You can tell that a racing game is going to be a brilliant experience when you spend most of your time speeding around its beautiful open world, forgetting to take part in any of the races. I did this a lot with Atari's Test Drive Unlimited and now I find myself lost in the same way, thanks to the world of Forza Horizon.
Forza has always been a car drivers game, a simulation that would allow those petrol-heads out there to get their fix of some of the most luxurious cars around without having to win the lottery. In a way Forza Horizon remains the same game, although now it's much more user friendly, no longer a serious race to the finish, but a festival of racing for serious racers, as well as those who have previously been fans of games such as DiRT, Grid and Test Drive. Forza Horizon opens up its world to everyone, providing miles of wide-open track, dozens of events and a multiplayer mode that new developer PlayGround Games can be proud of.
The best way to describe Forza Horizon is probably to split it into two parts. The first part revolves around the Horizon Festival, which has its home in the middle of the games Colorado map. Horizon Festival is the main focus of the game's story, which has you trying to make a name for yourself by competing in various events, working your way through the ranks from the lowly entry level yellow wristband challenges, to the gold, where you'll face up to the champion and look to become one yourself.
When you first arrive at the Horizon Festival you're a nobody, or perhaps even less than a nobody and it's up to you to change this. Doing so is simple enough, all you need to do is win races, earn points and work your way through the ranks. As you win races you'll find that other events open, such as street races, which help increase your rep and give you a cash boost, although there are other ways to rise your reputation, which brings us to the second part of the game, its free roam mode.
As mentioned earlier, Forza Horizon is open world, allowing you to drive around and explore any area of the map you see fit. Basically if you can see it, you can drive there. As soon as you take control of you car, you can earn skill points, either through drifting, near misses or just by driving like a lunatic. When you do this the points rack up, as does your reputation, which in turn unlocks new Skill Challenge events. Competing in these events not only wins you brilliant prizes such as cars, but it also provides you with something a little different, such as the chance to race against airplanes and even hot air balloons.
Another advantage to free roaming is that you can challenge anyone you see fit, given that the game's AI drivers can be found all over the map. To challenge a driver you simply pull up behind them and begin the race, allowing you to increase your rep and get some extra cash at the same time. Whether you are exploring or taking part in a Horizon Festival event, each race you win will give you the opportunity of racing a online rival's ghost at the end in order to set the best time for that particular track, although this is never easy.
The beauty of the game's Colorado map is that there is just so much to explore and find. Throughout your time driving around you'll discover Speed Trap and Average Speed Challenges; Signs to smash which give you discounts on car upgrades; Hidden barns, which house some fantastic cars for you to restore and own and also various outposts, which themselves host a serious of PR challenges, which if complete give you the ability to fast travel to this location for free. PR Challenges at the outposts include speed stunts; photo shoots and skill stunts, two of which will test your driving skills to the max and one your eye for a photo.
It's so easy to lose yourself driving around the game's map, especially thanks the three radio stations included on your car's music system. There should be something for everyone, although I just tuned into Horizon Rocks and drove for what felt like days, as the game engine changed from dusk till dawn and back again on more than one occasion. That's the beauty of Horizon though, you'll get lost in the driving and before you know it, night will fall and it'll just be you, your headlights and the comforting sounds of your music, along with the occasional Horizon Festival chatter of the DJ.
Although this all sounds a far cry from Forza as you know it, you shouldn't worry as there are still an incredible amount of cars to unlock, customize and crash. Players can create their own paint jobs and sell them in the marketplace to make some cash. Looking at the marketplace even now (weeks before launch) there are already some incredible designs in there. In addition, customization options for cars should please anyone who loves to tinker with their favourite car, while you can also enter the game's photo mode and take pictures of these very cars until your heart's content.
Anyone worried about the handling of the cars being affected by this shift in focus to an open world should also breath easy. Cars feel just as great as they do in Forza 4, perhaps even more so. There are certainly plenty of options to tinker and tweak to get cars to handle the way you want them to. If you're a great driver then you'll also benefit from the fact that you can up the difficulty and earn even more points and cash, an option not afforded to myself, since I'm a bit rubbish at racing games.
Single player is so packed with features that the 1000 odd words above have barely scratched the surface. There is so much more to mention, such as the sponsor challenges; the various surfaces that you'll find yourself racing on and the horizon hub itself, which is home to important areas such as the garage; car showroom; paint shop; car club; the online marketplace, for downloading new content and of course Race Central, which is host to rival challenges and friends leaderboards.
While all of the above would be enough to keep even the most hardened race fan happy, it doesn't stop there, not when there is still multiplayer to talk about. Forza Horizon's multiplayer is pretty feature packed, providing you with many options to either race against friends or strangers. One of the features added in for friends is Car Club, which allows you to create a members only group using a name only those invited will know. This obviously makes it easy to set up co-op challenges, races and events without too much trouble. You can of course forgo this and just create your own custom games with friends and strangers, choosing the set up you want from an unprecedented set of rules.
Those who'd rather jump straight into the action can do so, choosing from beginners and social racing to veteran and pure skill. There is even the fun option to take part in some playground racing, allowing you to partake in events such as Cat & Mouse, Infected and King, all of which are a great, lighthearted break from the norm. Whatever online event you compete in you'll earn experience points, allowing you to level up and perhaps even win some cars or some credit.
To be honest it would be easy to be skeptical about Forza Horizon and call it a filler until the real Forza returns, but you'd be doing so at your peril. What Playground have created here is a game that any developer would beg to call its own. Horizon is beautifully presented, feature packed and basically, one heck of a racer. Forza already took up a slot as one of Microsoft's big name franchises, well now it takes up two.