as Horizon is more forgiving when you leave the road. Rather than slowing to a snail's pace, you can race across corners, so long as you don't flip your car, which is surprisingly easy to do. There are also lots of things to hit, like signs, cones, advertising banners and trees. 

You can get a discount on upgrades by hitting the "upgrade" banners dotted around the place – there are 100 in total, each offering 1 per cent discount. We'll leave you to complete the maths on that one. One thing to watch out for, though, is shrubbery. Some of the plants are rock solid and will stop you dead.

Finally a word on racing line. As you turn up the difficulty, various assists turn off and the racing line guide gets removed. This really makes the game more enjoyable because it's more of a challenge. But because the roads are less predictable, you'll need to use the HUD map much more when racing once the racing line guide is gone.

Verdict

There are so many elements at play which make Forza Horizon so different from the most recent Forza outings. This isn't a replacement for Forza Motorsport by any means: it's an addition. Forza Horizon delivers on one of the fundamentals that Turn 10, the game's developer, has always pushed: it's a game for car lovers.

Play Horizon for fun, for variety, for the awesome soundtrack. But keep FM4 for that serious track racing. These are very different games, with very different characters. That doesn't make Forza Horizon a bad game. It's likely to appeal to gamers who previously saw Forza as too serious; those who've played other open world driving games will now find something that speaks to them here.

At the same time, we're sure that some who love the simulation and authenticity of Forza Motorsport 4 will find Horizon too much like an arcade game: they might not get the satisfaction they're looking for from precision driving. As lovers of FM4 we can understand that. And that's why we'll keep playing both.