Peace, Love, Horizon

Forza has been one of the premier racing series for quite a while; the franchise has constantly provided top-tier physics, an impressive lineup of elite cars, and a variety of options to help personalize your driving experience. The setting of the game, however, has never really strayed from enclosed tracks and menus asking you where you wanted to race that day.

Enter Forza Horizon, the first open-world entry for the franchise. Horizon is set in a semi-fictional slice of Colorado where many real-world roads from the Centennial State cut together to form a twisting, turning spattering of insane driving roads along beautiful mountains, a rural expanse, and a suburban outcropping. So, what’s the reason all the in-game racers have gathered at this perfect storm of road racing? The (fictional) Horizon Festival, the Woodstock of car racing. And, naturally, you play as the young, up-and-coming nobody looking to make a name for himself and be crowned king of the festival.

Starting off in a crappy 1995 Volkswagen Corrado, you’ll race in beginner events in the hopes of earning credits to not only obtain better cars, but also to work your way up to stiffer competition until you’re finally ready to take on the champion in standard racing game fashion. Unlike previous entries in the series, Horizon offers many other ways to earn extra credits: illegal street races, promotional events where you take on unconventional vehicles like hot-air balloons or biplanes, and even racing for slips against the game’s seven bosses. In total, you’re looking at hours upon hours of racing outside of the 70 festival-sponsored races in single-player alone.

Along with the robust racing choices and the game’s main plot, there’s also the underlying quest to become popular. Yes, it does sound like something you may have had to do in high school, but in Horizon, this extra quest to do tricks or cause destruction in the environment to earn popularity points helps keep the long drive between some races entertaining as you look to move up from 250th amongst the racing fans to becoming the number one driver in their hearts. And performing enough of these tricks also adds to the in-game achievements where you can unlock more credits by performing specific stunts and maneuvers.

These new elements are all well and good, and when you jump into Forza Horizon to start, this new take feels original and exciting with the atmosphere of the festival, the radio DJ’s script, and the phenomenal soundtrack adding even more life to the scenes before you. But, as you get deeper into the game, if you’ve played any racing series besides Forza, you start to realize you’ve actually seen many of these tricks before.

Forza still does what it is known for very well in terms of physics, car choices, and customizing the driving experience. And the plot and quest for popularity are very enjoyable. But as an open-world game ,it still needs a bit of work, and the minor annoyances start to add up. The fact that the game doesn’t present a clear difference between what’s breakable in the environment and what isn’t particularly grinded my gears. I could smash up some fences but not others, and I’d be able to drive through some foliage only to be stopped suddenly by a single piece of lone shrubbery in the wilderness.

Another aspect of the open world that bothered me, especially later in the game, was how the area outside of the main festival felt like a ghost town. I loved how expansive and detailed the world was, but it barely felt like there was anyone else in it; much of the civilian traffic felt more like more random obstacles than actual people in the world. Many of the tracks also start to repeat themselves toward the end of the game, which was puzzling, considering how much unused open road there was. I also would have loved some character customization or at least some depth to the character you’re forced to play as. If I got called the “Mystery Driver” one more time, I was just gonna drive off a cliff!

All in all, Forza Horizon is a fine new take on this venerable racing series. It has a few quirks that come with the franchise’s first attempt at an open-world game, but at its heart, it’s still a solid Forza title. I can see Horizon being the start of a continuing bold new direction for the franchise, and with a bit more polish, I can even see it becoming the Forza standard. If you’re a Forza fan, this is definitely worth checking out.

SUMMARY: A different turn for the Forza folks maintains the high level of racing the series is known for, but their first open-world attempt falls flat in some ways.

  • THE GOOD: Same tight Forza physics and handling.
  • THE BAD: The open world feels empty and hollow.
  • THE UGLY: Starting the game off with a Volkswagen Corrado.

SCORE: 8.5

Forza Horizon is an Xbox 360 exclusive.