Forza Horizon Offers an Open Road to Action, Music and the Fast Life

Total simulation racers are not something I've played much at all. I've got nothing against them, but I tend to drive like a maniac and a lot of the detailing and physics are like pearls before swine with a guy like me. Reflecting on my preferences makes the existence of a spinoff title like Forza Horizon apparent.

Playground Games, the title's developer, is careful to say this is not "arcade racing," it is "action racing," every chance they get, I can't speak to whether it really is a hardcore Forza Motorsport fan's cup of tea. It seems to appeal to my colleague Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik, and I'll defer to his car knowledge. You should read his appraisal, and consider mine below more of a companion to it from a more casually interested perspective.

As a guy who really enjoyed the festival atmosphere of something that was arcade racing—MotorStorm—I appreciate the context that the Horizon Festival serves in this game and could see myself sinking some time into a very long weekend or two there.

Conceptually, the Horizon Festival melds what Playground wanted to do with the title—highlight car culture and a youth lifestyle, give you a lot of great courses to drive and a lot of fresh music to listen to as you do so. The open-world aspect introduces off-road to a Forza title, too, and civilian traffic supplies an additional hazard in your racing.

I ran through a demonstration level on the floor—it appeared to be the first mission, in which you were expected to finish among the top 10 racers to earn a wristband getting you into the Horizon Festival. Wristbands are a kind of social currency at these outdoor gatherings, explained Ralph Fulton, the game's design director, and he was indeed wearing a lot of them. In Forza Horizon, they'll chart your progress as you progress through the game's ranking system.

In the demo, I was given experience points for normal racing tasks like burnouts, drafting, drifting, passing, and then also close calls with civilian traffic. Busting down fences or stop signs also accrues experience points, which seems kind of incongruous with a culture devoted to great looking cars, but who knows. I was running very well in my 2013 SRT Viper, slipping out of a draft, overtaking a competitor, drifting without leaving the pavement, feeling very confident. Then I clipped a stop sign, overcorrected, and plowed headfirst into a Prius. It didn't completely disable me or kill the other driver, of course. This is a arc— an action racer.

The goal will be to become the No. 1 racer at the festival, a reputational achievement reflecting not only victory in races but performances within them. You can expect this to have a large effect on leaderboards both within your friends list and at large. The Festival is a hub serving as the game's showroom and garage, where you can tune your car or acquire new ones. Out on the roads, encountering other festival goers gives you the opportunity to challenge them on-the-fly. If you're unsure of where to head in the vast Colorado landscape for your next race, Kinect voice support will allow you to ask it a question—your next race, next event, or the location of the Horizon Festival, and the most direct route will appear on your road and the minimap.

The presentation and the physics will be up to the expectations of the Forza fan, Fulton assured us. The fleet will be a different lineup. Whereas Forza Motorsport would supply an extremely diverse roster of cars, allowing you to race anything from the ordinary to the exotic, the fleet here will be governed by two standards. Cars will have to be showpieces, for starters. Then, they should have useful capabilities in varied competition—thinking off-road here. So vehicles that offer a "diverse driving experience," such as the Audi Quattro or Mitsubishi Evolution will be desirable, Fulton said.

The lineup isn't yet set because all of the licensing hasn't been worked out, Fulton said. But when the game arrives, those who have Forza 3 or Forza 4 gamesaves will be rewarded with additional automobiles at launch, depending on how deep they advanced in either game.

Arcade racer, action racer, whatever label suits you, Forza Horizon looks like a reasonable inducement for someone like me, at the periphery of the core racing experience, to give a Forza title a try. Clearly Microsoft is trying to grow that population with this kind of entry product. I'll admit to being curious enough to want to give it a closer look when the game releases Oct. 23.