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Forza Horizon review: Baby, you can drive my car

Jordan Mallory

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There's no dearth of hardcore simulation racing games out there. They cater to die-hard, petrol-drinking motorsport enthusiasts, but what about that other, less intense breed of car enthusiast? Some may dream of being Rubens Barrichello, but many others want nothing more than an open road and a mid-engine anything.

Forza Horizon is a game for someone who knows the difference between a Lotus and a TVR, but may not know what PSI is most appropriate for slick tires on a sub-70 degree morning. It's a game for people who DVR Top Gear on BBC America, but not the Monte Carlo Grand Prix or Barret-Jackson auction coverage on Speed TV. In essence, Forza Horizon is a massive toy chest full of hyper-accurate hot wheels. Oh, and dubstep. There's a lot of dubstep.

Gallery: Forza Horizon (August Preview Tour) | 16 Photos

Forza Horizon's titular Horizon Festival – a fictional automotive and musical event reminiscent of ACL Fest or Coachella – serves as the narrative excuse for having dozens and dozens of races strewn about the Colorado countryside. You, a nameless rookie unknown to the Horizon scene, must battle through a series of races of varying format, earning different colored wristbands and, subsequently, access to higher-profile races as you progress.

Rather than spending much of the game in menus, as was the case in Forza 4, Horizon's open-world architecture mandates that you physically drive to each event, which results in a lot more time spent behind the wheel, and less time mired in the trivialities of racing life. In fact, eschewing the minutiae of motorsport in favor of its essential thrill is an idea that underpins virtually every aspect of Horizon, for better or for worse.

There's no shortage of event types in which to participate, with races running the gauntlet from point-to-point hill climb to mixed-surface rallycross and everything in between, including The Fast and the Furious-style winner-takes-car illegal street dueling and Top Gear-esque "is this car faster than an airplane" shenanigans. With each new wristband, events allow progressively faster vehicles, though some races mandate vehicles of a certain make, model or year, which is a bit frustrating at times.

A narrow power circuit full of hairpin turns and right angles isn't the natural habitat of understeer-happy front-wheel drive vehicles, and being forced to drive a car unfit for the given challenge often resulted in a skipped race. There was also an instance where a race mandated the use of Japanese-built vehicles, but wouldn't allow the entry of my exceedingly Japanese Nissan GT-R Black Edition, which seemed arbitrary considering that overpowered cars must be downgraded into a race's designated vehicle class anyway.

Thankfully, the sheer number of available events meant that I never had to power through a race I wasn't enjoying. If the game forced me to drive a stupid car – I'm looking at you, impossible '60s-era Mini Cooper challenge – I could quit the event and find something fun to do, like racing against a hot-air balloon.

Forza Horizon review Baby, you can drive my car
Developer Playground Games has been vehement in the past that Horizon is not an arcade racing game, and that its "Forza DNA" provides simulation-grade vehicle replication. This is true, at least with respect to the cars. Each vehicle has an intangible personality and character to it, beyond what is represented by the power/handling/braking/buoyancy/whatever figures listed on its crib sheet. For instance, a Lotus 2-Eleven will corner differently than a Subaru WRX STI 11 with an identical Handling figure, the result of subtle differences in each vehicles' weight distribution and aerodynamic qualities.

From an automotive aficionado's standpoint, this is great because it adds flavors and variety to the vehicle selection, indulging the gearhead fantasy of experiencing something I'll never, ever get to experience in real life. As a piece of game design, however, it means that finding the right vehicle for my driving style, and subsequently the right vehicle for a given event, is a matter of trial and error.

The surfaces on which those cars traverse are also surprisingly real-world, to such a degree that the difference between "asphalt" and "asphalt with a light layer of dirt" is an important distinction, affecting both the performance and handling of a vehicle. Bringing a heavy, 600 horsepower, rear-wheel-drive muscle car to a gravel rally stage, for example, is as bad of an idea in Forza Horizon as it is in real life.

Forza Horizon review Baby, you can drive my car
Horizon's designation as an "arcade" racing game is harder to nail down. It's sure as hell built like an arcade racing game – points are awarded for epic drifts, daring near-misses in oncoming traffic and driving through road signs and the like. Whether it feels like an arcade racer, however, depends entirely on the number of driver aids you enable and/or disable.

Leaving traction control on, setting the transmission to automatic and enabling steering and braking assistance makes for a decidedly un-sim driving experience, with the player's only responsibilities being to hold down the accelerator and aim the car in the right direction. The flip side of that coin resembles something much closer to Forza 4: No traction control, no anti-lock brakes, simulation-level steering sensitivity, no driving line projection and a manual transmission with a clutch – it's almost like playing an entirely different game.

There is a happy medium, one with "normal" steering, anti-lock brakes and traction control, which felt more comfortable than either extreme. Under that setup, driving was demanding enough that any thrilling heroics felt like they were primarily of my own doing, without being so fiddly that I couldn't enjoy the scenery.

Forza 4's car customization and upgrade features return in Horizon, though customization is strictly cosmetic this time around. The ability to adjust your vehicle's height, tire pressure, wheel camber and other eccentricities has been kicked to the curb, but the loss isn't a great one. As much as I enjoyed tinkering on the test track in Forza 4, that depth would have been out of place in the boisterous, utopian world of Horizon. Using the series' tried and true paint/vinyl decal system to put a bright pink heart onto a the hood of a priceless Aston Martin (already coated in a matte black finish, natch) is more Horizon's speed.

Forza Horizon review Baby, you can drive my car
Upgrading parts on a vehicle is still basically the same process, though I was rarely given the opportunity to use the specific configuration I had chosen, save for multiplayer. Each race has a class requirement for the cars that can enter it, and nine times out of ten the most appropriate vehicle for the race wasn't in the prerequisite class. When this happened, my options were to either go back to the garage and manually downgrade the vehicle, and then drive back to the event, or have the game automatically reconfigure my vehicle at the starting line.

I chose the latter option consistently because I don't have the biblical patience of Job, and while my car was always returned to its pre-race configuration after an event, it made me question why I had spent the time and money on upgrading it if I was never going to get to race it that way. There was only one wristband event that ever allowed me to drive one of my fully upgraded cars, and it was the very last event in the game.

Forza Horizon's difficulty curve is also a bit out of whack, both in terms of progression and the difficulty settings themselves. Setting the skill level of the CPU drivers to "medium" presented virtually no challenge until the very end of the game, and overall there were very few circumstances where I didn't win first place on the first time out.

Kick that up a notch to "hard," however, and I was lucky to come in sixth out of an eight-man heat. Drivers became faster, made fewer mistakes and as a result, earning a podium finish became nearly impossible. I typically enjoy difficult games and I like a good challenge, but the stipulation to that rule is that the challenge has to at least appear obtainable, which isn't the case here. This changes the functionality of the driver skill setting from its intended purpose, which is to adjust the desired level of challenge, to "Do you want to win: Yes/No."

Regardless of setting, the races themselves maintain a fairly consistent upward trend in difficulty until the second to last wristband level, at which point the angle of the difficulty curve goes way vertical – the same is true of the head-to-head street races that pop up at this point in the game. Oddly enough, things return to normal during the very last series of races; in fact it wasn't until the end of the festival that the driver skill issue resolved itself and the races felt appropriately challenging.

Forza Horizon review Baby, you can drive my car
Multiplayer is about what you'd expect, though rather than allowing for 16 simultaneous players as Forza 4 did, Horizon's multiplayer is limited to eight. As there are no 16-car events in the single-player mode, however, this isn't really that big of a deal. You can choose between different playlists of pre-selected game types and courses, ranging from the lighthearted fare of "Cat & Mouse" to super serious, no-upgrades-allowed circuit races. You can also create your own event, choosing a course, race style and any custom restrictions you may fancy.

The act of racing online was indiscernible from single-player mode, with no appreciable difference in braking or acceleration responsiveness, and subsequently no difference in the consistency of my lap times. (Unfortunately, that means the losses I suffered were entirely my fault.)

There are a lot of little, annoying things about Forza Horizon, but the fact of the matter is that driving around the fake Colorado countryside is never anything but enthralling. It may not be as visually stunning as Forza 4, but the moments that Horizon presents are incredibly beautiful. Watching the fireworks launch from the festival's main stage, or seeing the sunrise through the end of a trans-mountain tunnel is worth every second of reverb-soaked post-rock that oozes out of the (optional) in-game radio.

When it comes down to it, some automotive enthusiasts just want to jump into the car of their dreams and go for a long drive through the country, and Forza Horizon delivers that simple pleasure on a silver platter. The fact that a solid racing game is included doesn't hurt either.

This review is based a retail copy of Forza Horizon, provided by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no."Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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