While late to the game compared to its platform competitors, Microsoft has been making really good racing games for a long time. Early on, it was Monster Truck Madness for Windows 95, then came the Xbox with Project Gotham Racing and later Forza Motorsport. With the shuttering of Bizarre Creations, it seems that Microsoft wasn’t terribly interested in putting out racing titles that weren’t either high-end simulations like Forza or braindead Kinect stuff, but Microsoft has a powerful hand in Forza Horizon – the accumulation of all of that they have learned – and it is a masterwork.
Bright Lights, Loud Music
Through a series of crucial and properly-measured cutscenes, you open in Forza Horizon as a silent, Paul Walker-esque character, a blank slate arriving fresh at the Horizon Festival, a cacophony of dubstep and dancing inflatable men in Colorado-themed back country. You build reputation and stacks of credits by ranking in events strewn about the landscape, unlocking critical races and challenges by acquiring new, brightly-colored bracelets. A lot of the excitement in a game like this would normally be telegraphed or serve as window-dressing, but in Forza Horizon, the experience is palpable, helped by clever design choices. Rather than sift through menus to get most of your major functions done, as in proper Forza titles, your garage, paint jobs, and racing events are physical locations that you drive to. In fact, you’ll drive everywhere in Forza Horizon and it always feels great. From sun-baked red rock and high plains to mountainous passes, the landscape of Horizon is genuine and exciting, leading me to rarely use the game’s fast travel options.
The game’s presentation is always professional and airtight, never ceasing to be pristine at all times, leading me to believe that the game was assembled by only the most masterful of magicians. As you play, you experience a conveyor belt of clever graphical touches: a day/night cycle that highlights the glow of the Horizon festival when you’re at a distance, cannons full of fireworks greet you as you finish races, a perspective-drawn GPS that makes navigation infinitely easier, even graphical jitter as you approach mind-melting speeds or race on loose surfaces. The only time Forza Horizon’s presentation seems to let up is when, literally, you stop the car and glance at some rough edges. Of course, you’ll find these instances come about pretty rarely; in motion, the game is a dream.
All The Right Guts
Forza Horizon carries all of the perks of being both built on established tech and being an adventure all its own. All of Forza’s guts are here, from the handling to the upgrades to the photo modes, driving lines, and incredible design mode that allows you to conjure up virtually every design on your vehicle imaginable. Simultaneously, you can rocket across the Horizon landscape with nary a care as the damage is only cosmetic and let the game automatically upgrade or degrade your vehicle to meet qualifying criteria without needing to mess with body kits and transmission settings. In a lesson best learned by the folks over at EA or 2K, multiplayer integration through Xbox Live is incredibly subtle. As you finish races, you’ll be prompted to best another player’s better time for a bounty, while flying by speed traps will inform you on how you stand against your friends’ paces. There’s no chronic, intrusive notifications or secondary services to sign into, it’s just there. It’s fantastic. Forza Horizon also features a similarly subtle, but incredibly effective use of Kinect in its voice-commanded GPS. Need to get to an event quickly? Just tell the game, rather than dragging out the map.
While driving in Forza Horizon’s picturesque locales is a joy to itself (I made it a point to find and drive across every road in the game in the first eleven hours), there’s an incredible wrinkle in the game’s Kudos-style points system. Just like the Project Gotham titles, you’ll score reputation by driving fast, passing close, catching air, and pulverizing signs, all without having to be in an event. This means that by simply playing the game, you’re advancing up the ladder and unlocking new challenges, sometimes to great surprise: I often found myself five to ten spots ahead by simply crossing the map. If there’s one knock against the feature, it’s that the ladder of 250 players isn’t progressive, meaning it’s just as easy to ascend early on as it is later. Money also seems easy come by since the game hands you so many rides that I only needed to open my wallet when dishing out for an exotic ride or tune up a car I really wanted to use for an event. On top of that, seeking out and destroying billboards that dot the land will reduce your upgrade costs. There are plenty of ways to bump up the difficulty in Forza Horizon and while the ladder doesn’t get progressively harder, the events sure do.
Forza Horizon will not leave you hungry for content. While many events will be point-to-point or circuit races, they’re incredibly diverse, taking place over mixed surfaces against biplanes or in the form of straight-up street races. All of this occurs while civilian traffic rolls on around you, randomizing how you or your AI opponents handle. You’ll also get speed trap events and photo op challenges in which you take a car to a specific spot and snap a photo, evocative of Test Drive Unlimited’s much-lengthier and soul-killing car transport missions that required you to keep the car undamaged. Speaking of cars, while not featuring the plethora of vehicles from the primary Forza games, you’ll find plenty to keep your attention with the promise of much DLC to come. Owners of previous Forza games will also be treated with cars from those titles while there appears to be regular community giveaways in your in-game mailbox.
When initially announced, it was easy to pass off Forza Horizon as a thematically-derivative spin-off to cash in on the franchise’s name, but Forza Horizon is just as valid, and far more entertaining, than any of the proper Forza games. Maybe it’s the open-world format that frees it from rote series of circuit races. Maybe it’s the playful presentation and consequences-free driving model. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s taken every best thing from racing games over the past decade and seamlessly melded it together into one coherent experience. It doesn’t really matter, Forza Horizon is the best racing game you’ll play this year, or maybe this decade.