Giant Bomb Review

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Forza Horizon Review

5
  • X360

Plenty of racing games have tried to split the difference between simulation and "arcade" racing in the past, but there aren't many that do it as well as Forza Horizon.

The Challenger: it's a nice car, but can you make it dance across Horizon's numerous twists and turns?

I've never understood people who don't drive. Big city folk, mostly, all reliant on their "public transportation" or their "bicycles" instead of getting behind the wheel of a machine that may very well kill them someday. That tender grasp, toeing the line between our world in the next, is the deep, dark core behind our fascination with the automobile. Video games represent society's relationship with cars in a variety of ways, from kart racers for the kids all the way up to intense simulations that all but require you to build a cockpit facsimile in the middle of your home. Any racing video game--especially one on a console--is going to split the difference between those two extremes, but games that really try to appeal to the "arcade" audience as well as the simulation crowd usually end up producing a watered-down mess that pleases no one. Forza Horizon threads the needle and pulls it off surprisingly well.

Horizon is an open-world, thrills-first twist on the Forza franchise that starts with the great physics and performance that the Forza Motorsport series is already known for and adds the sorts of things you'd expect to find in an open-world racer. There are tiers of events that unlock in chunks as you finish out the previous tier, sets of "unsanctioned" street races that aren't really any different from the main events, but they earn you cash instead of progression points, races against the game's cast of characters (which pop up as you move from one tier of main events to the next), and one-off showcase events that get you cars by asking you to race against airplanes, helicopters, and hot-air balloons. Ultimately, the showcase events are heavy on the "show" aspect of things, because they feel more like time trials with aircraft flying overhead the entire time.

The showcase events pop up as your driver becomes more popular, which is one of the other types of progression built into the game. You earn popularity points for fancy driving, and it feels like an offshoot of the Project Gotham kudos system. You'll get points for burnouts, drifting, near misses, and other acts of genuine skill, but you'll also get points for trading paint with other racers or busting up street signs and other on-track obstacles. The notion of earning points for driving that lacks finesse is perhaps the most un-Forza-like part of the entire game, but don't mistake this for a Burnout game. There's nothing to be gained by slamming into opposing cars, though smash-ups don't feel like they're as catastrophic as they can be in Forza Motorsport, mostly because all of the car damage is merely cosmetic.

The photo mode returns, giving you control over focus, filters, and more.

When you're not racing, there's a large open world to explore, and the game gives you a few reasons to do some cruising. First, there are 100 signs hidden in the environment that each give you a 1 percent discount on car upgrades when smashed. Find them all and your upgrades are free. Also, nine "barn finds" pop up over the course of play. These are old cars that have been hidden around the world in barns that exist off the beaten path. When one activates, an area of your map lights up to give you the general location of a barn, so you'll have to explore that area in order to figure out how to find the exact spot. You'll drive past plenty of these collectibles over the natural course of the game, as well as various speed cameras and zones that measure how fast you're moving through specific spots and record it to an online leaderboard.

So there's a good variety of things to do around the world, but if you'd rather fast travel, you can warp back to the central hub or to any of the fast travel points you've uncovered. Warping to those points costs money at first, though there are a few simple tasks you can complete at each hub that eventually reduce that cost to zero. If you're the impatient type that hates exploring and driving from one objective to the next, you'll find this fast travel system to be lacking. But the game's driving model is interesting enough to make the journey worthwhile, so just calm down, OK?

Online, the game allows up to eight players to get in and race. You can get right down to it with a series of preset events or you can free roam in the world, which allows players to get into co-op challenges. These challenges require all connected players to perform specific tasks. Some are passive, like driving lots and lots of miles across all sessions. Others are active, like one that requires all players to pass through a speed trap while driving above a certain speed. Oh, the catch there is that all the drivers need to pass the speed trap within a few seconds of each other, so you'll have to talk it out over your headsets and get in a proper line of cars to nail it properly. The list of co-op challenge isn't huge, and it never gets quite as inventive as Burnout Paradise's similar system did, but it gives you something to shoot for when in free roam, which is great. You can also get into playground games like Infection, which gives one of the players a horrible disease that spreads to other cars after a collision, so the last car standing wins. King makes one player the king, and the other players try to smash into the king to steal the crown. A timer ticks up while you've on the throne. It's simple but effective stuff that gives you more to shoot for than just racing.

You'll still upgrade your cars--either automatically or by picking out specific parts--but there's no tuning aspect to Forza Horizon, so you won't be directly adjusting things like ride height. You won't be trading cars or tuning setups in an auction house, but the vinyl editor from the previous games makes it over intact. You can even import your vinyl groups from Forza Motorsport 4, which is great news for me since I created this extremely basic and dumb (but accurate!) bottom-row Space Invader two or three games ago, and it's been haunting my player storefront ever since. Players can sell or give away their vinyl groups via a simplified version of the store setup from previous Forza games.

This angle is NUTS, you guys!!!!

The only time Forza Horizon doesn't look fantastic is when you're standing still. A lot of the grass textures that you'll see at the edges of the road are pretty rough up close. But the not-so-secret secret there is that you probably won't stop moving very often. Virtual Colorado has terrific lighting and a day/night cycle that gives you a lot of different looks for each environment, from the sun peeking over the mountains to fireworks over the Horizon Festival's hub zone at night. It feels like a genuine, lived-in place that's lively in a way that makes Forza Motorsport feel stodgy and sterile by comparison. That feel is supported by a trio of radio stations with DJs that often comment on what's going on in the overall tournament in-between a variety of very "now" music selections that fit the game's tone quite well. Let's face it: this gaudy spectacle of a fireworks-laden race festival is just crying out for as much wobble bass as possible, and the Horizon Bass Arena station features just enough dubstep to either keep you excited or make you sick, depending on your stance.

If you have a Kinect hooked up, you'll have a reason to shout over all that Mord Fustang, Skrillex, and Wolfgang Gartner as you can use the voice recognition on the Kinect to point your GPS at the next event or other important locations. This is easily--and more precisely--completed on the game's map screen, but shouting "GPS! Next event!" and seeing the driving line come up and point you in the proper direction is still somewhat novel. If nothing else, this modest implementation actually makes Forza Horizon one of the few games that's telling the truth when its box claims it's "better with Kinect."

With around 120 or so events to choose from, Forza Horizon might sound somewhat slim when compared to Forza Motorsport 4, but it gains a lot more depth from its open world than it initially lets on. But most importantly, it manages to simultaneously feel like a Forza game while also letting in more of what makes racing games fun for all players, rather than staying strictly focused on those of us who want strict simulations of varying realism. It's got a cockpit view, but it also gives you points for smashing through street signs and performing totally sick J-turns. That might sound like a contradiction that would cripple a game, but Horizon manages to make all of these different elements fit together in a way that seems natural. And that's pretty impressive.

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
126 Comments
Posted by CptMorganCA

I'm really glad this turned out well. I would be all over it if it were on PS3.

Posted by iAmJohn

Wow, I did not see this coming at all. This sounds like a Forza I might actually want to play!

Posted by Nyhus

The new Challengers are sexy cars. I might have to get this to live out some car fantasies.

Posted by Zaccheus

I find this very surprising. Good on the new devs to start out with a bang.

Posted by JuggaloAcidman

I'm gonna wait for this to hit bargain bins.

Posted by TopCat88

Does this have wheel support? (I'm sure it does, but checking) I have one I use for Forza 4. Strangely I'd like to use a controller for the open world driving and the wheel for events but sadly I don't think that will be possible without signing out of the wheel and back into the controller each time I change. Unless I'm mistaken...anyone...!

Posted by vaportra1l
@TopCat88 Yes it has wheel support. As well as clutch.
Posted by tourgen

wow! this sounds far better than I was hoping for! getting it.

But, I just got back from driving in Rome and Tuscan hill towns with swarms of scooters and 2 lane undivided roads getting used as 4 lanes + scooters/bikes lane-splitting. USA streets & traffic just don't do it for me anymore :) Give me some European open-world locations. Those bastards can drive!

Posted by RecSpec

Never played a Forza game, I should probably fix that.

Posted by walterbennet

Game looks fantastic. Though it seems like I heard nothing about it before it landed, other than the name and the Kinect gimmick. That's a pretty dumb embargo. Jeff probably would have been raving about it on the Bombcast this week otherwise.

Posted by kennybaese

While I'll probably be skipping this in favor of Most Wanted, I know a couple of people who are pretty big Forza fans who will be stoked for this.

Posted by jaycrockett

I love the driving model in Forza, but this demo underwhelmed me. It looked like a more boring Burnout. Still waiting for Most Wanted.

Posted by preheatedbibby

@Little_Socrates said:

It is weird that this game is good. Also, interested to hear Forza Horizon v. NFS: Most Wanted in the coming months...

Same here. Might have to wait for the NFS review before I can decide between these two.

Posted by Deranged

Holy shit, I did not expect that.

Amazing review Jeff!

Posted by j3ffro919

I've been counting the days for a while, but still surprised Jeff went 5 stars. The 23rd can't come soon enough.

Posted by JimmyPancakes

I guess this is a backup plan if NFS isn't good but what's the chances of that being the case?

Posted by brownsfantb

Wow, I might have to check this out. Which sucks because I already don't have enough time/money to play all of the other games coming out.

Posted by Chtasm

Give me regular Forza's driving model in an open world racing game and you've got my money. The demo just felt like a bad mix of Dirt 2 with some Forza sprinkled on top.

Edited by VibratingDonkey

Game seems alright, judging by the demo it's plenty more arcadey than I remember Forza being. Feels like a mix of DIRT 2 and Forza with the presentation of DIRT and a structure similar to Burnout Paradise. I'm largely ok with this. But I'm disappointed by the having no tuning whatsoever and the comparatively shallow car count. Half the fun with games like Forza and GT for me is taking a scrappy ass car, putting a quad-turbo W16 in it, removing the suspension and turning the wheels sideways to see what happens. Also don't know if I'm a fan of the Colorado setting.

...thinking about the demo kind of makes me want to play TDU. It's just much more fun to drive around in that game. Even though the physics are suckier, the cars are carsier and the world worldier. Oh and the automatic player population.

Posted by TheHBK

@Phatmac said:

@Phatmac
I don't get people that love driving. Driving sucks man.
In real life not in games.

That's only what poor people say. Can't be cool like me or Jeff.

Posted by MormonWarrior

I've...still got to play more Forza 3 before I get another one...I don't play a lot of driving games but I like them in concept...

Posted by synesthesik

When Mr. Gerstmann hands out a five star review we should all take notice.

But now the question is, NFS Most Wanted (Criterion) or this?

Posted by Ravelle

If only they would release Forza on PC or Playstation, I'm stuck with GT5 which I don't care about that much.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

FORZA.

This has long been one of the series that makes me wish I still had an xbizzle. Sweet review. Sigh.

also, "toeing the line between our world in the next" and the next I think?

Posted by MjHealy

I left this on my radar for a while. I started getting bored with sim Forza ao this seems like a good change in direction to me. My hopes have come true. I suppse I have to get this AND Most Wanted

Posted by Phatmac

@TheHBK said:

@Phatmac said:

@Phatmac
I don't get people that love driving. Driving sucks man.
In real life not in games.

That's only what poor people say. Can't be cool like me or Jeff.

Yep that's what the issue is. A for effort.

Posted by mohasky

Looks like a great racing game. Hope it comes to pc someday.

Posted by Krakn3Dfx

I really like my cars to bump n jump.

Like in Bump 'N Jump.

I like cars I can hunt spies in.

Like in Spy Hunter.

Or cars I can change lanes in.

Like in Change Lanes.

Or cars I can drive hard.

Like in Hard Drivin'.

Mostly I just like to bump and jump though...yo.

Posted by RAMBO604

Forgot this game even existed until this review. Had completely lost interest in the series after 2 but sim/arcade hybrid Forza game I could get behind that. Maybe not at the moment, probably pick this up when its down to like 20 bones though.

Posted by Moonling

Too many great games. Not enough time.

Posted by HolyCrapItsAdam

Awesome that this game reviewed this well. Im surprised that the review is already out and the game isn't until the 23rd. When I first saw this, it looked like PGR almost with the "kudos" system in it and everything but after playing the demo, its not at all that. I wasn't super impressed with the demo but the quick look made it look more enjoyable. Maybe it was the hand-holdyness of the demo that initially turned me off. I am a huge fan of the Forza Series and this looks like a great addition. I am more excited for NFS:Most Wanted however so I might wait till this drops in price or get it as a christmas present.

Posted by csl316

Holy shit, didn't expect this.

Posted by Atlas

Man, quite surprised by this. This game was off my radar despite my deep love of the Forza games - Forza 3 is my favourite driving game ever - mostly because I wasn't so into Forza 4 and I don't like the annualisation of franchises, or the idea of a Forza game not made by Turn 10. But hearing that this one turned out so solid is making me rethink my position.

Might have to wipe the dust off the old Xbox 360...

Edited by BaconGames

I just wanted to say that no matter what I feel like this game would have gotten 4 stars but the 5 star rating makes perfect sense given Jeff's taste and experience with Forza and driving games in general. Shaun McInnis gave it an 8.5 so I feel like there's no doubt this one is a banger, just not what I'm specifically interested in.

Posted by Klei

Car physics seems wonky. Looks like you're driving on ice all the time.

Posted by SuperSambo

@Phatmac said:

@Phatmac
I don't get people that love driving. Driving sucks man.
In real life not in games.

In what way does it suck?

Posted by kindpixel

Warms my heart to see Forza doing so well. It's been a while since I've found a racing game that isn't "too" much or "too" little. Gran Turismo never felt arcade y enough, and other racing games take it to far. When I played the demo, it felt like Horizons really settled in the right spot and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Posted by Yurtigo

Nah

Posted by Kraznor

Isn't Brian Ekberg on the Forza team? Don't they usually add a disclaimer when a buddy of their's worked on a game they reviewed?

Posted by joelalfaro

I miss PGR :(

Posted by xMEGADETHxSLY

WUB WUB WUB

Posted by Zacagawea

God, going to be tough choosing between this and Most Wanted.

Posted by hollitz

I've always wanted to try to get into racing games and Forza has always been the series I mean to try...but they always come out at the same times as stuff that I want to play more. Alas. Back to Xcom.

Posted by AV_Gamer

Maybe it's just me, but when this review was first posted, it was four stars, now it's five stars.

Posted by dvorak

Yes, the Lancia Delta. An inferior car.

Posted by ddensel

Love Forza 4, getting this.

Posted by REVULSIVE

This is the racing game I've been waiting for. I cannot wait to pick this up.

Posted by SoulAssassin808

Love Forza 4, not getting this. I love racing sims and arcade racing games. And with Need for Speed Most Wanted I'll have the best of the two from the past 2 years.

Posted by jaytee00

Good review, enjoyed the writing in the first paragraph in particular. Game sounds interesting, shame it's not for PC

Posted by tysonwritesel

I'm so happy Jeff. Got it pre-ordered. THANKYOU!