REVIEW: Event Horizon.
There are a number of complaints that you could level at the Forza franchise - none of them big enough to detract from it's stellar, pure racing mechanics, but complaints nonetheless. Chief amongst them might be that's it's just a bit too barren, a bit too stale, a bit too devoid of personality. Forza Horizon does an admirable job of addressing this complaint. It sometimes goes too far the other way, but hey, at least they tried. Oh, and it also just happens to be pretty much the best open-world racer we've ever played.
The 'why' is simple: Horizon is basically the tried-and-tested Forza formula - albeit with slightly less cars - applied to an open world, festival format. It's remarkable for it's simple effectiveness, and we have to wonder why this kind of thing isn't more common - the only series to really apply realistic vehicle handling to an open world setting has been Test Drive Unlimited, which has met with limited success both critically and commercially.
Horizon is set in a fenced-in, fictional version of Colorado, which basically means you get a lot of open road, a lot of glorious landscapes, and a pleasing mixture of twisting mountain roads, broad freeways, and narrow streets, all drenched in the warm glow of the summer sun. It's an unbelievably pretty game - the landscapes are sweeping and grand, the cars glossy and sharp, the details carefully rendered. The large world and sweeping vistas do come at a cost; the game's framerate has been halved to 30, but it's absolutely rock solid with no screen tear, and there's a smart frame blending feature that makes the game feel smooth and responsive.
The game is structured around Festival events, and as you complete events you earn points. Collect enough points and you're able to advance to the next rank of the festival competition, unlocking further events. The majority of events are straightforward races - normally with certain car restrictions, like vehicles of a certain class or manufacturer - and take place either on circuits chopped out of the world map or are straightforward point-to-point affairs. The racing takes in tarmac and off-road sections, and the streets of Colorado prove suitably varied and are a joy to race on. There are a few other event types thrown in for good measure, though. Outposts offer sponsor challenges to unlock discounts on fast travel, which normally involve photo sessions - where you have to take a vehicle to a predetermined location, arrive in pristine condition, and take a classy photo of the car with a local landmark - along with speed trap events where you must exceed a certain speed as you pass a speed camera, and driving skill sessions where you have to score a number of style points in a set amount of time. Finally, there are the Showcase events, one-off set-pieces that feel like they've been lifted from Top Gear, pitting cars against aircraft, helicopters and suchlike.
At each level of the competition you're pitted against a rival competitor; beating them in a race nets you bonus cash, and when you've earned enough points to progress to the next band you'll get to square off against them in a head-to-head event to earn their car. These rivals are typically loudmouthed, hyper-stereotyped, and insistent on trash talking before every single race, which gets more than a little tiresome but does serve to inject some of that much-needed personality - even if it can be a bit overbearing at times, between the trash-talking competition, the overly chipper hostess who contacts you periodically to offer tips, and the ceaselessly enthusiastic hosts of the Horizon Festival's three radio stations. Speaking of which, there's a great selection of music on offer in the game to suit most tastes - Bass Arena plays anything from dance to drum n bass and dubstep, Pulse focuses on chilled-out indie pop, and Rocks brings, well, rock music. You can always opt to turn the radio off, and you can even turn off the DJ's commentaries so you can just focus on the good music. There's a concerted effort to make Forza Horizon feel something like a lifestyle choice, and whilst it can go too far, it's certainly refreshing.
The big news is just how well the cars handle, of course, and it's here where Horizon really scores so many points over the competition - the vehicles feel varied, responsive, and you can very much feel the different types of terrain through the tyres. Forza titles have always been good at offering a variety of difficulty setups to accommodate for players of all experience levels, and Horizon is no different here, offering options to toggle everything from ABS, Traction control and AI difficulty all the way up to simulation handling and manual gears (with or without clutch!). The stable of cars has been trimmed a bit from the 500 or so in Forza 4, but it still encompasses vintage roadsters, high spec sports cars, hot hatchbacks and 4WD behemoths. The full range of upgrade and customisation options are carried over from Forza 4 as well, so you can make all manner of adjustments to your favourite vehicle to end up with a A-class 1960's Mini Cooper capable of taking on an Audi R8, or repaint your Dodge Viper so it looks like something out of Tron. The only missing feature is damage - your car still takes cosmetic damage as you hurl it into walls or barrelroll down a winding path, but you'll always be able to drive out of it.
There's a ton of events to go at in single player, along with all manner of distractions - liberally sprinkled Speed Traps challenge you to set the highest speed in the world as you go past them, a hundred discount signs are scattered across the map waiting to be smashed, and any points you score from reckless driving and pulling stunts adds up to denote your popularity amongst the 250 competitors in the festival - naturally, you start out at 250. And if that's not enough, you can head into the multiplayer modes, which offer similarly varied events and easy matchmaking, but can be a little frustrating as a fair number of other racers are happy to use rival cars to slow down for corners rather than rely on their brakes.
Perhaps the best thing about Horizon is how intuitive it all feels, and how much fun it is to play. That it comes from a new developer - UK-based Playground Games- is even more remarkable; they've done things with the Forza formula that makes Horizon feel fresh, exciting, and unlike anything else out there. It faces stiff competition in the form of Critereon's remake of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but it's far more versatile, varied, and complete.