Traditional racing simulation games have often been likened to car porn, with their main purpose being to fetishize vehicles. But, as with any fetish, such games can seem strange and uninteresting to anyone who is not already into that sort of thing.
The Forza series has certainly been guilty of that. Previous games in the franchise excellently simulated the experience of driving high-end cars on exotic tracks around the world. That said, over time they felt stodgy. You can, after all, unlock and modify only so many shiny Porsches and Ferraris before they start to feel the same.
Forza Horizon is a bold new direction for the series – and a welcome one at that. The game introduces an open world that players can roam freely, a storyline of sorts to follow and characters that actually interact with your driver. If driving sims are car porn, Forza Horizon is porn with a storyline.
But unlike the world of adult films, the plot adds to the product. It’s still all about the action – driving, in this case – but the accouterments make you feel like you’re playing in an actual world that’s populated by actual people. You might even end up caring about the characters and world a little.
The game is set in a fictional chunk of rural Colorado, where the fictional Horizon music festival is going on. You’re the hot-shot rookie driver who has his sights set on taking down Darius Flynt, the festival’s cocky road race champion.
Why does a music festival have racing attached to it? I’m not sure that’s ever explained, but hey, it’s nice big plot hole for you to drive through.
Once you qualify for the tournament, you get a Bluetooth headset from a sexy race organizer who promises to stay in touch (she doesn’t give you a phone that connects to the headset, but again, never mind). From there, it’s off to the races, literally.
Forza Horizon features all of the racing game standards: There are straight-out sprints against other drivers, speed tests, city races with other cars populating the streets and so on. On top of that, there are some new and interesting race types, such as those where you have to run through checkpoints faster than an airplane or hot air balloon.
Winning races gets you credits that can be spent on new cars and upgrades, and it boosts your popularity, which unlocks further events. Players earn different coloured wristbands, in keeping with the music festival theme, that provide access to new stages, er, races.
Horizon’s fundamental mechanic is an overhead satellite map that links all those individual races and events together. You can open it, set a waypoint with your GPS and drive there. It’s a different way of doing things from the standard racer, where you typically select events through a menu and bang, you’re suddenly at the starting line. You can blow credits and fast travel to race locations, but that means skipping all the fun stuff along the way.
There are the billboards on the side of the road that, when smashed, give you discounts in mechanic shops. There are the racing challenges you issue to random cars passing by. There are even hidden treasures to be collected. You also might miss out on some of the radio banter, which can provide clues as to where the treasures are hidden or feature other drivers trash talking you.
The graphics, sound and driving physics themselves are mostly rock solid, although developer Playground Games has obviously taken this Forza game a step away from strict simulation and toward a more arcade-style racer. As such, I had a gripe or two. Head-on collisions, for example, are pretty unrealistic – smashing an oncoming car doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the race; it might only slow you down briefly.
Forza Horizon’s biggest problem is that it goes overboard in trying to squeeze more money out of you. Aside from shelling out $60 for the game, you’re constantly urged to spend more real money on tokens to unlock stuff. The treasure map, which shows the location of all collectables, can only be purchased with tokens, for example. Some of the higher-end cars, meanwhile, are tough to buy with just the credits you earn, given that they cost so much. You can, of course, get them for tokens instead. There’s a also a plethora of downloadable content coming, for an extra charge – why wasn’t some of it included on the disc?
It’s clear that these sorts of in-game microtransactions, where players pay real dollars for additional content, are here to stay. Given their relative novelty, it’s understandable that publishers are still figuring out the right balances to strike. Forza Horizon, however, takes the practice right to the edge of obnoxiousness, although fortunately not so much as to spoil the game.
Ultimately, it’s a refreshing take on the racing genre that successfully straddles the line between serious car porn simulation and arcade-like bang ‘em up games (including its voracious hunger for your “quarters”). Forza Horizon is deep enough and fun enough to satisfy fans of both styles.