Racing game of the year? Maybe…
Racing at dangerous speeds along public roads in a high performance sports car as Mr and Mrs Bloggs frantically flash their headlights and the little Blogglings in the back seat scream “Daddy, we’re gonna crash”. That’s what racing is all about. Don’t get me wrong, track racing has its place. But for sheer thrills and excitement, nothing compares racing another driver around a corner without knowing what may be on the road, or even where the road will go.
Of course, I mean this in a virtual sense. When negotiating the roads in the real world, always obey the speed limit and wear your seat belt. Besides, the only way my car will reach dangerous speeds is if I drive it off a cliff. Even then it will probably break down before it reaches the bottom.
But whilst I may be sensible on the real road, as soon as I entered the Forza Horizon festival in the latest Xbox360 exclusive driving game from Turn 10 and Playground Games, all bets were off. The glorious open roads of Colorado are my playground, and fellow competitors in the festival are my play time buddies as we all compete to be festival number one. It’s a long road to be the best, but with gorgeous scenery, plenty of games to play and some thumping radio stations to listen to, it’s a road I don’t mind traveling.
Forza Horizon starts by challenging the player to reach the festival, set comfortably in the middle of nowhere, and claim a place in the competition. The starting car is, as you would expect, somewhat unimpressive and as the player fights with corners using the established Forza handling, they will catch glimpses of much more desirable cars overtaking them and leaving them in the dust, giving the player a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come.
Arriving at the festival is like being granted entry into petrol-head heaven. Gorgeous cars and screaming fans, loud music and the whine of engines. But there is no time to admire the sights, this is where the work starts. First up is a race to qualify for the festival competition in which the player is charged with becoming the most popular driver. It’s always about popularity, isn’t it…
The races, which are located around the open-world map, are available according to a coloured wristband system. The player scores points for placing in the various races of a given colour and, once enough points have been gained, unlocks the next coloured wristband and the next selection of races. Each colour band has its own champion of sorts, a boss who will taunt you through the races before finally challenging you to a one on one race with their car as the prize. These loud-mouthed experts can often be heard on the radio bigging themselves up and questioning the players skills, so it is quite satisfying when you eventually beat them.
But the wristband races are only a very small part of this free-form racing game. As I said, popularity is all important and in the world of Forza Horizon a players popularity is measured with a gauge at the top of the screen and a placing. Starting at 250th, it may seem like a lofty challenge to reach number one, but players are awarded points in almost every aspect of the game, even when traveling from one event to the next. Pull a nice drift and you get points, almost hit a bus and you get points. The points gradually fill the gauge and, once full, you move up a position.
Let’s just talk mechanics for a minute, and I don’t mean Dak’s Garage. Players of the previous Forza games will know what to expect in Forza Horizon when it comes to handling, although they may be a bit surprised by the open-world. The cars, of which there are many, all feel different to drive and all suffer from a slight lightness on the road, making them somewhat easy to spin or lose on corners. That being said, it is just a matter of practice and once you have the handling down, all of the cars feel great.
To upgrade cars, which take the familiar lettered ratings such as A, S and R1, players will need to visit Dak’s Garage, although it should be noted that it is possible to upgrade or downgrade cars at the beginning of races if they do not meet the requirements. The upgrading can be as complex or simple as the player chooses, with auto upgrades available as well as individual components, and the upgrades will increase, or decrease, the car’s rating.
The creative community is well served once again with the chance to design custom liveries and offer them for sale within the game. From previous experience, I am sure that there will be some incredibly detailed designs available soon after launch. At the paint shop, players can also give their cars a new colour and generally make them more unique.
But what to do in the game? Well, within the wristband events there are point to point races and circuit races, both on and off road. But the fun doesn’t finish with the official races. Early on in the game, the player will unlock the chance to compete in illegal street races for money and pink slips. They can also challenge any other racer they meet on the road to an impromptu race and each official race will launch the chance to compete against a friends ghost for some hefty bragging.
Then there are the showcase events, exhibition races in which the player races for the chance of winning a car in some interesting circumstances. How about a race in which everyone is in a mini? Cool, but not as impressive as racing a helicopter. These events are like the quirky challenges found in episodes of Top Gear and the sponsors happily let the player keep the car if they win.
Cruising the countryside of Colorado gives rise to plenty of other opportunities for fun. Speed cameras an be found across the map that register the players speed and then let them compare with others. Building on that idea, there are sections of the road where the average speed is registered, usually the windiest section of road you can find. Also spread throughout the map are 100 roadside signs for Dak’s Garage and each one you smash will give you a 1% discount off the cost of upgrades.
Every now and again, it will be announced on the radio that a barn is rumoured to be somewhere within a given area that contains a car in disrepair. Find the barn by trawling the area designated on the map and the car is yours. Dak will have to do some restoration, but then the player can pick the car up and enjoy a quality free ride. My favorite so far has been the Bugatti – absolutely beautiful and handles like a dream.
There are plenty of other little things that make the Forza Horizon experience so compelling. Novice racers are offered plenty of assists to help them win races, at a cost of reduced winnings, and the rewind function returns for those “oops” moments. There is limited Kinect functionality that will see the player shouting “GPS” at the screen. And of course there is a massive chunk of multiplayer gaming against friends online available, which offer the perfect opportunity to show off not only your driving, but the gorgeous cars that you own.
To be honest, I am struggling to find any faults. There are loads of beautiful cars in the game, with more to come, and the environments through which you race look stunning. The cars all handle well and the events are varied enough to keep the player coming back until the next Forza game arrives. The only thing I was disappointed with was the way that the roads hem you in and prevent you exploring the wilderness, in a similar way to Test Drive Unlimited. If they had included off road exploration, I may have wet myself.
The Forza games have always been good, but a touch serious. Forza Horizon proves that with the help of Playground Games, Turn 10 can channel their inner irresponsible driver and give birth to an open-world, compulsive fun-fest that is difficult to leave. And one more thing – Don’t fret little Blogglings. I am far too good to hit daddy’s sensible family car.