It might look like Forza, it might handle like Forza, it might even say Forza on the box, but Forza Horizon isn’t the usual Forza Motorsport affair. Instead, it’s an interesting hybrid, combining the technical genius of Forza with the best bits of a Need for Speed or Burnout. Where we used to have racetracks and championships, we now get point to point events and the open road. Where the emphasis used to be on authenticity, it’s now on thrills, spills and crowd-pleasing manoeuvres. This isn’t the Forza you already know and love, but it’s the Forza you’re going to fall in love with when you play it.
That’s because Horizon has the open-world structure of Test Drive: Unlimited or Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the breathless road racing of a Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and the lovely scenery of a Need the Speed: The Run, but something that none of those games can rival: the realistic handling of a proper racing sim. It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving a nineties Volkswagen Corrado, a seventies Ford Mustang or a 2011 Lotus Evora, each car behaves exactly as you’d feel it should.
Tyre meets Tarmac
With the Mustang, for example, the tail reliably slides out as you try to corner, you fight your pad or wheel to maintain control, and rely on the raw grunt of the engine to pull you back on track. Smaller, lighter cars drive with more precision and finesse, while supercars demand a little more elegance and respect. I’m in no position to say what driving a Ferrari California or Range Rover Supercharged would be like on a twisting Colorado mountain road, but Horizon feels convincing and, you know what? That’s enough.
What’s important is that Horizon gives you plenty of scope to enjoy the cars and the handling. It all takes place in a kind of compressed version of the state of Colorado, and it’s based on a fictional cars and music festival, with a killer line-up of rock, alternative, urban and electronic acts, all enjoyed on the game’s three radio stations, and a massive selection of events. These are organised by different coloured wristbands, and as a new racer on the Horizon scene, it’s up to you to do several things: earn enough points to get your next wristband, earn credits to purchase new cars (and upgrade your existing collection), and win popularity points by impressing the festival crowd.
The main way of doing all three is by taking part in individual events, which might be anything from a simple three lap race around the festival ground to a point-to-point sprint through canyons and desert, to an off-road race along a precarious mountain track. You’ll be up against seven other racers, and usually one of these will be one of the game’s personalities – slightly annoying characters you’ll eventually duel to win their signature ride. These are great, and there’s plenty of variety. Most races restrict you to a specific class or type of car, and if you don’t want to race US muscle cars or hot hatchbacks, then there are enough points to be earned elsewhere that you don’t have to.
Horizon works hard to let you have things your way, to the extent that you’ll be prompted to upgrade your car if you try and enter it in an event where you’ll be underpowered, or buy a new one if you don’t have anything appropriate in your garage. The game will select the best upgrades automatically, or offer the best cars for the event you have in mind. Nothing ever feels like too much effort. And though you’re unlikely to hit a brick wall in the normal events, Horizon is always throwing up alternatives, like wacky PR stunts that have you racing hot air balloons across open county, or a series of illegal street races where you’re also having to deal with dodging normal traffic.
Plus, Horizon is fun even when you’re not competing. It says everything that the game has an instant travel feature, allowing you to skip immediately to outposts littered around the map, yet I rarely used it. Simply getting from A to B in a sleek Mercedes or hulking Ford pick-up is just too much fun. You’re free to drive pretty much anywhere you want, though Horizon doesn’t give you as much off-road latitude as Test Drive: Unlimited 2, and the game packs in a range of activities to keep you entertained while you’re at it.
Fellow racers can be lured into ad-hoc one-on-one challenges, while billboards can be knocked down for a handy upgrade discount. There are speed cameras and special speed-challenge areas where you can try to post ever-faster speeds, and there are barns concealing classic vintage cars to uncover (with finders keepers being the rule). Plus, whatever you’re doing you can always be winning popularity points for reckless overtaking, ridiculous drifts and stomach-churning near misses. It’s basically your boy racer’s dream.
Hasta La Vista
Horizon also gives you a landscape worth exploring. With all the most scenic bits of Colorado packed into one very drivable area, you can be racing along mountain tracks one minute, through dusty small towns ten minutes later, and through plains or canyons another ten minutes on. There are some spectacular vantage points and lovely flowing waterfalls, and if it weren’t for last year’s Need for Speed: The Run, we’d say that Horizon had the best scenery in a racing game ever – and we all know what The Run was like to actually drive.
Forza Horizon delivers the best of both worlds, with the handling of Forza married to the kind of action you’d find in Need for Speed. The cars are great to drive, the scenery is stunning, and there’s a lot of variety to the on-road and off-road racing. The AI puts up a decent fight, and everything plays into a convincing festival atmosphere.
Not everyone will like the change of direction, and serious driving sim fans might want to stick to the more authentic Forza 4. But if you’ve always found Forza a bit too tough, clinical or inaccessible, then Horizon is the racer of your dreams. This is a great driving game, and serious competition for the next Need for Speed.