Forza Horizon: A StanceWorks Review

forza-horizon-review-sunset-title
-October 22, 2012-

Forza Horizon: A StanceWorks Review

Mike Burroughs

In under 24 hours, Forza Horizon hits the shelves, and just moments after, car enthusiasts across the globe will boot their X-boxes to enter the world created in the latest offering from the Forza franchise. While it has been met with much debate from the hardcore Forza Motorsport fans, StanceWorks couldn't help but fall in love with what is undoubtedly the racing game of the year.

Recently, we had the opportunity to play Forza Horizon before its launch. Our chance at an early look allowed us to answer some questions many of our readers (and ourselves) had about the all-new Forza game. Surprisingly, the article netted a lot of traffic across the Forza community, so we've taken it upon ourselves to give the game a more in-depth review before its launch. Our friends at the ID Agency were able to score us a pre-release copy of the game, and now we're able to bring a unique perspective to you, our readers. However, we won't be tackling the common ins-and-outs that you might find anywhere else on the web; we see this as a review by Forza fans - for Forza fans, catered to automotive enthusiasts instead of casual gamers.

It's important to start by saying that the game is, in all respects, phenomenal. If you're unfamiliar with what Forza Horizon is, it's easiest to put it this way: Forza Motorsport is widely known as one of if not the best automotive racing simulator, sitting atop the genre with the equally-known Gran Turismo series. Horizon takes the genre a step further by taking the world-class physics and driving dynamics of the Forza Motorsport series and places them in an open-world environment set in the fall beauty of Colorado. The streets are open, traffic is present, and the world is at the mercy of your screaming V8 and squealing tires.

Such an environment sets the stage for what is easily the most beautiful driving game out there. While certain aspects are out-shined by its predecessor and competition in terms of overall rendering capabilities, the environment, lighting, colors, and cars create an experience that vastly surpasses any other racing game available. The clock is always ticking in Horizon, meaning that as a player, you'll experience morning, noon, dusk, and night. You'll experience the beauty of each hour of the day in a range of settings, from red canyons to yellow-fall leaves, small towns with city streets, and of course, the wild Horizon festival grounds.

So, aside from the open environment and time cycle, in what ways does Forza Horizon differ from Forza 4? It's important to note that this game is not meant to be a sequel to Forza 4. It is not a racing simulator. It is, however, a wildly fun annex to the Forza world. You'll find yourself engaging in street races, races against helicopters, rival showdowns, rally races, point-to-point blitzes, and unique challenges. There are, of course, a huge number of circuit races to work your way through, just as in past Forza games. These races take place on closed tracks set within the streets of Colorado and harken back to the Forza experience we're all familiar with.

The game is played and progresses just about how you might expect. The game is focused around the Horizon Festival, which hosts countless races leading up to a final race against last year's champion and a $1,000,000 cash prize. You start as a nobody, and win races to progress to the next level. Each level is represented by a colored wrist-band, very fitting for the festival theme of the game. After winning X number of races, you earn your next wrist band (green, blue, purple, orange, etc) and you unlock the next series of races. It works, and it works well. You'll never get bored and stuck doing the career races either -- there are tons other races and abstract events to take part in.

The driving and handling characteristics from the Forza Motorsport franchise are present and familiar. Cars handle just as they always have once the driving assists are turned off. There are minor differences- keep in mind that Forza Horizon caters to a much broader audience. Minute details such as the e-brake grabbing a bit less, and slightly different tire slip take a little adjusting to get used to, but the experience as a whole will be pleasant to any Forza fan. Unless, of course, you're that guy who insists he only plays the most hardcore of racing simulators. With traction control, ABS, and stability control turned off, and steering set to standard, the "insane" difficulty level proved to be a challenge even to myself, a rather competent Forza 4 veteran.

The game as a whole is certainly more forgiving than the past examples. As said, the game caters to more than just hardcore car enthusiasts, and I think that change should be welcomed. (Remember, this isn't the dumbing-down of Forza Motorsport... it's the expansion of the Forza franchise. Don't take offense to the changes, car guys!) For Forza drifting fans (hey, that's me!), you'll find this game to be the best in the Forza series yet. The open streets allow for a much more inviting drifting experience: especially the twisty canyon roads. Points are acquired a bit differently this time around, and you'll find that you'll get away with some pretty serious wall-taps and mess-ups. It's actually possible to come to a complete stop during your drift- if you keep the tires spinning, your points won't always drop. You can hit signs, smash fences, and drop tires (even go entirely off track so long as you don't smash a wall or tree) without dropping your points as well. Of course, you're going to lose it all if you nail an oncoming car or slide into a wall harder than you should, but it does feel a bit too forgiving at times. However, while you're sure to experience a "I shouldn't have gotten away with that" feeling many times over, you'll also shed a tear of joy when a wall-tap doesn't end your half-million point 20-mile-long drift. To ice the cake, points can be acquired anywhere, any time. Reverse entries are entirely possible, and you can manji any straight you'd like.

Perhaps my favorite addition to the game as a whole is the introduction of off-road tracks. You can't freely explore the off-road environment (meaning you won't be going rock-climbing and jumping off cliffs) but there are a serious number of dirt and gravel paths, trails, and tracks. The driving dynamic on these textures is fantastic- the car slips and slides its way around, and the roughness of the path itself is very present. The car often feels as though you're on the brink of losing control- and it's unbelievably fun. The sensation of speed is unmatched in Horizon, and at 150+mph in the dirt, you know that at any second you might just wad up that pretty car of yours.

Most of the goodies from the past Forza games are present- cars can be modified to the nines, from turbos and superchargers to full-on engine swaps: it's all still there. Tire compounds and widths can be changed, body kits/aerodynamics can be installed, and as expected, the world-famous Forza Paintbooth is back and at your disposal. We tried our hand at mimicking the Deathspray Customs livery of their nastruck on our Z4 to put our amateur skills to work. This brings me to what has to be the most-discussed point of contention towards Forza Horizon... if only I had a dollar for every person that has asked: "Can you still tune cars in Forza Horizon?"

The answer is short and simple. No. You cannot still tune cars (read: adjust your camber, caster, gear ratios, and differential bias) in Horizon. For many, this seems to be a turning point for the game. I've witnessed dozens say they simply refuse to play the game over this very minor change. While I would certainly welcome tuning to Horizon, the game certainly doesn't feel incomplete without it. In fact, it's almost a blessing. If you're one of those guys who insists that he requires the ability to make such modifications, Forza Horizon isn't for you... but I'd also wager that you're a bit too up-tight about your gaming experience. Forza Horizon is aims to make the most fun possible out of the driving experience. 

The best analogy I could muster up is this: The difference between Forza Motorsport 4 and Forza Horizon is akin to the difference (and similarities) between pool (8-ball) and billiards (9-ball). They're both played with the same tools and in the same fashion- but they're different games. If you can play one, you can play the other, and you'll find them both very enjoyable to play. However, don't expect them to be the same. Forza Motorsport will always be Forza's take on the ultimate racing simulator. Horizon is simply the other side of the equation- if Forza Motorsport is the work week, Horizon is the weekend.

So, all-in-all, I think Forza Horizon is a must-buy. I find it, in many ways, to be far more enjoyable than Forza 4 (and keep in mind, F4 was, and still is, one of the best games out there by my book). If you're an automotive enthusiast who can suspend his disbelief, Forza Horizon is absolutely the game for you. If you can wade through some of the things that make Horizon stand out as an obviously more mass-appeal game, the gameplay and experience are every bit as rewarding, and more-so, than the past games of the franchise. But with such positive things to say about the game, surely I have a bone to pick, right?

The answer is absolutely. In a standard review, this is where I might say that the game needs this or needs that- but you can find that on your standard gaming website. What does a guy who eats, sleeps, and breathes cars have to complain about? Well, as simple and nit-picky as it sounds, I'm going to take it out on the aftermarket wheel choices of the game. Now, I know it's simply a game, and I'll agree that the wheels don't hugely matter as they're quite trivial- but I think my rant is seated much deeper than simply what wheels I can put on my car in Forza Horizon.

It's obvious that whoever was put in charge of wheel selection was not the right person for this job. Don't downplay the importance either- As a series that caters to the enthusiast community (I'm calling you out too, Forza 4), it's astounding that literally no thought was put in to it. The wheel selections range from chrome Asanti "rims" to Holeshot drag wheels. While both have their place, neither have any appeal to loyal Forza fans. And I don't want to hear it chocked up to licensing actual wheels. With the "Forza" brand splitters and aero parts, it's obvious the team isn't afraid to suspend the reality of "only real-life parts" and thus, Forza brand wheels with actual style could have been implemented in to the game. Creating some generic designs taking notes from current and past racing wheel designs would fill the massive void that is left for anyone not wishing to run "tuner" wheels"

But if we put that aside, the wheel selection still stands. Companies like HRE are present, and this is great. But why are my only two options from them wheels produced back in 2005?  Why are companies present and their main sellers are nowhere to be found? There's no Meister from Work and there's nothing of interest from BBS. The community is begging for some wheel styles that at least fit this decade. Instead, if we want wheels with lip, we're stuck with Cragars and WELD wheels. These are great on the 1970 Camaro but little else. It just feels as though no one actually cared about the game's aftermarket. Turn 10 and Playground Games, you could have called me, I'd have done the job for free. Just put someone who has some real-world automotive competence in charge of these things.

Enough about wheels though. The voice acting/writing in the game is absolutely hilarious, and that's not a compliment. While I know and understand that this game is geared towards a broad audience, and I know that the introduction of a storyline to a racing game is bound to have some awkwardness, there are parts of this game where I can't help but put my head in my hands and wonder "who okay'd this?" While there are no true issues with it, and thus I don't think it takes away from the game, the one-liners are out of control and legitimately terrible. The start of one race began with "Some say racing is a gentleman's game. I say it's no game... it's a fight. To the death!" Okay Playground games, what were you thinking? This would make sense if we were racing chariots and shooting bows and arrows at each other... but we're just trying to beat each other in a road race for 4 laps. Let's not get so silly and dramatic. Overall it's entirely dismissible and you should still buy the game, but just be prepared for some seriously cheesy lines.

Another complaint, although minor, is that one of the first events of the game stages the driver against an airplane in a race through the canyons. While at first I was skeptical about how cheesy it may come off as, it was presented well and was very enjoyable. I took this as a sign that future "showcase events" as they're called would be equally wild and unique. Instead, each one was a race against an airplane or a helicopter. These events were a great way to take a break from the regular racing and were fun every time, but I was hoping to see the game take more than just one que from Top Gear. I figured perhaps that I'd find myself also racing a train or a speedboat, or maybe a hang-glider down a hill. There are countless ways to spice up these "showcase events" but the creativity behind them felt a bit lacking, and felt like a big opportunity lost for the game.

As a Forza veteran and somewhat talented "Forza drifter" I did find that the popularity challenge in the game to be very quick to beat- I assume that a typical player will find this challenge to last them quite a while, but I had it knocked out within a couple of hours, and that was without trying. The game has a ranking within it known as "overall popularity." You begin at #250 and work your way up to #1. It's entirely inconsequential and does nothing except one thing: it unlocks these "showcase events.".. at least as far as I know thus far. So what made it easy to beat? Well, your popularity is increased by earning points as you drive, which are acquired by driving at high speed, nearly-missing oncoming traffic, catching air, driving on two wheels, and most importantly, executing solid drifts. If you're like me and attempt to drift everywhere, all the time, non-stop, then you're going to accumulate enough points to finish this task rather early in the game. As said, it's not really a big deal, but I felt it was perhaps worth mentioning. I was hoping to put my fine-tuned drift skills to the test and have the limits pushed back at me, but I suppose I'll save that for the heavy competition online.

My biggest complaint of all, however, is of monumental proportions. It's perhaps the one point of contention I have that almost kept me from saying that this game is a "must buy." It's one that Forza should seriously consider fixing at their soonest convenience, because the game is simply incomplete without it.

There's no E28 M5.

Past these complaints, this game is fantastic. If you're looking for a driving game that incorporates real-world physics and driving dynamics with an open world and world-class graphics, Forza Horizon is the game for you. I'm confident that it'll be quite a while before any game is able to knock it out of position for the top spot as the ultimate way to kick back and enjoy the best driving experience any game has to offer. It has it's fall-backs and issues, but it's simply not enough to take away from the great game it is. From hardcore Forza fans to even the casual gamer, this game will keep you entertained for quite some time.

I feel so official getting to say this. I'm going to give it an... 8.9/10. That sounds about right. Let's go with that.

 

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