Were it not for the fine-tuned handling model – and the lack of police cars, pyrotechnics and a boosting mechanic – Forza Horizon could almost be a Criterion production. Not only is it set in what’s essentially the same blissed-out American utopia that has featured in every single Burnout game to date, it also poaches a few specific devices from that series; Burnout 3’s compere DJ Stryker is approximated, destructible billboards replace collectibles a la Burnout Paradise and the whole thing takes place in a fictional world… or rather, a fictionalised area in the state of Colarado. As in Paradise (and the upcoming Need for Speed: Most Wanted) Forza Horizon’s world is also a completely open one, and while it doesn’t have a system as robust and habit-forming as Criterion’s Autolog behind it, more emphasis than ever is placed on constantly giving you the ability to take part in ceaseless micro-battles with your online friends.
Despite all of this – and despite the fact that hardcore, no-nonsense petrol-heads will probably lambast the diminished focus on straight-laced realism – this is still, offshoot or not, unquestionably a Forza Motorsport game. In addition to the jaw-dropping visuals and incomparable sound design – if you’ve got a world-class home cinema set-up at home and ever want to show it off, this is your boy – the general structure of play is instantly familiar. You progress through the leagues of Colorado’s Horizon Festival by competing in a series of class-based races, and you buy and upgrade your vehicles with the cash that you earn on the side. In Horizon you can earn currency by taking part in PR stunts, completing area-specific challenges, or outrunning aeroplanes and hot air balloons in the extremely enjoyable new Showcase Events. Once again you’re also encouraged to gradually do away with each of the game’s standard set of vehicle stabilisers, until you’ve stripped them all away and are faced with a pretty formidable racing sim. The beloved core formula of Forza is definitely intact here.
Kinect support is modest but very effectively implemented: a simple call of “GPS” allows you to plot your next destination vocally, although you’re (understandably) only ever able to choose from four different primary options. Multiplayer is a separate beast altogether, and the only way to access it directly is to quit right back to the main menu. It’s a substantial offering, and in addition to the roster of customary preset events, you can also access the game’s world (in its entirety) in free roam mode, and compete with friends in a small series of co-op challenges. These are a welcome inclusion to be sure, but also terribly simplistic; when you compare them to the modes that clearly inspired them – modes that first featured in Burnout Paradise, quelle surprise – they don’t come off particularly well. Another bugbear for some may be this: niche prospect thought it always has been, there’s no online Auction House in Forza Horizon at all.
As a very special bonus, Forza Horizon doesn’t open with a nauseatingly smug Jeremy Clarkson monologue, which in itself serves to make this outing approximately twice as good as its immediate predecessor. All kidding aside though, this really is something else; visually sumptuous, moreish and stuffed to the hilt with coercive stuff to do. Yes, you play as a young, good-looking caucasian male. Yes, there’s a love interest. Yes, some optional, illegal street races have been included. But all of that stuff is so easy to ignore, and it’s never done with any real conviction anyway: it’s clearly nothing more than focus-grouped nonsense, and Horizon’s creators always treat it as such. There aren’t as many vehicles as there were in last year’s game (or in Forza 3, for that matter) and you’re rewarded for doing things like going airborne and causing environmental damage, but these latter gameplay systems are always kept where they belong; on the periphery. In sum: the qualms are piffling. Forza Horizon is the absolute business.
Forza Horizon is currently due for release exclusively on the Xbox 360 on Friday, October 26th 2012.
Watch the official launch trailer for Forza Horizon below: