‘Forza Horizon’ Review – The Open Road Is Your’s For The Taking

Forza Horizon” is the result of bringing together some of the UK’s greatest racing game developers. Talent from Codemasters, Bizarre Creations, Black Rock Studios and several others come together under the Playground Games umbrella, utilizing the undeniably satisfying resources of “Forza 4” and Microsoft’s bottomless pit of wallet to create an open-world racing megastorm unlike any other. The experience is simply breathtaking.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been as faithful to the racing genre lately as I was before, but I sure am glad I jumped back in when I did. “Forza Horizon” is the open-world racer we’ve all been waiting for, hitting our screens with precision handling fans of the Forza franchise expect, wrapped up in a visually stunning landscape the state of Colorado should be proud to call their own, even if it is a virtual representation.

As soon as you jump in the game, the race is on. It’s opening day of the Horizon Festival and the last handful of racers have the pedal to the floor as they race to secure their spot in the lineup before the gates close. Along the way you’ll notice just how detailed this version of Colorado is. The map is huge, offering players a range of environments through sketchy mountain passes to flat-out, country dirt roads and small towns that give way to dusty desert straightaways. And it’s not just your surroundings that change, each road you turn down could potentially challenge you with a new surface type, whether it’s fresh pavement or a dirt road covered in loose gravel. It’s not the biggest map ever seen in a racing game, but there’s no question it’s the prettiest.

Everything in “Forza Horizon” looks good, the beams of sunlight bouncing of your ride at dusk, the gravel and leaves kicked up as you tear around corners. Even the festival itself constantly reminds you it’s there, with fireworks and a virtual lightshow reaching into the sky as you cruise the highway at night. Cars feature functioning, illuminated dashboards, animated pop-up and and hideaway headlamps that show themselves automatically as the sun dips behind the mountains.

While all of this is going on around you and your new ride, you’re constantly reminded of the sheer power tucked under the bonnet. Engines rumble then scream as you step on the gas and the radio provides a mix of rock, techno and soothing indie beats, mixed in with the occasional radio host chit-chat and festival talk. The radio is nice, but the track list quickly grew repetitive and I’ll admit I played much of the game with it turned off. In my mind, there’s nothing better than listening to the wind and the roar of that engine. But enough of that, what we’re really here for is the racing, and “Forza Horizon” doesn’t disappoint.

While many of us expected the much touted “Forza DNA” would somehow be lost in creating an open-world counterpart, it isn’t. Anyone who’s grown accustomed to the feel of “Forza 4″ will have no problem getting behind the wheel in “Forza Horizon.” Playground Games told us those physics would make a smooth transition into this world and the team wasn’t kidding. That’s not to say you’ll be playing the same game, but if you jump in and setup the driving assists to your liking, we’re confident you’ll find just what you’re looking for.

Whether you’re in a pickup truck or Lamborghini, the handling is top-notch. Drifting around corners on the new gravel and dirt roads, or hitting top-speeds on the interstate is nothing but fun, and those of you looking for straightforward go/turn/stop arcade-style racing will have plenty of control thanks to the fully customizable driving assists. That said, driving with the assists off – no traction control and simulation steering engaged – is when Forza Horizon really shines. It’s unpredictable and requires smooth moves as any bump or clump of leaves could throw you off course.

Racing is the name of the game and “Forza Horizon” will have you doing a lot of it. Progress is made by clearing Horizon Festival events that range from point A-to-point B races across multiple surface types to your classic three lap race on closed city streets. One of the most unique race types is the Showcase Event. Like a segment pulled right out of and episode of “Top Gear,” you’ll be racing a 70’s Ford Mustang against a WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane, or seeing if you can beat a group of hot-air balloons to the base of the mountains. If you win, you keep the car – a very satisfying reward.

Outside the core festival grounds (festival events take place all over the map, but there is a specific section where upgrades are made and particular events are stationed) you’ll run into to speed traps that record your top speeds and you’ll be challenged to see how fast you can get to the next one. Hot Spots, which are scattered throughout the map, offer up PR Stunts such as photo challenges that see you taking a particular car to a Kodak worthy point on the map to snap a virtual photo. Stunt challenges encourage you to get crazy, chaining together near misses, drifts and other dangerous maneuvers to build up a combo and increase your popularity within the festival crowd.

There are also races that aren’t associated with the festival at all. These street races won’t earn you any festival ranking but they do offer a much higher payout than the standard scheduled events. This is where things get reminiscent of “Need for Speed,” as you’ll be weaving through traffic while you make your way to the finish line. In addition to this, there are other racers enjoying the open roads of Colorado and any time you see one during free roam you can scoot up behind and initiate and instant challenge. Thankfully, you’re warned of just how well you match up before the race begins.

The online modes add a new layer to the event. Rivals mode encourages players to earn a bit of extra coin after a race by taking on the ghosts of friends and other players on the track you’ve just completed. It’s a feature that “Forza 4″ players should definitely be familiar with. The game also features eight-player online racing with a variety of modes and settings, but the traditional multiplayer options – Cat & Mouse and Virus – will most likely be the stars of the online space.

After you’ve got some races under your belt and some cash to spend you’ll no doubt want to do some customizing. Thankfully, Forza Horizon’s visual customization system is just as robust, if not more so, than previous titles. New designs and vinyl groups can be created from loads of preset options, or you can import vinyl groups created in “Forza 4″ to make cars your own the easy way.

As surprising as it is this late in the console generation, “Forza Horizon” has raised the bar. Over the years we’ve grown to expect either a multitude of racing environments with less than stellar graphics and detailing, or awesome top-of-line visuals with somewhat repetitive racing experiences. Somehow, Playground Games has discovered a way to deliver the best of both worlds with “Forza Horizon” and it’s a magical experience. The fact that the game delivers on all levels, with expert visuals, detailing that makes a single stretch of guard-rail feel different from the last, rewind functionality, full day and night cycles and a simply huge game without missing a beat is an impressive feat, to say least.

I wouldn’t dare sit here and tell you the game is perfect, as with any title there are some complaints. For instance, the Barn Find seems like a really great idea, but even though there are some new additions, searching out the location of rare rides only to come across something you’ve driven countless times in a previous title is a bit of a let down. Trash-talking NPCs before races? I’m over it. Some players may also be put off by the fact that mechanical damage is completely absent. However, this does allow you to do a little pushing and shoving while you race without having to worry too much. Overall, though, my distaste for these aspects of the game are insignificant when looking at the big picture.

The open roads of Colorado so beautifully laid out in “Forza Horizon” need only one thing to complete the experience, you.

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