Review by Bobby Blackwolf

Game Review: Forza Horizon

Game Review: Forza Horizon

Of all of the gaming studio closures over the past few years, the ones that hit closest to home to me were those that made racing games.  Bizarre Creations, which made the Project Gotham Racing series as well as the fantastic Blur, closed up shop around the same time as Black Rock Studio, which made Pure and Split/Second. Suddenly, many extremely talented developers were looking for work. Enter Playground Games, who hired many of the developers from those studios, as well as from other studios with racing game pedigrees (such as Codemasters, Criterion, and Ubisoft Reflections) and became tasked with creating the next generation of simulation arcade racing: Forza Horizon.

Did I say BOTH simulation AND arcade racing? I believe I just did. The Forza Motorsport series by Turn 10 is well known for its exquisite attention to detail about every aspect of a car, from the engine sound to the layout of the dashboard. The love of the automobile is extremely evident in every facet of Forza Motorsport's design, and many people spend hours tuning specific aspects of their car to shave off precious seconds from their best lap time. And that's great - for people who know cars.

Forza Horizon, however, is all about the love of the RACE. This means that the experience has more of an arcade feel rather than a simulation feel - although aspects of that Turn 10 love are definitely evident. This is definitely not intended to be Forza Motorsport 5, but rather another game set in the same world.

My Style Of Play


The white car is usually me in races
The white car is usually me in races
Before I go into what I think, I want to get out of the way how I play racing games. I am not, for lack of a better term, a "gearhead." I do not know my way underneath a car hood. I don't really care about car stats such as how much wind resistance it can get in a tunnel. But I do enjoy racing, and I enjoy the variety in the cars that Forza has given me. I have always enjoyed the Forza games even if I never used its most touted feature (car tuning.)

I also play on "Easy" AI difficulty, but I do turn off all assists other than the racing line. I am not a fast racer, my corners are not as aggressive as they should be, and I do tend to make poor decisions on when and how to pass. Considering Forza Horizon is actually aimed at people like me, I figure this is an interesting take for this review.

The "Forza Motorsport" Aspects


Turn 10 trusted Playground Games with this title, but still had a lot to offer. The car selection is not as massive as Forza 4, but it still seems pretty huge to anyone who's not an enthusiast. The majority of the cars are the type you would see at a racing festival, so a lot of the consumer cars are not present. Each car has their own sound and in-car view, and all the love and detail you've come to expect is there.

Turn 10 loves their cars
Turn 10 loves their cars
You can also upgrade your car with parts from the shop that will affect the stats. There are "auto" upgrades that will put the parts that will bring out the best rating for that class if you don't want to sit there flipping through menus. The problem that some people have is that this is the extent of the car customization. There is NO TUNING of the car beyond putting upgrades on it. As I stated before, tuning has been a staple of the Forza Motorsport series, and its exclusion from Forza Horizon helps define the distinction between these two variations of the franchise. When you race against a car that's like yours and has the same rating, you know that you have the same chance as the other guy, and it's all about your skill on the track, rather than your skill in the tuning menus.

And I think that's wonderful. In my opinion, that was one of the "barriers to entry" for the Forza Motorsport series, especially if you wanted to play online. Sure, you could download car tuning setups from other players, but it's a lot better to just not have to worry about them at all.

The Driving Experience


Driving on the open road
Driving on the open road
If you HAVE played a Forza Motorsport game before, you will feel right at home with the driving in Forza Horizon. If you use the assists or the racing line, they will look and feel identical to what you're used to. Where Forza Horizon differs, however, is how giving it is to mistakes. Driving off-road onto the grass no longer slows you down or hampers your turning as much as it does in Forza Motorsport. Crashing into the wall seems to sometimes be a viable strategy to turn a corner. There are no time penalties for not racing a clean lap. Essentially, they turned up the "arcade" knob when creating the driving experience.

That's not to say you can't mess up, because you can, and you can mess up badly...but it's a lot more forgiving if you do. This isn't a full-on arcade racer, though. You DO have to know how to go slow to go fast, you WILL have to use your brakes (it's the left trigger, by the way) and you HAVE to make smart decisions when passing others. This is why I've called it a "simulation arcade racer" - it has both simulation and arcade elements and fuses them together.

The Horizon Festival


Forza Horizon takes place at a large music festival in the heart of Colorado called the Horizon Festival. While many spectators go to the festival for the music acts peppered across multiple stages, other spectators go to watch the greatest street racers in the world race all around the region. And this is where the story begins.

Home of the 20-something racer
Home of the 20-something racer
Did I say story? In a racing game? Yes, I did. The Horizon Festival attracts 250 20-something hipsters that apparently all act like douchebags, all trying to win the festival to become a household name and have endorsement deals all around the world. You are "The New Guy" who sneaks in at the last minute to claim the 250th spot (out of 250.) You are also a 20-something douchebag, but at least you stay quiet while the hot chick gives you flirty looks in the few cutscenes you have together.

This is an open world experience, where you have to drive to the start of the next race. There are some fast travel options, but they cost in-game credits unless you can pass certain challenges at each outpost. (You can always fast travel to the center of the map, where the garage and paint shop and all that stuff is, for free.) So, most of the game, you will actually spend the most time driving to the next race. This makes it beneficial to "plan out" your race route - when you inspect a race on the main map, it will show you where it goes. If its a point-to-point race, when you are returned to the open world, you will actually be at the end of the race, so if the next race you wanted to do was right next to the start point of the point-to-point, you now have to drive all the way back up to the starting point.

One good thing, though, is that if you don't have a car that is eligible for the race, they don't make you go all the way back to the center of the map and then drive back out - you can purchase a car or do an auto upgrade on the spot. But, if you want to do a manual upgrade, or buy a cheaper car and upgrade it to fit the specs, you'll have to go back to the center of the map to do so.

You really should slow down and look around
You really should slow down and look around
Colorado looks BEAUTIFUL, and there are lots of varied environments for you to gawk at. From snow covered mountains, to farmlands, to an industrial area filled with warehouses, there's a lot to see here. And you see it in a constant fast frame rate. I never once saw any framerate dips, no matter if it was high noon, or late at night. (There is a full day/night cycle.) You'll be searching around for "barn finds" - amazing cars hidden in barns, and the only thing you have to go on is a circle on the map showing the area you're looking in, and that's the best reason to slow down and look at the scenery rather than zooming by at top speed.

Since you'll be driving around a lot, you will spend a lot of time listening to the radio. There are three different radio stations broadcasting during the festival, and they each have different genres. There's a rock station, a dance station, and an indie remix station. In between tracks, the DJ's will talk about you as the "mysterious new guy" and interview the other racers about you. This works well, until after you've completed the story - then they act like the end of the story hasn't happened yet.

While there are roughly 22 tracks in each station, you will hear them all pretty quickly and then there will be lots of repeats. So, if you're only a fan of the Rock genre, then be prepared to hear the same songs over and over again while driving from race to race. (Each race will pick a track from any station and play that, and it's not worth trying to change the station when the race starts.)

There is both Kinect and Smartglass support with Forza Horizon, and it all has to deal with the map. You can say commands to your GPS with Kinect, and with Smartglass, you can have your minimap on your device, updating in real time. The only time I used the Kinect support was when I wanted to turn off my GPS, because the only commands it gives you are "Next Event" or "Nearest". I was unable to test the Smartglass functionality because, at the time of this writing, the Forza Horizon Smartglass Companion App did not work on Android phones, and the iOS version has not been released.

The Races


But the real reason you're there is to race, and there are a LOT of races. In the story, you are racing to gain higher wristbands, which allow you entries into other Festival events. Festival events are either circuit or point-to-point races with 6 other racers and one main rival for that wristband. This rival will taunt you before the race starts, and if you beat that rival, you will receive extra credits. After you have won enough races to get your next wristband, that rival will challenge you to a one-on-one race, where you will get their car if you win.

All about the racing
All about the racing
Since I am playing on Easy AI difficulty (as referenced earlier), I can tell you that there is some extreme rubber banding going on in both directions. I would imagine it's not quite as bad at the harder difficulties, but I have been both saved and burned (or at least scared) by the rubber banding. The cars up front will hang back just enough for you to be able to catch up (unless its too late in the race), which is expected behavior for the lower difficulty. But, to make things interesting, they will also speed up and catch you. There were several instances where I would be driving along in a race and not see anyone else on my minimap, and then suddenly two cars would come speeding up, only to hit their brakes just as they got to me.

One of the other areas that has extreme rubber banding is in the Showcase events. These are scripted events that would make Call of Duty developers proud. The majority of these are one-on-one races of you in a car against someone else in something that is not a car, such as a biplane, hot air balloon, or helicopter. These are neat experiences, but designed to be extremely close finishes (in either direction) - I once got stopped completely on a hard turn, and still was able to beat a biplane through the last checkpoint by half a second. It really does seem like the plane (or other object) will "wait" for you to pass a certain point before appearing to make its run on whatever checkpoint you're going through. And the Hot Air Balloon Showcase event was funny because you can see the balloon you're racing way off in the distance right as you start it, but you always wind up just barely beating it in the end.

Look out for that bus!
Look out for that bus!
There are also Street Races, which are "unsanctioned" by the festival, and therefore do not have roads marked off. You're not only racing against seven other racers for loads of cash, you're also facing normal traffic, AND you need to make sure you don't drive off the wrong way. Lots of races were restarted when I realized I was supposed to make a left turn instead of continuing straight. Lots of races were also restarted when I was trying to avoid traffic in my lane and wound up having a head-on collision with someone coming the opposite direction, and the entire race avoiding our wreck.

And while you are in the open world, you can "challenge" other racers on the spot. This will usually give you a two mile stretch to race and avoid traffic, but one time it hilariously put the finish line 400 feet in front of us. (I still won.)

The good thing about the size of the world is that I never felt like I was "repeating" tracks. In Forza Motorsport, I would say "Oh man, Road Atlanta AGAIN?" In Forza Horizon, I really didn't realize I was repeating tracks. It might be part because they don't name them, which gives the illusion of more variety.

After each race, a "Rivals" feature shows, that allows you to race a hot lap against a ghost car of a friend or another racer who has a hot lap faster than the one you did during the race, and then it uploads your ghost to the server for other people to race against. Other leaderboard components have to deal with Speed Traps and Speed Zones dotted around the landscape. If you get beaten by any of your friends or fellow car club members, you will suffer the humiliation of having to clear those messages out of your inbox every time you boot up the game.

Online Racing


Since this is more of an arcade racer, you can expect that online mode will be where a lot of the replayability will be. There are the standard Circuit, Point-to-Point, and Street Races, as well as "Playground Games" such as King (game of tag), Infected (reverse game of tag), and Cat and Mouse. There is also "Free Roam", where you and seven friends can do challenges in the open world of the Horizon Festival.

We had to end here once, but didn't know where it was
We had to end here once, but didn't know where it was
Unfortunately, "Free Roam" falls extremely short compared to games such as Burnout: Paradise. There is no drop-in/drop-out functionality, so once you're in Free Roam, that's it - nobody else can jump in. The challenges have descriptions, such as "start from the Horizon Outpost in this area and get to this other area" but offer no GPS to get there. We actually had to look online to figure out where the end point was supposed to be, because it wasn't on the map. Free Roam could have been fun, but I feel like it's an extremely wasted opportunity.

The most fun I had online was doing Playlist races. Like most other online games, you can form your own party and then enter a playlist. In the "Social Playlist" we played, the game chose the track, everyone voted on a car class, and we raced whatever car (with upgrades) all with the same assists turned on. The "Veteran Playlist" allows people to choose their own assists, and the "Pure Skill Playlist" also has everyone using the same car. There is also a Playground playlist for people who just want to play the Infected/King/Cat and Mouse games.

While yes, most of the races consist of you trying to avoid being owned in the first turn, they were pretty fun. People who attempted to grief were thwarted by being ghosted (such as people trying to go too slow, or go in the opposite direction) and eventually got tired and left. There was some cars jumping around the screen due to online lag, but they were in the minority.

The Verdict


Forza Horizon is exactly what you'd expect from an all-star team of developers that made great arcade style racing games in the recent past. There are a few flaws (the "story") and missed opportunities (online free roam) but overall the experience is rewarding to the intended target audience - people who were too intimidated by the "gearhead" heavy aspect of the Forza Motorsport series, but still wanted to experience the beautiful environments and the loving detail to the cars that Turn 10 provided. This isn't Forza Motorsport 5, and it's not intended to be, and that's a very good thing.

It's a simulation arcade racer, and it works a lot better than you'd think.

Acquisition Method: Standard edition purchased at retail for $59.99
Special Note: There is a VOG Car Club, and we'd love to have you in it! Just search for "VOG"...

Our Grade:
A-
Your Grade: A-
(Based on 2 grades)
The Good:
  • Beautiful graphics never slow down no matter where, or when, you are in the world.
  • Cars look and sound like they should, a hallmark to the Forza franchise and Turn 10's love of the automobile.
  • Races seem varied enough, limits the feeling of repetition.
  • Perfect introduction to the simulation racing genre for fans of more arcade racers.
The Bad:
  • The "story" is practically non-existent, and the parts that DO exist, make you hate being a 20-something douchebag.
  • Huge missed opportunity with the Online Free Roam mode.
  • Music stations get repetitive if you only like one genre of music.

Bobby Blackwolf is the host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show on the VOG Network, lead developer of the website, and lead GM for VOG: The Game. Follow him on Twitter at @BobbyBlackwolf

Review by - 10/29/2012 11:37 AM713 views

Your Responses

act_deft
act_deft
CONCURRING OPINION

Grade: A-
I agree with Blackwolf - The graphics are amazing, up to Forza standards of beauty. Especially on the landscapes. So gorgeous. So much attention to detail. - The races are great, you don't feel like you're racing the same tracks over and over. - But this game's selling point is probably how good it feels. Arcade racing with a simulation feel, this is something that Forza is good at but Horizon excels! My only gripe is the high difficulty spiike between levels (I had a hard time in some races).
See 1 More Concurring Opinion
Burr
Burr
CONCURRING OPINION

Grade: B+
I pretty much agree with this review. While I love Forza Motorsport this game is a lot easier to get into and play with friends, without compromising too much of the Forza experience. Finally an arcade racer that isn't drift crazy and still involves some real handling and braking skills. Playlists are the way to go online. The only reason I dock the grade on this is the free roam mode online and the fact that all the races are instanced instead truly in world.

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Comments

ssj100matt
ssj100matt
11/6/2012 10:19 AM

1 0

Reply
I have to say Bobby you might have sold me on Forza Horizon. I wasn't aware of the voltron like development team behind the game. In a ways the game kind of sounds like Initial D in the sense that you have rivals with different advantages and weakness's. And like Initial D it has the auto customization aspect as well. I've always been turned off of many of the Forza and GT games because of the almost intimidating amount of customization and tuning you have to do in the game. Too much emphasis on tuning takes away the fun for me. To me a good racing game is something that leaves it more open to skill on the track and the ability to have fun playing with friends. From what it sounds like Forza Horizon is that. Good review
act_deft
act_deft
11/2/2012 9:45 PM

0 0

Reply
Great review Blackwolf.

And this game is a truly must have for any racing fan out there and I would even go as far to say that every Xbox 360 owner should have it.
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