As a gamer, there are few things I value more than freedom. That’s why it’s hard for me not to fall in love with games that allow roaming across vast worlds and landscapes. As a racing simulator enthusiast, there are few things I value more than precise physics and the immersive sensation of driving an actual car that reacts to my domineering hand as I would expect from a real one.
Until now those two elements of my gaming identity seemed somewhat in conflict. Games that let me explore large networks of roads with complete or relative freedom also put me at the helm of fictional starships on wheels that just looked like real cars. On the other hand the best racing simulators made me feel constricted in circuits and tracks that left no room for free roaming.
Every time I played a sandbox game involving cars like one of the many Need for Speed, Grand Theft Auto or Sleeping Dogs I asked myself: “How would this feel if it had realistic physics? How great would it be if I could actually use a wheel and feel like I was driving a real car in this large and immersive world?” At last Forza Horizon is here, and I got my answer.
Forza Horizon is set around a fictional event named Horizon Festival, held every year in Colorado. As a rookie entering the festival for the first time, the player is called to climb through the ranks of the attending racers, until he can finally try to claim the title of overall champion. It sounds simple, and yet it isn’t. But let’s go in order.
The first impact with the game is with its visuals, and it’s definitely a positive impact. The cars look very sweet, a notch over what you usually see in similar, but more arcade-oriented games, even thanks to the fact that the developer could use most of the models already created for Forza Motorsport 4. In addition to that, the presence of Forza‘s absolutely beautiful dashboards for the cockpit view simply puts Forza Horizon quite a few steps above it’s most direct and less simulative competitors.
Many may not be used to play this kind of games from the cockpit view, but my advice is to try and get used to it, because by playing on the external cameras only you’ll miss a large part of the immersion that makes this title unique, ultimately doing yourself a rather big disservice.
While generally high in quality the representation of the cars isn’t without flaws. Considering the fact that the game doesn’t have to handle just small circuits, but a large and definitely expansive network of roads busy with additional traffic, quite a few polygons had to be shaved from the car models of Forza Motorsport 4, reducing the level of detail in a few areas.
While this is definitely understandable and acceptable, some of the cars seem to have undergone the process with inconsistent results. A few rides definitely look worse than the average, with very evident parts that are just painted on the textures instead of correctly modeled. The large rear grills of the Lexus LFA are a good and rather jarring example, but there is worse.
The Lotus 2-Eleven is probably the worst model of the game, showing a level of 3D modeling that is downright immersion-breaking, with indispensable elements like headlights and engine just painted on the texture in rather low resolution. It looks bad, and it’s totally inconsistent with the visual fidelity of the rest of the car line-up.
Besides the cars, the other obvious protagonist of the game is Forza Horizon‘s representation of Colorado. Playground’s environmental designers really did a good job in creating the game’s world, with rich textures that mask really well the models that can sometimes (and understandably) be a little on the simple side.
The only relatively little problem lies with the choice of Colorado itself. While the Red Rock area is very impressive and the developers did try their best at including some landmarks to break the monotony, like a couple small towns, a dam and a few other decorations, I have trouble imagining many more boring locations than Colorado for a free roaming driving game. It’s mostly desert, and while Americans seem to have some kind of insane infatuation for the idea of driving in the desert, I can definitely think of quite a few locations that would better fit this kind of game.
The biggest issues with the location are the relative lack of variety and the absolute absence of any truly urban environment. The pair of small towns included in the map fall quite short of the sprawling cities you can find in other free roaming games, and, while your mileage may vary, I’m quite sure something a little more populated than a den of cowboys built around a saloon would have improved the game’s environment by quite a lot.
That said, the whole visual impact is enriched and amplified tenfold by a really stunning lighting engine that includes a lovely cycle between day and night and really brings everything to life. Forza Horizon is the perfect example of the fact that a great lighting engine can really bring all the graphical elements together and the gradual change of lighting conditions with time increases the effect even further, bringing much needed visual variety to an otherwise rather monotonous environment. Too many developers overlook that, and luckily Playground Games didn’t.
As usual pictures are worth more than a few thousands words, so you can check out my whole gallery below. It should be quite enough to give you a good idea of the game’s visuals.
The audio of Forza Horizon is generally high in quality. Especially voice acting is definitely great, but unfortunately most of the characters aren’t given the depth they deserve, having just a few lines and taunts repeated over and over. The DJs of the three radio stations that you can listen to are definitely an enriching element for the soundtrack, and especially Holly Cruz of Horizon Pulse is a lovely accompaniment for our racing, with well delivered lines and a soothing accent that definitely made me look forward to hearing more of her witty remarks.
Engine sounds are quite varied and realistic, even if they do seem a little muffled at times, possibly to give more relevance to the radio stations and to the music. While I really like Holly Cruz, that’s the wrong choice in this kind of game.
The three radio stations bring a wide variety of tunes for us to enjoy while we drive. Most of the choices in music are quite fitting to the setting and to a driving game (even if, as usual, the lack of some Eurobeat is almost criminal). There are only a couple of songs that really feel out of place. One, in particular, makes me want to rip my eardrums off every time it pops up on Horizon Pulse, but I won’t name it out of mercy. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to pinpoint it easily by yourself.
The heart and soul of Forza Horizon‘s gameplay are the physics that always characterized the Forza series, and especially those featured in Forza Motorsport 4, with a few tweaks. Cars feel and handle realistically, with a good simulation of weight and inertia that definitely brings the driving closer to an actual simulator than to an arcade racer.
In order to fit the setting Playground Games seems to have dampened the reactions of the cars just a little bit, making them slightly easier to drive than in the previous titles of the series, but make no mistake. There’s no magical rubber band that will easily bring the car back in line after a drift, and driving is definitely challenging, especially on the most powerful cars. Forza Horizon isn’t a full fledged simulator (no game on console really is), but it gets near enough to be satisfying even for a sim nut like me.
In a rather surprising contrast with the slightly easier driving model, even with all assists deactivated, recovering from spins is harder than in Forza Motorsport 4. Way harder actually. In the previous game a violent countersteer at the very beginning of a spin would rather easily bring the car back in line. In Horizon correcting that kind of error is much harder, realistically so, even if it may frustrate the less sim-oriented between the audience, forcing them to stick with AWD cars in order to be competitive and not too spin-happy.
While a controller is plenty to enjoy the game, my advice is (as usual with this kind of game) to use a proper racing wheel with good force feedback. Not only it enhances the immersion that is one of the best elements of Forza Horizon, but it also increases the pleasure of driving on the game’s varied surfaces that go from relatively well paved highways to dirt roads, passing by rather bumpy countryside lanes where it’s very easy to lose control on the most powerful cars without a good tactile feeling on the wheel. The Fanatec CSR wheel (that I reviewed here last year) built for Forza Motorsport 4 works perfectly with Horizon as well.
Ultimately the fact that Forza Horizon‘s quasi-simulative approach to driving enables us to properly use a wheel is one of the major elements that sets it apart from the rest of the open world racing games, where the arcadish driving turns the use of a wheel into a liability in favor of normal controllers.
Single player gameplay revolves around two major elements: free roaming and races.
When you set out to freely explore the roads of Forza Horizon‘s virtual Colorado the game is at its best. Driving around without worrying too much about winning races or progressing is just pure unadulterated fun, turning Forza Horizon into one of the most immersive and relaxing racing games I played in quite some time.
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