Of late, spring has belonged to the action racing crowd – the stomping ground of Split Second, Blur, Ridge Racer Unbounded – and winter to the car fetishists and enthusiasts. This year, however, those two strands of driving game converge as both Criterion’s Need For Speed Most Wanted and Forza Horizon, under the fresh direction of Playground Games, transpose weightier, realist driving experiences to sweeping, carnival-style open-worlds bursting with arcade thrills and distractions. One of gaming’s most conservative driving series has been let off the leash by its new master, and the result is a tremendous tearaway hit that manages to honour its roots even as it blossoms into a new world.
Playground may be an upstart developer but its pedigree (made up of staffers from Codemasters Criterion, Bizarre and others) is veteran, and that collective CV is key to unpacking and understanding Horizon’s layered make-up. There’s the authentic precision steering and physics of classic Forza, the rewind feature of Grid, and it’s all set against the festival theme and premise of Motorstorm.
The setting is a beautifully rendered, finely detailed mock-Colorado, taken over by the “Horizon” car and music fest that’s brought all manner of automotive mayhem, women in hot-pants and racial stereotypes with it. Colorado is a wise choice with its varied terrain: you can travel from the foreboding, famed Rockies to downtown urban sprawls made of shops and developments, busy with civilian traffic, without a pause inbetween, though races themselves (which take place on the same road) do require a loading screen.
Initially you’re funnelled into some rather tame events that ease you into this unlikely new Forza of loud fonts, pumping tunes and aggressive AI. Once you’ve graduated beyond the initial couple of “wristbands”,
Horizon’s equivalent of profile ranks, you find yourself with a startling level of freedom and a sweeping selection of challenges. From Midnight Club-style street-racing to off-road speed-runs, there’s a solid 20 hours of campaign to dig into, and that’s discounting the amount of time you’ll spend smashing through billboards, driving every last dirt road, or taking on friends’ ghosts. There may not be Autolog-levels of
cross-comparison but Playground has certainly taken valuable lessons from Criterion’s innovations, and the urge to retry an event just to blast a rival user off the leaderboard is as irresistible. Every event you enter brings with it the option of a ghost-run against the world’s leading drivers, and it means even the shortest of stages can suck up hours of your time.
From customising your ride, trading vehicles and designs with other users, to scavenging the map for hidden cars, Horizon is crammed with content. With so much choice comes the danger that players will need to hop around events, tiresomely seeking out a difficulty sweet-spot on the map, but by switching on or off options such as ABS or the guiding luminous green of the racing line you can customise the challenge, as well as the percentage of available reward you receive.
Alongside those monetary rewards that let you purchase and upgrade cars, there’s a credits system directly lifted from PGR (there’s a knowing reference in the “Kudos To You” achievement), albeit with a dash of Burnout’s devilish streak whereby dangerous driving is as bountiful as careful control. Horizon feels every bit the game that Bizarre Creations might have made had it survived to 2012, a fusion of arcade and simulation sensibilities with progression that’s hard-earned and victories that require practice and learning. The handling model’s weighty yet responsive when weaving through highway traffic, but also stands up surprisingly well off-road. Switch off assists and you can bring the game closer to the hardcore territory of a dedicated rally game. It never offers WRC levels of simulation – it’s too fast for that – but with all the assists off, Horizon’s canon of muddy motors require a delicate and exact touch as the gravel sprays and your back-end swings like a wrecking-ball. Oversteer needs to be controlled, full-lock on hairpin corners needs to be instant.
Multiplayer may be segregated from the campaign, but Playground still opens up its wide world map for you and friends to cruise around (albeit traffic-free), whether it ticking off some basic co-op objectives like covering a certain amount of track together or competing in rigid head-to-head battles on pre-ordained tracks. Victories feed into your singleplayer progress, meaning a car won online is a car permanently added to your garage along with any valuable credits, providing a simple, effective way of ensuring that multiplayer doesn’t feel like a silo, but a worthy pursuit for furthering your career.
This may be Playground’s first time behind the wheel, but it feels like a champion is in control. Previous Forza entries showed glimmers of personality, hinting at a broader approach to accessibility, but were too shy and reserved to truly let loose. Horizon boldly goes there. It’s a magpie game, assembled from pieces of other series, but it delivers a driving game precision engineered to offer all levels of player the best possible experience.