Turn 10’s Forza series has become recognized as a pinnacle of the racing simulation genre, thanks in large part to its huge library of detailed car models, accurate handling and many tuning options. If there is a complaint however, it is that the series has grown too formulaic. Forza Horizon seeks to change this, however. Not only is Horizon being handled by a new developer, Playground Games, but it also allows the player to race through an open world. With a dedicated fan base, it can be risky to make such significant changes, but luckily, many of them pay off.
Forza Horizon is set in Colorado, at the titular Horizon music and car festival. The player starts off as a nobody, attempting to rise through the ranks of the festival. There are numerous races sprinkled throughout the huge map, growing progressively more difficult with every victory. While this is nothing new to a Forza veteran, there are variations on the standard event. Showcase events have the player racing their car against everything from old fighter planes to hot air balloons, while street races have the player not only trying to overtake their opponents, but also dodging traffic in the process. Other events will have you trying to reach a set speed or take a photo of your car next to one of Horizon’s landmarks. This variety is a welcome addition to the franchise.
Popularity is another new feature that has been introduced to the series. By performing a wide range of maneuvers, like drifting or drafting opponents, the player gains popularity points in the Horizon festival. These maneuvers can then be strung together, like in a Tony Hawk game. Even simulation die-hards will likely have fun stringing together monster combos, going from jumps to drifts to near misses and so on. Regardless of how crazy the player gets with the popularity system, it is always nice that the game will acknowledge a particularly good pass or a serious accident that was narrowly avoided.
While it is possible to go from event to event, seeing little of the open world the developers have created, there are numerous incentives to leave the confines of the race track. Cameras are placed liberally throughout the world, recording either the player’s top or average speed. These are then recorded on a leaderboard and it becomes a game in itself trying to beat the top speeds. Barn finds are also hidden throughout the map, awarding the player rare and iconic cars from the 1950s up to the early ’90s. For those who love to upgrade their car, exploring Colorado is a must, as there are signs next to nearly every road that when broken, will give discounts on all available car parts. In some games, the open world is inconsequential. In Horizon though, the developers have given the player a number of good reasons to explore their world.
It is a good thing Playground Games has provide these incentives, too. If they didn’t, many players might miss out on the beautiful and well realized open world they have crafted. Throughout the map are details like pristine waterfalls, lush forests, and man-made features like dams and old saw mills, all perfect for the aspiring photographer, thanks to the game’s photo mode. Despite all of Horizon taking place in Colorado, there is still some good variety in the environments. The player will find themselves driving through everything from desolate deserts to overgrown forests. Colorful tracks from previous games, like Amalfi Coast and the Nurburgring, are missed, but their exclusion is a small price to pay for this gorgeous open world. Horizon also introduces a subtle day/night cycle, which is an appreciated and long overdue addition to the Forza series. The developers have also taken into account some of the issues that might arise from having an open world setting. If you simply do not feel like driving clear across the map to get to another race, there are quick travel stations strategically placed so the player is never far from an event.
There are some drawbacks to this open world setting however. The dedication to realism the Forza series is known for, clashes with some gameplay decisions in Horizon. While in the past, the series tried to penalize the player from running off the road or smashing into opponents, Horizon rewards the player. A product of its open world setting and lack of restrictions are the many opportunities Horizon gives players to take shortcuts across long swathes of dirt and grass. Even if the player doesn’t want to abuse these shortcuts, the AI opponents will not hesitate to, which means that to keep up with the pack, the player will have little choice but to cut across the dirt. Also, the lack of simulation damage in Horizon means the player can slam into other opponents without the worry of damaging an integral part of their car. It is too easy for races to devolve into matches of off-road bumper cars, which becomes truly aggravating in multiplayer. In a series that required taking the best line and strategic passing for victory, these changes are quite jarring.
Compared to previous entries, Horizon also has a noticeably shorter car list. While the player probably won’t even use all the cars in Horizon, the smaller number of cars means that in many races the player will find themselves racing against the same model they are driving. Like past titles, numerous DLC car packs are in the works, all of which are available to the player with the purchase of a season pass, which will alleviate this issue, but not everyone will want to make that much of an investment in a game they already paid $60 for, $80 if they purchased the limited edition. Even worse, the ability to fine tune your car has been stripped from the game. While in past entries nearly everything on your car could be tweaked, in Horizon you only control what parts you buy, stripping some of the challenge, especially in multiplayer, out of the game. While there are less cars and fewer ways to modify them, using an updated version of the Forza 4 engine, each of Horizon’s cars still displays the level of detail the series is known for.
The latest entry to the series raised numerous questions about the future of Forza. The format of past games was largely replaced with an open world and development was handed off to a new studio. Now that Horizon is out though, it is apparent that the game was in good hands and the open world is an improvement over what was becoming a tired formula. While there are some issues with Forza Horizon, they are outnumbered by the improvements and positive additions it has brought to the franchise.