Forza Horizon (Xbox 360) Review
Posted by Marc Morrison on 11.12.2012
Taken out of the race track and put into the state of Colorado, does this reinvention of Forza manage to hit the finish line, or does it spin out into dust? 411mania’s Marc Morrison finds out inside.
Title: Forza Horizon
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Playground Games
Genre: Racing, Simulation/Arcade
Players: 1-8 online, 1 Player offline
Rated: T for Teen
Forza Horizons is the fifth Forza game, but it isn’t a Motorsport game. Hence, why it’s not called “Forza Motorsport 5”, instead think of Forza Horizons as a spin-off of the Motorsport brand. What this means in reality is that the game isn’t set on pre-defined tracks at all, and it takes place in a big open environment for you to explore and race around in.
The crux of the game has you in a fictional race series (the Horizon Festival), starting as the lowest rank in the series, both in terms or wrist-band colors, and popularity ranking. It is up to you, to partake of races, accomplish tricks, and generally win the festival as you want to see fit. There is a lot of new stuff in this game, which makes it very different from past Forza games. To equate it to other games, it’s about 80% Test Drive Unlimited 2, 10% Burnout Paradise and 10% Project Gotham Racing 3 and 4. It’s all wrapped up, though, in the Forza physics/driving model. That may sound like a weird mixture but the game manages to pull it off brilliantly and remains fun as you play.
There’s a big open world for you to explore and race on. When you start the game, you’re placed in a few required races. For about the first half hour or so, you’re on a fairly linear path, having to do these races. The first two are completely scripted, and break the game. The first is you racing against “Darius Flynt”, the reigning champion of the Horizon Festival. You’re given no introduction or perspective at all in the race. The first time I lost badly, but the second time, I came in first, and the game said I lost both times. The next race is your character racing to be entered in the festival. The first time I did my best and the game said “Oh, you just barely got in! Good job!” I retried it, and wasted 10 minutes crashing into walls or other drives, and the same message popped up, when I finally cleared the finish line. The next race is just a normal one. The race after that is a “Showcase” event where you race a plane. Yes….you heard that right, you’re in a race (checkpoint style), and your opponent is a plane. You are able to actually lose or win in this race, which is better than the first two races. After this, you’re directed to pick up your Yellow Wrist-band, and the game opens up completely.
The Wrist-bands display how far you are in the campaign, as well as giving you access to the different races on the map. It goes; White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Pink, and so on. Once you unlock a new wrist-band, the world will be littered with new events for you to complete, which are called Festival Events. Along-side the “Official” wrist-band races are a few other race types to complete, Showcases, Outpost races, and “Star Showdowns”.
The Festival Events are typically broken down into one of two race types, either a point to point race, or a lap race. The point to point race has you getting from point A to point B, following a closed length of the road. The lap races involve closed circuit tracks (typically fairly small), where you complete 3 or more laps in a more traditional-style race. These two race-types are the only real two race types within Froza Horizons, and about 99% of all the races fit into either of these categories. Once you complete a race, you’ll get a bit of money, with more rewards given for how well you drove, if you beat the current wrist-band champion, your difficulty level, and so on. You’ll also gain progress toward the next wrist-band unlock.
Showcase races are the screwball race events in the game. The “race a plane” event I mentioned earlier fits into this classification. Most of these have some weird hook like, “Race a Helicopter”, or “Race a Hot Air Balloon.” One of them is called “Mini vs. Mini”, where you just race other Mini Coopers, which is actually fairly normal. All these races are, are the point to point races, only instead of another car to race against, it’s something usually strange. The plane/helicopter nonsense looks kind of cool, but it is ultimately lame. The planes have a tendency to buzz your car, which makes the controller vibrate wildly. You also don’t get any real feedback when you are racing, so the entire experience feels disconnected. If you manage to come in first place, you’ll get a little cash, as well as the car you raced in. This gives you a good reason to seek these events out, when you are able to, because hey, free car. These race events are locked to your popularity meter, which I’ll explain a bit further down.
Money races are simple races where you just race to earn money. The amount you win is kind of small, but every little bit helps. You unlock these races when you rank up with the wrist-bands, but unlike the Festival Events, there’s nothing else to win, like experience that feeds into your wrist-band system. All you win in this race subsect is cash, and some popularity. Each race, once completed, gives you the chance to challenge someone, either on your friend’s list, or a random person, if they had a better time than you. You’re given this option once you complete a race, and you do the same race again, only with you, and a ghost of their car. If you manage to beat them, you’ll get more money, but if you lose, it’s still fine.
The last race type isn’t really a race at all. Around the world of Horizons you will find fast travel locations that you can warp to, to more easily get around. Each time you warp to one, it costs you 10,000 credits; however you can do three missions at the station to get a 100% discount (and thus free fast travel). The three tasks you need to complete are: 1. Race to a speed trap location, and have a minimum required speed (it’ll tell you what it is), when you go past. 2. Drive to a scenic location, and take a picture of your car. You can’t damage your car too much, or else you’ll fail the mission. 3. Stunt racing – You’re given a time limit, and a score goal, and you have to pass the points requirement under the timer. The way you get points is a variety of things; speeding, near-missing other cars, drifting, E-drifting, crashing into light garbage, etc. There are literally over 2 dozen things for you to do in order to build up your score. If you chain together tricks together in a combo, you can build up a multiplier. The multiplier can be built up more and more, until you “land” the trick (by stopping for a few seconds), or by crashing your car, in which case your score is erased.
This trick system is what feeds into your popularity meter in the game. You start off at rank 250 (the lowest there is), but as you do tricks and win races, it starts to go up. This popularity thing keeps you interested all the time when you’re racing, or just exploring the world, since it’s always building up, even slightly. The popularity meter is what doles out the Showcase race events, each time you hit a decent milestone. There is also a challenge system all these tricks feed into. Basically, you’re given different goals by the game, and once you complete them, you’re given a bit of cash. Say, you need to have 5 Burnouts, or have 25 near misses. Once you complete a challenge, you’ll move onto the next level of the challenge, and the number will increase from 5 to 10, or from 25 to 50, that sort of thing. It again, ties into you wanting to do tricks, because it ties into both the popularity system, and the trick system. This is primarily where the game references (in spirit anyway) Project Gotham Racing 3/4, with how those gams had the “Kudos” system, which is essentially the same thing as the trick system in this game.
As you explore the world, you’ll find a few other things to do. One of them is you’ll see special billboards around the world that you can drive into, and destroy. These are placed by Dak, the resident garage mechanic, and he has plunked down 100 for you to wreck. Each wrecked billboard takes 1% off any upgrade costs you might incur. So, if you find 35 billboards, you’ll have a 35% off bonus for any upgrades you want to make for your car. If you find all the billboards, you’ll get free upgrades for good. This gives you another reason to drive around the world and to explore what is going on. Most signs are easy to spot, usually on the road and such, but a few are more hidden and tricky. If you drive past one, but didn’t manage to see it, it’s added to your map as a red dot, so that you can go back to it later. This is where the big Burnout Paradise comparison can be drawn.
The last big thing you can do is do the “Barn Finds”. Occasionally, as you play the game, you’ll be directed by a radio DJ that a car was spotted in a barn, and if you can find it, it’s yours. A big white circle will appear in one area of the map, and this is the search radius for where the car is. If you manage to find it, Dak will take it for a little while and fix it up for you. The challenging part is actually finding it, since the barns are usually decently well hidden. The game doles these finds out at semi-random intervals for you to find and collect.
There are two other small things you can do in the game that should bear mentioning. The first is that there are speed cameras on some streets. If you drive past them, your speed is recorded and compared to other people on your friends list. It’s a little mini-leaderboard for just getting around fast. There are also speed traps, which have speed cameras on two parts of the same road, once you go through one end, it starts taking an average of your speed, until you get to the other. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, but doesn’t add a lot to the overall game.
A useless thing you can do is challenge the NPC racers to a quick race. You can pull up behind a racer to challenge them, with the race end usually being a bit of distance away. There is no real point to doing this though as your only reward is a small cash prize (very small) and any popularity you may have gained. It would have been great if you actually won the other person’s car and knocked them out of the race completely, or if you lost, they knocked you out. It would have been a huge risk vs. reward system of if you want to try and get those cars or not. As it is, it is a waste of time that is an interesting diversion, but only for a few minutes.
The whole concept of exploring a big world, finding secrets and such is seemingly lifted from Test Drive Unlimited 1 and 2. Unlike those games though, Forza Horizons actually makes it a fun experience to see what is actually going on. The big thing that they share in common (aside from the conceit of car exploration) is that of traffic. Yes, there IS traffic in Forza Horizons and it can help, or hurt you. Hurting you is self-evident, especially when you crash into an on-coming car. Traffic can help you though, especially with racking up points and multipliers for the stunt system. Test Drive Unlimited had WAY too much garbage for you to wade through in order to get to the fun parts of the game which dragged it down completely. Once race, in particular, in TDU 2 took over an hour to complete, since you had to race around the entire island. Thankfully, Forza Horizons doesn’t have any of this stupidity (or any wardrobe stores for that matter), but it does evoke some of what TDU did try to do.
A lot of the Forza series mainstays also make it into this game. The decal shop is in there, as well as an online storefront for you to buy or sell designs to place on your cars. There is no car auction house in this game though, so money isn’t as big a thing as it was in past games. Rewinds are included in the game, and function as they did in Forza 3 and 4, with you being able to rewind time back in increments to correct a mistake. There isn’t any car damage modeling in this game, which is a bit odd, but you’ll appreciate it. Your cars can get absolutely wrecked as you drive, and aside from some slight body deformation, there’s no penalty for it. There is fewer cars in this game (than in a Forza Motorsport game), but it still feels full. There are over 100 cars in the game, easy, and that is more than enough for most people. For the crazies out there, Horizon will have ample DLC plans, including a 60$ Season pass, for you to get more cars to enjoy.
The DLC stuff in this game does feel a bit gross at times. The 60$ season pass, regardless of it being a good deal or not (and that’s questionable on how much you like the game) is grossly over-expensive. They should have at least given you access to one complete pack (of the announced packs) to see if it’s worth the price tag. There’s also a big “Buy a treasure map” option on the main map. It costs 5$, and will show you where all 100 of the billboards, and the 9 barn find locations are on the map. There is also a 5$, 2 hour “Personality Spike”. This nets you double the points you would get, when you do tricks and such. The DLC is over-expensive but provides tangible items for your garage. The Spike and Treasure Map are just a waste of time and money. The game isn’t difficult enough to really use need of the Spike at all. The map is a good idea, but not at 5$. In fact, if you get the map, it really takes out one of the joys of the game, which is to find all the billboards for yourself.
The game holds up supremely well, especially after the quasi-disappointing Forza 4. Forza 4 looked good, but it wasn’t that big of a step up from Forza 3. This game, because it’s not set yet again on the Nürburgring, or any official race track, gives it a huge step up in terms of originality and setting. The game moves fast, with no appreciable slow-down to be encountered. When your car is moving, the game looks great, but when you slow down, it begins to look a bit Spartan. It’s nothing terrible, but if you look around the environment when you’re going at 20mph, you’ll see that a lot of the world is empty and a bit flat. However, you’re usually moving by so fast, that you don’t normally see this type of detail. All the cars look great, with some stunning detail mixed in with some breathtaking scenery.
The sound of the game is what it is, really. Each car sounds different from one another, which helps with the immersion factor. A Bugatti Veyron is going to sound very different from the Mini Cooper, or from a Corvette. There are three radio stations to choose from, Rock, Techno 1, and Techno 2. Actually they are called “Bass Arena” and “Pulse”, but that basically amounts to one having a more trance feel, and the other a more pop feel. The music is generally solid enough, but I probably hadn’t heard of 95% of the bands on the soundtrack. Still, none of the music is offensive, or feels that out of place, so that is acceptable. The voice acting is a little more on the tepid side. The voice acting from the actual characters is fine, but the DJ’s are fairly annoying to deal with. It’s nowhere near as bad as DJ Styker/Atomika from Burnout, or the dude from Dirt: Showdown, but they are still a chore to listen through.
The multiplayer mode is the primary reason to come back, once you’ve finished the main game. It has a nice selection of race options for you to choose from. Ranging from races with beginners players, races with semi-skilled players, races where everyone is the same car, and then more fun variants, Cat & Mouse, Infected (one player is “It” and you need to infect everyone else) and so on. The multiplayer stuff all works reasonably well, with you having a level system, that rewards you randomly when you gain a new level. You’ll either win some cash, or a new car, which feeds into the single player portion of the game. The multiplayer only has a limit of 8 people, but it’s still chaotic and fun to race around. The other thing I noticed is that most random people in the game are idiots. They would rather slam into a wall going 200 mph, rather than brake/drift around it. There’s no damage in the multiplayer side either, however you can rub up against other racers. If you get into more serious trouble, your car, and their cars will become transparent for a bit, so that you can hopefully untangle yourself from a mess. The overall online part was solid, although I did notice a few graphical hitches in some races, with cars clipping through the tracks.
The community aspect is also here with the Car Club feature. The car club is basically a guild that you can join in order to play with your friends, and use the Club’s community cars in races. It’s not the most important feature ever, but it’s still is interesting (at least in theory), especially if you become a real fan of the series.
Forza Horizons is a great shot in the arm for the Forza franchise. While it takes out the super-simulation aspect of the racing, it adds in a great world to explore and race on, traffic to avoid, and a much better character progression that Forza 4 seemed to really miss. Despite a few small technical problems, notably the first half hour of the game, it’s still a stunning achievement for the series and for racing games as a whole.
The game is fast and beautiful to witness while in motion. Standing-still detail is a little spotty, but the car detail is phenomenal.
Horizons perfectly blends different systems from other racers into a hybrid that is fresh, exciting, and most of all fun. The first half hour is the worst part to deal with.
Diverse music and a lot of different car engines are the mainstays of the Forza franchise. The voice acting is a little shoddy, but doesn’t get in the way.
The single player is about 15 hours or so, depending how the difficulty and side stuff you accomplish. Challenges, secrets, and a robust multiplayer keep you back for more.
No other racer on the market feels like this game, currently. Just a great blend of arcade and simulation driving that is just about perfect.