Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Game Review: Forza Horizon

Any avid Xbox and Xbox 360 owner will know of Microsoft's Forza Motorsport series of racing games. When it was first introduced on the original Xbox back in 2005, it was clear that Forza was clearly aimed at competing with Sony's Gran Turismo 4 for the Playstation platform. Both games focus on automotive realism and track driving, rather than arcade style racing games such as Electronic Arts' Need for Speed series. The difference between Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo though is that Forza is generally seen as being easier to get into that Gran Turismo as Forza's tuning options are much simpler than those of Gran Turismo's. In the end though, you have two great racing simulators on two different consoles.

Forza Horizon, released last year in November for the Xbox 360, is a completely different direction for the Forza game series. Looking to muscle in a bit on the arcade style racing game category, Forza Horizon attempts to takes the simulated realism of the main Forza Motorsport series and takes it to the streets. Horizon sees you playing as a young, up and coming racing prodigy, looking to take part in the annual "Horizon Festival," located in the fictional city of Horizon, Colorado. Your ultimate goal is to become the champion of the Horizon Festival and dethrone four time Horizon champ, Darius Flynt.

The fictional city of Horizon, Colorado occupies roughly 63 square miles of virtual real estate. Forza Horizon encourages the player to explore all 63 square miles by placing races all throughout the city, and also leaving hidden "barn finds" for the players to discover. Every road in Horizon, even the dirt ones, can be driven on. 

The Good

As expected, Forza delivers a graphically beautiful game. From certain angles, it can be difficult to determine whether a still shot is in-game footage or a real life photo. Adding to the graphical splendor, Horizon now includes daytime and nighttime, meaning those headlights on your car now actually get some use. For the most part though, Forza Horizon basically borrows all the graphical cues from Forza Motorsport 4, which is not a bad thing since Forza 4 is an incredibly beautiful game. Everything from the in-car camera to the landscape of the fictional city of Horizon, Colorado looks absolutely stunning. Even if you get tired of racing, just picking a car and driving around the beautifully rendered roads of Horizon is an experience in itself.

Forza Horizon's game play is really not that far off from Forza Motorsport 4. The physics of both games feel roughly the same, but with the main difference between the two being that one takes place on closed course tracks, and the other one on city and suburban streets. The one type of course not available in Forza Motorsport are dirt courses, yet Forza Motorsport 4's physics engine handles dirt courses incredibly well in Forza Horizon. Dirt courses cause the car to rumble and slide, just like what you would expect from driving on a real dirt road. Attempt to take a car with racing slicks onto a dirt course, and things can get very amusing, very quickly. Thankfully, Forza Horizon does include the option to buy specialized rally car equipment, but at a cost. More on that later.

Many of the races in Forza Horizon are very entertaining. Horizon does include the standard closed course lap races and point to point racing available in every version of Forza Motorsport to date, but also tries to include many more race types. One of the more amusing race types involves racing against an aircraft, a lá Top Gear. Your first opportunity to race against an aircraft involves racing a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 against a P-51 Mustang.

The Bad

What some may deem as a good thing, others may deem as not so good. While removing the tuning menu from Forza Horizon lets Forza newbies get into the game much quicker, it does remove the primary element of adjusting your car for specific conditions. Rather than tweaking your car to a specific track or race type, you just have to hope that the pre-adjusted settings are to your liking. Also, the physics of the game, while still very good, do feel slightly dumbed down from the Forza Motorsport series. Turn 10, the studio behind the Forza series, wanted this game to be more arcade like in its focus, but that focus comes at the expense of the realism that made Forza Motorsport a true challenge.

Gone from Forza Horizon is the giant list of cars made available in the main Forza Motorsport series. Granted, Forza Motorsport never had the same gigantic list of cars Sony's Gran Turismo series had, but more than half the cars available in Forza Motorsport 4 are missing from Forza Horizon. Granted, Horizon does have some new cars not available in Forza Motorsport 4, but the choice of available cars feels very constrictive. I also miss being able to pick your first vehicle rather than being stuck with a Volkswagen Corrado VR6 by default. Sure, there is nothing really wrong with the car, but it is probably not the car I would pick as my starting vehicle.

Turn 10 seemed to try a bit too hard making Forza Horizon hip. A lot of the one liners spoken by your various rivals throughout the game are incredibly cheesy. The races against aircraft, while cool, are a blatant rip-off of BBC's Top Gear. If the developers were going to include Top Gear like challenges, the least they could have done was let Jeremy Clarkson narrate part of the game like they did with Forza Motorsport 4.

Of course, just like any other game today, Forza Horizon is available with a plethora of downloadable content...at a price. I can understand charging a small fee for monthly car packs to keep the game fresh, but charging roughly one-fourth the price of the full game to include a "Rally Mode," a mode which the game should have had to begin with, seems a little absurd. There are plenty of dirt roads around the city of Horizon, and quite a few races already take place on these dirt roads, so having a "Rally Mode" right out of the box seems like common sense. Of course, if you are willing to pay for the downloadable "Rally Mode," then more power to you. Personally, I feel that if I have already spent $60 on the game, why in the world should I pay more for something that should have been included in the first place?

Versus the Real Thing

As mentioned before, Forza Motorsport was designed to be a fairly realistic driving simulator. The physics of the main Forza Motorsport series was always done relatively well, with the exception of cars with torque vectoring all-wheel drive systems. Unfortunately for Forza Horizon, that sense of realism just is not quite there. You would think that Turn 10 would try and improve the realism of the game since it would give players an opportunity to experience their favorite cars on open streets, but Turn 10 instead opted for a slightly more arcade like approach.

For example, I picked up an S2000 and modified it to include everything that was available on my own S2000. When I first took it out on the open road in Forza Horizon, the car felt twitchy and unsettled, even at freeway speeds. Having driven my own S2000 on a day to day basis for nearly three years, I can confidently say that the S2000 should not behave like it is going to oversteer all the time. Of course, my experience with Forza Horizon is with the Xbox 360's standard controller. Playing the game with a full racing wheel setup (wheel, gated shifter, three pedals) may yield a completely different result.    

From a graphical standpoint, Turn 10 got Forza Horizon to look as realistic as possible. Every car model looks exactly like the real thing, from the exterior of the car, all the way down to the details in the in cabin view. As mentioned earlier, it can be somewhat difficult to discern an in-game still shot from a photograph. Horizon's landscapes are also stunning to behold. The incredibly rendered environments along with the new day/night feature add to the stunning visual realism.

Summary

Overall, Forza Horizon is a good game. It is fun, entertaining, and very pleasing to the eyes. Since a lot of the very technical details do not exist in Horizon, it is much easier for newcomers to the Forza series to get into that game, and hopefully branch out into the main Forza Motorsport series. However, if you are expecting a technical racing game in the model of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, you may want to look elsewhere. This is definitely a game that I would recommend renting before making the decision to buy. If you do decide to buy it before trying it, give the game some time for the price to drop. Getting the game cheaper may help with the sting of having to pay for all the extra content.