Review: Forza Horizon

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

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.

Review: Forza Horizon

Driving alongside the civilian traffic you can also meet other Horizon drivers, that you can dynamically challenge to a street race at any given time. It’s definitely a nice feature, because it allows you to race outside of the areas set for actual competitions, and outside of class regulations, creating a layer of instant action on top of the basic progression.

Exploration is also rewarded by a bunch of rare cars that you can find hidden in barns and that can be restored in order to become driveable, and by 100 discount billboards, that you need to smash to accumulate a cut in the prices of upgrades that can go up to 100% after finding and destroying them all.

When you want a more involved experience, you can start climbing the ranks of the Horizon Festival by participating in organized races scattered all over the map, divided in point to point and circuit-bound, and further split between asphalt, off-road and mixed surface.

Review: Forza Horizon

By winning races you earn points that accumulate towards gaining the next rank (represented by colored wristbands) and opening further races in turn, gradually pushing you to compete across the whole map, against increasingly difficult opponents and with increasingly powerful cars.

While progressing you’ll also unlock a series of illegal street races, that tend to be the most fun of the bunch. The presence of civilian traffic is a pleasant game-changer that really keeps the player on his toes and creates a level of challenge that normally doesn’t exist in racing simulations. The fact that most street races are held at night, dawn or sunset also contributes to the challenge and to their impressive visual impact.

The Artificial Intelligence driving the other cars is one of the most pleasant surprises of the game. It definitely feels a lot smarter than the half-tamed donkeys driving around in Forza Motorsport 4, and it’s definitely challenging. AI drivers follow very different racing lines giving the impression of racing against actual individuals instead of the usual robotic AI that always tries to follow the ideal line and never makes mistakes. They’re also rather good at avoiding the player, that is a feat in itself.

Review: Forza Horizon

The game features no apparent rubber banding, so beating the AI is a real challenge from launch to the goal of each race, forcing the player to rely only on his own skill and not on crutches that ensure easy victories (besides the traditional rewind function, that doesn’t really replace the ability to shave off seconds in challenging corners, but works, instead, as a good training tool). Especially from the orange wristband level onwards, you can expect no mercy even on normal difficulty, and boy, that’s great.

The best expression of the AI lies in a handful of star drivers that you’ll have to face during your climb to your own stardom. They’re smart, definitely good, and pose a real challenge especially at the higher ranks. The one-on-one street races against each of them that mark the promotion to each rank are probably the most fun and closely fought of the game. They’re so good that I honestly wish you could repeat them. Unfortunately they’re the only event in the game that isn’t repeatable.

One of the elements of Forza Horizon that I can’t help but take issue with is the way popularity is gained. Every time you perform an action that the game considers “skillful”, you’ll climb on the popularity gauge, unlocking a series of peculiar showcase events that pitch you against unlikely opponents like helicopters or hot air balloons.

Review: Forza Horizon

The problem is that the game’s idea of “skill” pretty much matches every serious racer’s idea of utter jackassery. In order to gain popularity you’ll have to drive as dirty as possible: throwing grip into the bin, avoiding other cars just narrowly or even trading paint with them, jumping around like a grasshopper and generally doing what any sensible driver in a simulator should not be doing. I understand that this kind of game somehow needs to reward stunt driving, but what I really dislike is that there’s absolutely no reward for driving clean and neat.

The problem is amplified further by the game’s half-hearted approach to damage. While you can damage your car (and others) visually, and it looks most impressive, there’s no functional damage whatsoever. This isn’t just a radical step back from what the Forza series got us used to, but it encourages bad driving, especially if combined with the “skill” rewards I mentioned above.

If you can’t beat an opponent fairly, the absence of damage encourages you to just slam him against a guard rail, or to use the guard rail itself as a convenient steering assist to negotiate corners that would normally require careful braking.  Between the flaws of this game, this is honestly the only one I cannot find any justification for. It simply flies in the face of the supposed simulative approach of  Forza Horizon and cheapens the experience considerably.

Review: Forza Horizon

Another element that made me frown quite a bit is the line-up of available cars. While there are still quite a few, it’s definitely toned down from Forza Motorsport 4, despite the fact that most models have been imported almost directly from it. The biggest problem is that it’s inconsistent and it lacks quite a lot of iconic rides that should have not been overlooked in this kind of game and were definitely present in the previous chapters of the series.

Especially Japanese cars received the short end of the stick (conflicting rather radically with the setting, as Japanese imports are very popular between street racers and in events like Horizon): The default line-up includes only five Nissan, none of which is a modern Z model, there are only two Mitsubishi, both Lancers, and two Toyota (none of which is a Celica). I could go on for several paragraphs on the many cars that have apparently been overlooked making Horizon’s car park direly incomplete. This problem tastes rather bitter because of the rather evident reason behind this.

As a necessary disclaimer, I decided not to count the following remarks in the final score of the game. I thought about it for a while, and arguably the problem they express doesn’t directly influence the quality of Forza Horizon. Honestly, though, the temptation to deck at least a point from the score you’ll find at the end of the review was there, and was very, very compelling. If it irks you as much as it did me, you can easily take the final verdict and slash a whole point off it.

Review: Forza Horizon

I’ve been known for talking in favor of DLC and additional content in quite a few occasions. Developers and publishers often need to find alternative sources of revenue nowadays in order to recoup the increasing costs of game development, but that’s fine only as long as it doesn’t slide into indirectly cheapening the experience of the basic product.

In this case it’s definitely evident that a large number of cars have been withheld from the release in order to dish them out gradually as DLC.  The immense holes in the line-up are a rather evident sign of that, and the release of a day-one DLC package is another bad omen, with monthly packages already laid down and announced for the next six months and predictably coming even further down the line. Forza 4 had the same, but it also had a much bigger, more varied and complete initial line-up, turning the monthly add-ons into a welcome and optional bonus. In Horizon the lacking car park at release seems a blatant excuse to sell more DLC. That’s simply not kosher in my eyes.

In addition to that the game seems utterly bent into making you spend as much money as possible on top of the basic price. The token system that lets you buy cars with real world currency adds up to the “treasure map” that unveils the game’s secrets, and that the game advertises repeatedly through written messages and even audio “commercials” during the radio broadcasts.

Review: Forza Horizon

Adding insult to injury we have an absolutely nonsensical preorder policy. The retailer-specific preorder bonuses included the 2012 Aston Martin Virage, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, the 2010 Ferrari 458 Italia, and the 2010 Nissan 370Z. Excluding the Virage the other three cars are absolutely relevant rides that should not be missing (and normally aren’t ever missing) from the basic line-up of a game like this. The fact that the bonuses are store-specific means that, even if you preordered, you can only have one of those iconic cars.

For crying out loud, the 370Z is the only modern Z model in the whole game, and you can’t have it unless you preordered at the right retailer. What’s the latest multi-brand racing game in which you couldn’t drive a Z? Honestly it’s like saying “Preorder Batman: Arkham City at GameStop and you can play as Batman”. It simply doesn’t make the slightest sense and I can’t, for the life of me, fathom how someone in his right mind managed to decide that this was a good idea.

Please forgive the semi-editorial-ish rant, but I felt it needed to be said. Back to the game itself, we can move on to the multiplayer segment.

Review: Forza Horizon

Online gameplay pretty much mirrors what was available in Forza Motorsport 4 in its structure, with a rather extensive lobby system that allows players to chose a preferred level of difficulty and the kind of competition, ranging from the usual races to some rather self-explanatory minigames including Cat & Mouse, Infected and King.

Tragically, those minigames tend to be the most fun online experience in Forza Horizon, as they are actually based on bumping on other cars and messing around with other players in a lighthearted fashion. Since they don’t have any pretense of actual racing, one can enjoy them for what they are and get a few hours of mindless fun.

Online racing in itself is, unfortunately, a really sad experience, especially compared to what Forza 4 offered. Setting aside the rather jarring latency that I experienced in almost every race and that could very well be on my side (unfortunately I have no way to verify), the lack of a proper damage model simply destroys the ability to enjoy competing properly against human opponents.

Review: Forza Horizon

Crashes have no consequence, so the whole racing experience is turned into a festival of bumper cars where almost everyone does his best to crash into his opponents to send them spinning out of the way. Can’t negotiate a corner properly? No problem, just use the side of that conveniently placed car as a driving aid, no matter if said car gets pushed against a wall as a consequence, ruining another player’s fun in the process.

If you start ahead on the grid, you better not hold much hope for that race, because at the first corner the barbaric hordes that launched behind you will completely forget that they have brakes and see your tail as bull sees a red blanket. It’s inevitable, and it turns racing online into a messy farce that seriously needs to be addressed by the developer before it can become so much as workable.

As a final, much more positive note, the game retained the fantastic paint editor that came with Forza 4, including the ability of sharing and selling liveries on the online storefront. Customizing the cars’ paint jobs down to extremely small details is a pleasure that Forza players are used to but never gets old, and even those that have no artistic ability can still find a whole lot of fun in simply checking the store for the perfect livery to apply to their favorite ride, expressing their personality and taste. It’s definitely an added value to the game and a great boon to its longevity.

Review: Forza Horizon

Ultimately Forza Horizon is not a perfect game, as it carries quite a few nagging flaws that stop it short of a true masterpiece. That said, the game provides an unique, immersive and simply fun single player experience that can’t be found anywhere else, with just the right mix simulative physics and free roaming that will keep petrolheads busy for a long time.

Whether you enjoy cruising around on a complex and varied road network, racing against skilled and challenging AI opponents, or simply spending hours turning beautiful cars into your own unique work of art, Forza Horizon has a lot to offer. Unfortunately it doesn’t offer everything, especially in its car line-up and in multiplayer racing, but it does provide a satisfying experience that no self-respecting motorsport enthusiast should miss.