Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Last year’s fourth installment in the Forza Motorsport series celebrated the car geek. Its introduction featured none other than the premier automotive ambassador, Jeremy Clarkson, waxing poetic about horsepower, speed, and “mechanical soul.” His lament was that the gearhead is an endangered species, the odd one out, which makes it just a little ironic that the latest game bearing the Forza moniker is less about the gear ratios and suspension settings, as it is the flash and style of how players drive.

It’s worth noting that Forza Horizon isn’t meant to be a successor in the Forza line, rather a spinoff that bears the name. However, once you accept the Forza Horizon shift to a much more relaxed style of racing, there are hours of enjoyment in this game.

Forza Horizon is set against a festival celebrating music and cars in Colorado. It’s an open-world driving game that’s sure to draw comparisons to titles like Test Drive Unlimited, Burnout Paradise, Driver: San Francisco, and others. But while it shares an open world framework, Horizon is different in a lot of ways that count.

Forza Horizon seems to have been created as a composite of the Colorado landscape. There’s a fictional ski town on one side of the abbreviated state and desert canyons and mesas on the other. An old mining town and several small cities populate the middle, all boasting Colorado’s picture-perfect natural beauty. The only feature missing is the flat, open, and boring eastern third of the state.

As soon as you load the game, you are given only two choices: single or multiplayer. While all of the game’s 216 roads are open and discoverable from the beginning, you can’t do the same with cars since there is no arcade mode to try out different models. You must earn your way up the ranks to gain credits to buy cars, although previous Forza 4 players will receive a small garage worth of automobiles for their loyalty to the series.

As the new guy, you arrive at the festival intent on working your way up the ranks by winning races and knocking off mini-bosses on your journey to the top. There are no shortage of races and this is an area where Forza Horizon has improved immeasurably. While previous Forza games overwhelmed you with a seemingly never-ending list of events to participate in, Forza Horizon slowly doles out its events, making the event list far more digestible. The result is an experience that is both accommodating and accessible.

Image courtesy of Microsoft.

The game is sizable and there’s a lot do. From festival races to showcase events that pit you in a race against a biplane, helicopter, or P-51 Mustang, to collectibles, rival races and online matchups, it will be a while before you finish with Horizon. Still, it’s nowhere near the regular Forza games in terms of size. Depending on the difficulty level, you can finish the story portion of the game in about ten hours; but the story only accounts for about half the game content.

In a nod to car geeks, the game periodically hints at old cars that can be discovered in barns across this Colorado landscape. The hunt is a treat and gives the game a level of old-school Forza authenticity that seems to be lacking a bit elsewhere. (I was especially happy that one of them, indeed, is a red barchetta.)

Cars can also be bought by purchasing tokens with Microsoft Points in the Marketplace. These tokens can also be used to purchase in-game time to double your driving skill points or to buy a map that shows the locations of all collectible objects; yet another signpost on our long, despicable descent into microtransaction hell.

The collectibles are worth seeking out and are easily found without paying for the map. As you drive the roads of Horizon, you’ll discover small signboards on shoulders and side streets that advertise Dak’s Garage, the place in Horizon for upgrades. There are one hundred of them in the game and for each one you smash, you get a 1% discount. Smash them all and all of your upgrades are free, making this exercise very worthwhile.

Getting around Horizon can be time-consuming, but it’s possible to fast travel to distant points on the map. Travel to the central hub is free, but there’s a price to pay to fast travel to one of the 10 outposts across the Colorado countryside. However, you can discount or eliminate the travel charge by completing a series of PR stunts at each of the outposts. While this makes travel cheap or free, it also cuts down on your driving time, where skill is developed and driving points are racked up.

By drafting, drifting, and displaying a number of other driving skills, you gain points which are applied to your driver ranking. You start the game at the lowly rank of 250 and you work towards becoming number one, a goal that may come long after beating story mode, depending on how you approach the game. This is another area where Horizon excels. There is plenty to do and no real definition as to how you tackle the game. If you want to spend forty hours just driving around and challenging other AI drivers to races, you can do that before ever touching the story part of the game.

When you do start the story, you will progress quickly. Unlike other Forza games, where you might spend hours locked in the lowly D and C classes, you will progress quickly in Horizon. In no time, you’ll be screaming around corners and flying down straights in class A (or higher) cars. The levels of difficulty have translated pretty well from previous Forza titles, if not made a bit easier.

Image courtesy of Microsoft.

There are other changes that make Horizon feel more relaxed and decreases the overall difficulty. If you’re in a race and plow head-on into oncoming traffic, the result is only a minor scrub of speed. As a result of the wreck, there is no ding to the car’s performance, nor credit penalty for its repair. Should the wreck, or any other mishap, cause you to fall behind, there are infinite rewinds to turn back time and save your earlier position, making it almost impossible to lose a race. (Rewinds can be turned off to increase the difficulty.)

While there are differences between cars, it’s not as pronounced as in other Forza games. Input feels quite similar, if not a little more forgiving. Some of this may be to the “anything goes” attitude of Horizon racing where rubbing paint and pinball-style turns aren’t punished, but almost encouraged.

Even though driving in Horizon can be a contact sport, there is some confusion with the collision effects. While you can plow over stop signs and flower planters the size of cattle, some small shrubs stop you dead in your tracks. Some barriers explode at the slightest contact, while others have the strength of adamantium. Items like light posts, which seem like likely suspects for destruction, are immovable.

Load times are very quick and vastly improved, meaning you spend more time playing and less time waiting, which is good because there’s always a race to start. One of the game’s more impressive feats is packing a lot into a small world. A much appreciated surprise, the races are quite varied so you won’t have the sensation of repeatedly racing the same tracks. While there is infrequent repetition of courses, and mostly just sections or finishes, it’s nowhere near the staccato of Maple Valley short circuit, Maple Valley full circuit, Maple Valley short reverse …

It’s worth mentioning that the E rating has been replaced with a T for language, drug references and suggestive themes, which, for the most part, are pretty forgettable so it’s puzzling why they were included in the first place. Additionally, for a family blog, it should also be pointed out that most of the women in the game are showing lots of skin and are wrapped in spandex; one aspect of car culture that is desperately in need of revision.

Speaking of car culture, the festival portion of the Forza Horizon only really feels like a festival when visiting the game’s hub. Even then, only tangentially. Why not line up cars on the side of the road with people looking, taking pictures and polishing chrome to a high gloss? That’s what you see at virtually every car gathering, ever. In the same line, the music portion of the festival never really makes its presence known. Perhaps if the game had created a stage visible from the road, with music that got louder the closer you came, it would alleviate some of that vagueness.

It’s difficult to divorce Forza Horizon from the authenticity and high level of detail of the Forza name, since the Forza Motorsport series is truly the pinnacle of driver simulations. Because Horizon is enough of a transformation, it leaves you feeling a little at odds, at first. Still, as you play Forza Horizon, you will discover that hours will disappear behind you like miles and miles of asphalt. Yawning, you’ll look at the clock and say “one more race” — it’s simply that much fun.

Hopefully, Forza will soon return to the tracks. I miss the 154 turns of the Green Hell, the blind approach to the corkscrew of Laguna Seca, and the kink at Road America. In the meantime, I can’t stop playing Forza Horizon.

Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

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