Here’s another review of a game that is, by video game review standards, incredibly late, because it’s been out since October. To do this sort of thing properly you’re supposed to camp out in a town centre at midnight on release day, play the game solidly through the small hours and have a review online by the time everyone else is having breakfast.
There was never a chance I was going to do that, especially for ‘Forza: Horizon’. It’s an expensive game and what I’d heard about it in the run-up to release meant I wasn’t sure it was worth forking out the best part of £50 for something that I might hate. The early reviews didn’t help either- gamers generally liked it, car enthusiasts generally didn’t.
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and that surely all racing games are pretty much the same, all this uncertainty is because ‘Horizon’ set out to be an entirely new type of racing game, which would, its developers claimed, try to capture something of the essence of ‘car culture’.
This was both very interesting and very worrying. Nearly all car-related games revolve around rampant destruction or full-on track racing. Neither of these genres really gets at the nub of why people like me (and presumably, you, the reader) like cars in and of themselves. I’ve already noted that the trend amongst even hard-core racing games to feature cars of a more iconic and less performance nature is a step in the right direction but it’s still only portraying a small part of the car scene.
So could ‘Horizon’ be the first game to capture that rare essence of why people like inanimate objects that move about so much – enough to buy a game so they can indulge their hobby from the comfort of their living room? Yes it could, but the worry was always exactly what sort of ‘car culture’ it was going to portray.
The thing is, if you were going to make a game that realistically depicted the hobby as experienced by your average enthusiast it would be a succession of ‘Press LB to apply polish. Press RB to wipe off. Use LT to spray WD-40’. There would be intricate recreations of regional car shows where you had to be able to talk to AI characters with extravagant ear hair about SU carburettors or long side-quests to scour rows of autojumble for a particular rubber grommet. There would be a bit where you had to browse an in-game recreation of eBay without spending any of your limited budget, and you would have to complete intricate welding task before your grumpy neighbours got home. It would be very realistic but very boring.
The worry, therefore, was that ‘Horizon’ was going to go for the most ‘sexy’ form of car culture- custom cars and street racing with the whole thing looking likea combination of the SEMA Show and the car park of the McDonalds’ in Kettering on a Saturday evening . It would be a big, awkward, lost opportunity.
So, having waited nearly four months and having bought it at half price, how does it stack up? Is it a travesty or is it a bold new take on a predictable genre? The tedious answer is that it is both.
At its heart there is nothing new about ‘Horizon’. It is essentially the same game as the previous incarnations of Forza (and all its major competitors) in different clothes. The game still revolves around winning racing to earn points which can be spent to buy new cars or upgrades for your existing ones. You neatly progress through the various ranks of races until you reach the end. There are endless ways of modifying and personalising your car and there are many cars available, each rendered in exquisite detail. No change.
Of course ‘Horizon’ wraps all this same-old-same-old in an entirely new environment. Instead of progressing through a series of clinical race series on tracks the events now form part of a ficticious (for now, at least) ‘Horizon Festival’- a motorsport/music festival set deep the heart of a fictionalised version of Colorado. As you complete race series you earn different coloured ‘wristbands’ to access different parts of the festival.
The game has something approaching a plot. Your virtual self is an unknown car enthusiast who takes his red Volkswagen Corrado to the Festival and sets about making a name for himself (and it seems that it has to be a ‘him’) amongst the 249 other petrolheads at the show. Top of them all is your nemesis, Darius Flynt and beating him is the ultimate goal. This is as complex as the plot goes and it makes ‘The Fast and The Furious’ look like ‘Citizen Kane’. The presence of a plot also mean there are rendered cut-scenes – a first for a Forza game. All the other ‘characters’ (I use the term in its most generous form) are caricatures of overly-hip twenty-somethings written by game developers. Prepare to cringe.
The plot can be forgiven for being basic because it really serves as nothing more than a loose frame to hang the main purpose of the game on – driving cars. ‘Horizon’ is effectively a sandbox game and you can drive where and when you please in between races and there are plenty of optional events.
The races themselves are generally nothing special- the usual dozen or so cars and a few laps of a street circuit. ‘Horizon’ does add dirt track ‘rally stages’ (which would be great to see implemented in a more straightforward version of Forza) and there are apparently dozens of programmed-in terrain types which each effect a car’s handling in different ways.
Speaking of handling, a common criticism of ‘Horizon’ seems to have been its ‘arcade’ handling, which was nowhere near the renowned technical simulation of the other Forza titles. I can’t say I noticed much of a difference. Handling is something impossible to recreate accurately in a game when using a handheld controller in any case. Maybe the cars have been dialled down a bit but it’s a case of splitting hairs. Various cars do drive very differently to each other and all perform pretty much as you’d expect them to. Certainly when racing in tight quarters on narrow roads rather than a wide racetrack with gravel traps you’re grateful for your Mitsubishi Evo’s seemingly impossible grip levels and completely linear steering.
You sometimes win additional cars in races and you can spend your winnings to buy others. Every now and then you will hear of rumours of a ‘barn find’ somewhere on the map and you have to race to find it. Instead of being something interesting like a low-mileage Renault 15 or a Chevrolet Nomad it will be some unlikely piece of exotica like a BMW M1 or an Aston Martin DB5 (who knew Colorado was hiding several million pounds-worth of rare cars in them-there mountains?). All are discovered in an unfeasibly sound but dirt-encrusted condition which the in-game mechanical guru can restore to concours condition within half a day/night cycle.
As the setting demands, music features heavily in ‘Horizon’. There are three in-game ‘radio stations’, branded as ‘Pulse’, ‘Bass’ and ‘Rock’. They’re fairly self-explanatory and as you can probably guess from the rest of the game’s content the music is unfailingly contemporary. Each ‘station’ is actually a playlist of 20 or so songs with intercut DJ chatter which does a good job of creating the effect of being part of a large gathering in a real, activitity-filled world. As befits a game soundtrack the music is all atmospheric rather than intrusive and that’s all that can be said objectively. In case you’re wondering, the radio can be ‘turned off’ and the other sounds are up to the Forza franchise’s usual high standards. I particularly like the authentic tappet chatter from the 1964 Mini Cooper.
I’m usually not the sort of person who thinks video games are amoral soul-vacuums that are warping our nation’s youth but some of the gameplay details in ‘Horizon’ make you pause and think. The overarching point of the game is to get ‘cred’ to attract the attention of the Horizon Festival’s corporate sponsors, the organisers and the crowds. Starting out at the bottom of the pack (number 250) winning races progresses you further and further up the charts. The game also provides further chances to ‘improve’ your stature when driving around the map by, in essence, rewarding you if you drive like a complete bellend. You get points for drifting, doing burnouts, nearly missing other cars (of which there are plenty), speeding, knocking over roadsigns and other loutish behaviour which would quickly land you with a dumper-truck full of ASBOs in real life. In the world of ‘Horizon’ Jeremy Clarkson seems to have become Governor of Colorado because there are speed cameras- the aim being to go through them as fast as possible. The game doesn’t pull its punches – the very first scenes require you to tear through the countryside in a highly illegal manner just to secure one of the last places at the festival.
I know I’m coming across as an up-tight fuddy-duddy but it genuinely (and surprisingly) made me a little uncomfortable to see this sort of thing branded as ‘car culture’. Of course it’s only a game and just because I’ve played it for a few hours doesn’t mean that I now have the urge to improve my cred (what little of it there is driving a rust-flecked Metro) by mounting the kerb and knocking down the nearest letter box but never before has the loading screen disclaimer that ‘Driving In The Manner Depicted Herein Is Not Recommended’ seemed more apt.
So, ‘Horizon’ is a moral outrage that panders to the lowest common denominator and should be hated by all true car enthusiasts? No, because under all the dubstep and ‘sick burnouts’ is one of the most entertaining and beautifully presented driving games I’ve played.
First there’s the environment. It’s hard to describe what the developers have done. Basically they’ve shrunken the whole of Colorado, from the plains to the mountains, so you can drive across it in about ten minutes. However this miniaturised Centennial State is built so that each environ blends seamlessly into the others so you have no sudden jump between the ‘desert bit’ and the ‘forest bit’ as with most other games that have tried this approach. Within this world are a host of towns, the Horizon Festival itself, flat desert highways, twisting mountain roads, dirt tracks up to derelict gold mines, lakes, farms and everything else. It all looks stunningly gorgeous, even on my mediocre screen. ‘Horizon’ also has some of the best in-game lighting I’ve come across. This may seem like a small thing but watching the whole world mellow as the sun sets in a blaze of orange and red behind the mountains is incredibly atmospheric. At the Festival site there are lasers strobing the sky, fireworks, hot-air balloons and camera flashes. There are little details that are often missed at the high driving speeds that the game demands, like how leaves fall from the autumnal trees as they’re disturbed by your slipstream. All this encourages you to occasionally relax and do some genuine cruising and, yes, admire the scenery. It is a rare game where the scenery itself is worth looking at in and of itself.
Some have criticised the virtual Colorado for being a bit ‘dead’ and they have a point. Outside the Festival itself there are no people, just cars. Maybe I’m being too lenient by wondering if it’s fair to expect the developers to fully populate the whole of Colorado (given that ‘Midtown Madness’ had plenty of pedestrians in its virtual version of Chicago well over a decade ago) but it just doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference. The other cars driving about are mostly poor Coloradoans trying to go about their lives whilst dozens of yobbos in souped-up Nissans try to (just) avoid crashing into them to up their cred counter. The computer cars interact with you and the other festival-goers pretty well- they’ll flash their lights in anger, they’ll try to avoid crashes and they’ll overtake you if you block their path.
It’s hard to overlook the basic gameplay aspects of ‘Horizon’, which are, I feel, something of a missed opportunity at best and a irritating, slang-ridden, Z-movie cringe-fest at worst. Early rumours hinted at the game being a plot-driven cross-continent road trip which I think would have been a much better platform for a game to try and explore the appeal of the car. But at its basic level ‘Horizon’ gives you several hundred different models of car and a few hundred square miles of American wilderness to play with them in. Once I’d won and bought a decent range of cars I gave up doing what the game demanded and just drove and drove. As an expression of the freedom of the open road no game can do it better. Other games have had ‘free roaming’ but they’ve nearly all been confined to a single cityscape. In ‘Horizon’ you can plot a route in the in-game satnav and travel between multiple towns or through what seems like mile after mile of beautifully rendered wilderness.
Other games have provided literal simulations of real day-to-day driving, most notably ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ where you are required to pay virtual money to cross a virtual toll bridge to sit in a virtual traffic jam on the way to your virtual job. Given the choice between that and hammering a McLaren MP4-12C along a curving rural backroad or thrashing an Lancia Delta Integrale around some forest tracks for the hell of it, or even just wafting around in a Range Rover is infinitely preferable and massively enjoyable. I haven’t been able to sample the online multiplayer mode of the game but I can see that getting together with a bunch of friends for a virtual classic car road run through the mountains or staging some friendly races would be great fun and a true expression of the ‘car culture’ that sadly seems absent from the game’s mechanics.
However I do feel there is a nubbin of something at the heart of the game. When you’re storming along a deserted freeway through an exquisitely rendered landscape with the setting sun glinting off the chromework of your Corvette Sting Ray (which you’ve lavished some hard-earned points on with an awesome paintjob and some subtle go-faster modifications) and you see the headlights flip open and the cool radium blue dash lighting come on as the stars come out, all to the contra-bass soundtrack of a big-block V8 rumbling through the desert, there is something of a realisation that ‘Horizon’ has probably come closer to extracting the essence of what makes people enthuse about cars than any previous game.
‘Forza: Horizon’ is a brave and welcome attempt to bring something new and downright fun to a rather staid genre. It is part simulation and part game. Just don’t play the game part as you’re supposed to and enjoy yourself in the simulation bit.