Thursday, 3 January 2013

Forza Horizon

Developer: Playground Games / Turn 10 Studios
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 7.6

Horizon is a Forza game only in name. Here the series’ penchant for auto-fetishism and rigid progression has been replaced by a more open-ended structure, and a relatively relaxed approach to the art of driving closer in style to rebellious boy racers than the refined sophisticate of old. In taking this tack Horizon has also sacrificed the air of classicism that made Forza so appealing; granted, Turn 10’s superb handling model has been retained, but the shell around which this core game is wrapped sees developers Playground Games straining for an ‘alternative’ edge that falls cringingly short.

These problems are in nearly every facet of the game’s image. The silly narrative that follows your pursuit of the championship is full of caricatured opponents and pointless cutscenes (the only player motivation comes from the self-directed one of moving up the levels), while the generally awful soundtrack choices (including The Enemy, Lostprophets, Skrillex remixes) betray a paucity of inspiration and undermine everything that Horizon sets out to be. They aren’t crippling problems, but they come close to spoiling what is an otherwise engrossing culmination of recent console racing history.

It’s a shame that the overarching aesthetic, such an important part of the game, is so unconvincingly realised, as the gameplay systems within are cleverly intertwined, ensuring that you’re constantly engaged regardless of your current aim. The single-player sees you taking the mantle of a rookie challenger at the Horizon festival, in which a series of events are separated by tiered wristbands – the more races won, the higher your wristband level, which then opens up further events. Secondary to this is a persistent popularity ranking, with points awarded in and outside of races on various criteria – drifts, speed, overtaking etc. As you’re reminded at the game’s outset, “the crowds come to see spectacular racing”, so winning races in style is the key.

While credits are key to unlocking the higher wristbands, and can only be gained within events, the popularity ranking is an effective meta game that ensures it’s just as superficially rewarding to simply drive around the open world of Colarado, whether it be for the points-bonanza of an open stretch of highway, or because of the requisite OCD-friendly collectables which here take the form of discount signs (each one giving a 1% discount on upgrades) and speed cameras to discover. A lot of thought has gone into making the environment an integral part of the Horizon experience.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because Forza Horizon is built on the foundations of several far more innovative racing games from recent years. It’s open network of roads is a nod to Burnout Paradise (one of the most forward-thinking games of this generation), although Criterion’s classic had a more interesting and diverse world to explore (granted Horizon’s adherence to the real world setting of Colardo may have been more restrictive). The interlocking emphasis on style is a nod to the much-missed Project Gotham Racing series, while the open world – in which fellow roaming drivers can be challenged – recalls the flawed Test Drive Unlimited games. Heck, even the choice of font, colour and attitude draws unfavourable comparisons with Codemasters’ DiRT. Many of Playground’s employees worked on some of the titles mentioned above, which doesn’t so much justify the wholesale incorporation of their ideas into Horizon but instead makes us regret that the same ingenuity on evidence in the earlier games couldn’t be brought into effect here.

This absence of innovation is compensated for however by a technical assurance that we expect will be matched only by Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Forza Horizon’s only significant racing challenger in these latter months of 2012. Colarado is beautifully realised, with the mountainous northern-regions in particular a visual delight. The frame rate is similarly exceptional.

When it comes to online play Forza Horizon thankfully doesn’t try to replicate the scope of the single player wholesale. Although there is a free roam mode, we found most of our time spent in some of the more intimate, streamlined game styles. The most fun of these are ostensibly the ones, as in Forza Motorsport 4, where the playground games of tag are transplanted to a racing arena – Infected, for example, tasks you with avoiding contact for as long as possible with fellow ‘infected’ racers, until you then have to chase the remaining survivors, while King is similar to Infected except the winner is the racer who can remain as King (i.e avoid being tagged whilst King) the longest.

Get beyond the cynical positioning of Forza Horizon and you’ll find a racer that is, ironically, as efficient and refined as it’s older, more mature, siblings. Whether it can build a community as effectively as the Motorsport games is unlikely, but Horizon, for all its familiarity and reluctance to experiment, is still a fine addition to the Xbox 360’s roster.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

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