When it comes to racing games, Turn 10 are undoubtedly the kings of the track on the Xbox 360. Their Forza Motorsport series has hit the nail on the head more often than not, with super-slick visuals and an unmatched attention to detail causing petrolheads to drool. This spin-off however, has been handled by Playground Games, a team consisting of developers who have a variety of experience with a host of British-based racing studios. Forza Horizon was always going to be in good hands.
On the whole, the switch to open-world racing has gone swimmingly well. A fictional version of the great state of Colorado is hosting a racing and music festival and as a rookie driver, you need to fight your way through the pack in order to be declared the festival champion. To do this, you’ll need to take part in organised events and street race challenges, complete various stunts to boost your popularity, and generally tear up the tarmac (and dirt) in as many ways as you possibly can. There’s a serious amount of content provided – if we were to list all of the types of challenges, races, events and hidden objects to find, that list would be longer than this review - so those who are drawn in to Playground’s playground will undoubtedly be here for a long time. This truly is an open world in many respects – and for the greater part, that’s a good thing. Plus, if you do see everything that's there to be seen, and win everything that's there to be won, you can buy a season pass that will allow you access to some - note: not all - of the upcoming DLC that will be made available. The price for such luxury is a ridiculous 4000MSP - which is more than you can buy the game for here in the UK on launch day. Its a shame that a game that so desperately and obviously wants to be considered as "cool" ends up selling out in this manner.
The handling of the vehicles is reassuringly akin to that found in the main line of Forza titles, albeit with a few tweaks to ensure that the cars fit naturally into their more arcade-like environment. They still have that satisfying weight about them, and mastering the nuances of your favourite car's handling model is just as invigorating as it always was. However, one of the main downsides to be found in Forza Horizon comes in the form of the game’s crash physics, or distinct lack of them. In other open-world titles, such as Criterion’s awesome Burnout Paradise, you find that one of the main things that keeps the adrenaline flowing is the constant gambles that you take. Weighing up the outside line at 150mph when you know that you could be heading straight into oncoming traffic is thrilling, and is a choice that after a short amount of playing time, you’ll be making subconsciously. Horizon is missing this, mainly because there’s very little downside to crashing. If you do take that outside line and end up face to face with a truck, for example, your car will take a little cosmetic damage, slow down by 20mph, and start to push the truck backwards along the road. Within a second you’ll be accelerating away, your pristine engine running at full power as you pull off a perfect three point turn on your undamaged wheels.
It may sound like a relatively small thing, but in a game that veers as close to perfection as Forza Horizon does, it can be really jarring to make a misguided overtaking manoeuvre, only for you to drive right into a wall that does nothing other than stopping you dead.
Fortunately, the rest of the game more than makes up for this open-world faux pas. Visually, Horizon is a stunner - especially when the sun sets, and players will find themselves roaming around the vast road network for hours on end, just for the thrill of the drive or to find a place on the map that they haven't seen before. While riding along in some of the slower vehicles early on can feel a little dull at times, customisable difficulty for each event that you enter means that you can tweak the settings so that you get an enjoyable and challenging race more often than not. Setting yourself up with a tougher challenge provides benefits in terms of increased payouts if you win, although some very strange difficulty spikes during the main tour mean that there are times when you'll have to reassess your selected options as some events feature some bizarre rubber-band AI. Luckily, the beauty in Forza Horizon doesn't come from winning easily, but from stylishly dodging obstacles whilst keeping your speed up, trying to find the perfect combination of rubber and tarmac to get to the front of the pack. Some of that missing adrenaline that we mentioned earlier is replaced by the system of racking up style points. Everything you do is rewarded, from near misses to long drifts, and the multiplier racks up as you put combos together. Hit something though, and your points bank and multiplier is reset. This leads to some nailbiting sections, where you've put together a 20,000 point run with a three time multiplier, and a tough set of turns are up ahead.
As far as Kinect support goes, you're limited to voice control for the GPS. To say that this works well would be being far too kind, as it seems to depend an awful lot on what the game feels like. One person can call out "GPS!" five times and get a response on the sixth, but another can find that it works flawlessly. The first player tries again and has it working on every call, then the second player can't get it to respond. Fortunately, its much easier to just hit two buttons to get your route finder on. Fortunately, the Kinect support isn't representative of the quality of the game as a whole.
Indeed, there are times when you'll be playing Horizon and you'll be genuinely blown away. Small problems that only seem like minor annoyances initially do wear away at the game's lustre eventually though. If you can see past them, you're in for a treat.
Cynical sales tactics aside, Forza Horizon features flashes of brilliance and is a visually beautiful game. It isn't perfect by any means, with difficulty spikes and the lack of damage taking the edge off what could have been a supreme title. But, if the game grabs you, the sheer wealth of content on offer will keep you playing for an absolute age, whether you purchase the overly-expensive DLC or not.