Arcade racer, action racer, either term is accurate to describe the driving. But those insubstantive synonyms don't describe Forza Horizon's real and lasting appeal. It is an open-world racer. And the world Playground Games has created provides a powerful sense of place, and a time in life to celebrate—or remember—with a tender smile.
Having lived in Colorado in my 20s, it was almost an emotional experience for me driving out to Finley Dam, the showpiece run of a map that takes about 15 minutes to drive from one extreme to the other. Forza Horizon strongly encourages you to drive like my favorite word—a hoon—but taking it easy will show you some really gorgeous scenery. The rocky outcroppings, the nouveau-riche resort village, the long boulevard leading up to a county courthouse, all had hooks in something authentic, and it all blended together perfectly. In one switchback, aspen leaves fluttered in the late afternoon like sequins on a parade float, some blowing across the road, sending what I felt was a purely intentional message: Your summer's about to end, kid.
Yet as a lifestyle product more than a simulation racer, Forza Horizon's main problem is that I developed more of an attachment to its world than I did to any one car within it. The game is, yes, an arcade racer, which conditions a powerful instinct to upgrade the hell out of anything you acquire. Forza Horizon's loose in-game currency also encourages you to go to the max with whatever you're driving.
But in competition, its blend of arcade physics with Forza driving demands means these one-size-fits-all upgrades (and sometimes downgrades) to get your car legal for a race can leave casual drivers—the ones directly targeted by this product—frustrated when the difficulty spikes. They will have to put a lot more thought and patience into racing than they have before. The good news is that there aren't the equalizing clichés of an arcade racer—no rubber-banding—to keep things artificially tight to the end. The bad news is if you have the wrong setup (and you're always starting between sixth and eighth on the grid) and you're out-accelerated, you can forget about the podium.
Broadly speaking, you're given eight classes of vehicle, ranging from D (lowest) to R1. The events you enter will have a class restriction and, in some cases, a vehicle make restriction (all-wheel drive only, Japan-only, 1980s only). This balances competition and encourages you to build up a fleet and drive a lot of different, fun vehicles, and that's well and good. Only in the boss showdowns (there are seven) will you be racing best-against-best in an open class.
If you come to a race without a necessary car, you may buy one on the spot without having to visit the car showcase back at the Festival's central hub. But it's not going to be optimized for the race. That can only be done at the hub's garage, and it will be done through a parts upgrade, rather through granular adjustments such as gear ratio and wheel camber. Similarly, if you come to an event with a proper car yet in a higher class, you can strip out its souped-up parts (for free) and race in something at the top of its class (one point lower than the limit, usually), but it will do so by blending the vehicle's attributes. (Souped-up parts are returned at the end, also for free).
I found that as the race difficulty increased, I needed something that gave me a fighting chance against this, yes, arcade racer's breakneck pacing, where advanced bot drivers are always at full speed and rarely drift. The way vehicles are rated, there's a 100-point window, class-to-class, to play with in upgrading your car. Improvements to anything will boost that score so rollbars and frame improvements were almost pointless. I usually went with racing pistons and engine block and then improved tread if I could do that and stay under the class limit.
This can be time-consuming, and requires inspecting an event's restrictions before driving out to it, then driving to the car show, picking up the car, driving back to the garage, and upgrading it there. (If you want a paint job other than the factory options, you have to drive over to that location, too. I'm glad the game encourages driving by applying a cost to fast travel, but the driving around the Festival hub to complete customization options is rather tedious.)
All of this makes your vehicle fleet somewhat disposable. You'll still have one or two true loves you drive from event to event, but once you realize how laborious performance customization is and how little you hang onto it in competition, you'll spend most of your time on one car and all the others will either be standbys for future races or trade-in currency for something you really need.
The main events of the Horizon Festival, the fictitious car-culture celebration in rural and suburban Colorado (and Christ, what this thing would do to insurance premiums in that zipcode—including homeowners' insurance) are just the spine of a story with arms in other pastimes spread over a robust map. Of note, the voice-activated GPS directions, if you have a Kinect sensor, works very well and provides a navigational convenience without staring at a map in pause. If you want to know where directions are for the nearest event, just ask.
There are showcase events that will open up as you become more known, (including racing against aircraft). "Barn finds" puts you on a treasure hunt to uncover, lo and behold, one of the rarest and most collectible automobiles in the world, left rusting here in some farmer's tractor shed. The PR stunts are a waste. One involves driving to a location and taking a picture. Another is an open-ended drive-like-a-maniac contest. The worst is the speed challenge, which puts you in something exotic with 10.0 speed and acceleration and 0.0 handling and requires you to hit top speed, often in a turn. I failed one at least 40 times and refused to try any more.
Street racing is a one-off series that returns currency and popularity, neither of which are really all that necessary given how much of both you earn in main races and the open world. Still, they usually offer an aggressive, higher-classification race ahead of whatever is on your wristband at the moment.
As to wristbands, they mark your progression in the main career. You rank up by earning points in the events you race (winning, obviously, delivers the most). The experience point requirements get a lot larger as the wristband color advances, so be prepared to put in some time when you hit purple (the second highest class). The point is to take out Darius Flynt, the festival's reigning champion. But your one-way dialogue with the event director (through a headset),and the deejays' commentary, does little to establish him, or the other all-star racers, as characters you're motivated to take down.
There's got to be 20 hours worth of racing in the game's singleplayer mode and that may be on the low end of things, if you're driving from point to point (which allows you to challenge any roaming festival racer you encounter, regardless of the disparity in car class.) Being Forza, this game will get six additional car packs as monthly DLC, and a rally-race premium expansion in December. This can all be bought with a discounted subscription but there is more than enough racing on the disc to satisfy a sizeable appetite.
Multiplayer also offers its own buffet of replay value, and you can pile up some insane currency in just an hour of play. There are the straight-up races, in which a host may set car class and type parameters. There also are "playground games," which you can see at left. "King of the Hill" probably is where most folks will spend their time, followed by "Infected," its opposite.
"Cat and Mouse" needs a lot of people and even then, once a "mouse" builds a big lead the race is basically over. Car clubs encourage you to clan up with friends, and even let you share your best rides with them, although that experience doesn't offer much of an assist except in multiplayer events.
Forza Horizon has something to make everyone happy and something to make anyone unhappy. That's to be expected from such a broadly reaching game that's seeking to open up the Forza nameplate to those who don't have much of a commitment to simulation racing. Horizon can baby you with its automatic transmission and braking assists as much as it brutalizes a newcomer without them.
Deep down, it delivers on its real distinction, the one people may be missing: Escapism. For car lovers, the Horizon Festival would be a massive event worth dropping out of life to attend. The Colorado portrayed here is a gorgeous series of postcards, where your worst day is still a vacation compared to where you are now. And together, they deliver a world in which you will never grow old or leave your friends, and the summer never ends, kid.