Horizon, Colorado — The console racing sim, as we know it, is rapidly approaching its natural limit. You can add more cars, different tracks, and continue to improve tire physics, but those wanting to virtually experience a race are likely to find a better chance at realism using rFactor, iRacing or any number of PC simulators paired with a custom rig.
What a console racer can offer is a lower barrier-to-entry. Plug in, connect with your friends, and start racing. Yet, until recently, most of this online racing was limited to a pursuit of faster and faster lap times. Finish a race, get kicked into a lobby, make some jokes, start again.
Fun, often competitive, but far from a reflection of car culture (or even racing culture) as we know it. That's where Forza Horizon excels. It is the first car culture racing game.
(Full Disclosure: Forza's creator Turn 10 and Jalopnik have, in the past, worked together with readers on car packs for Forza 4. This was an editorial tie-up and no money changed hands. There are no plans to do it again, though we'd be open to it and have many ideas.)
The difference between Forza Horizon and the regular Forza games is immediately apparent from the first moments. You find yourself in an SRT Viper, set to race the reigning "Horizon Festival" champion to the gate. Then, all of a sudden, you're transferred to a group of people sitting around their cars.
You, yourself, are a person. And not some sort of amorphous character, but a real (in the digital sense) person, with a body, a chunky Casio G-Shock watch, and a crush on the digitally attractive and video-game-fantasy-mostly-undressed festival organizer Alice Hart. Other arcade-type games have had people, of course, but those tended to focus on niche worlds like street racing or quasi-Bullrun type events.
Your goal in life is to collect wristbands (instead of levels or licenses) by winning officially sanctioned events, get cred and popularity by driving like a hoon, and make money through quasi-illegal street racing. Eventually, this all leads to becoming the Horizon Festival Champion… assuming you can make it through the rivals they set up in the game for you.
These rivals are people, too, with somewhat dimensional personalities and one of them I think is Derek D. from Fast Lane Daily and he drives a Lancia.
A voice in your ear guides you through the different challenges, praising you for your great work and chastising you for not moving faster. It invites you to race P-51 Mustangs and hot air balloons and all sorts of other odd challenges.
The feedback and menu system feels more like DiRT 3 than Forza, which isn't a bad thing and reflects that the team building it is partially the same team who created that series of games.
The voice also guides you to "barn finds," which are a great nod to car culture's obsession with cars hidden in barns. Oddly, they are everywhere and the cars are super expensive, exceedingly rare treasures like the BMW M1 and Bugatti EB110 (This game is for car lovers, with cars like the SVT Raptor but also the Sierra RS500 Cosworth and '83 Audi Sport Quattro).
Horizon, Colorado is a magical place where you can apparently just take any cars you find without worrying that the barn's owner might go to the non-existent police and complain that "some asshat in a Corrado just stole my multi-million dollar car!"
This isn't realistic. Nor are the number of Nissan Leafs running around the road for you to swap paint with or narrowly avoid crashing into, both acts that will earn you popularity. As will pulling the handbrake around every turn, doing crazy burnouts, and running into crap.
Ok, so what about the physics? Everyone with a force-feedback wheel is suddenly fucking Niels Bohr, so let me address it here.
The cars react much like you'd expect them, with physics that are more intuitive than realistic — i.e. your Lancia Integrale may rotate more mid-turn than it would in reality, but it feels right. Perhaps truthiness is a better way to describe it. It feels a lot like DiRT 3 actually, and that means the e-brake is your friend.
Anyone worried it's too arcade-y should take a deep breath now, because your friends who don't understand vehicle dynamics will still understeer their Venom GT right into a tree at the first real turn. What may frustrate some purists is the course layouts mean the fastest way around a course isn't always the obvious one. There are opportunities to slide, skid, and jump ahead.
For all of this, the game is a winner. It's fun, it gives you a reason to explore the open world, and it sounds like it was written by people who enjoy cars.
But what actually sets the game apart is the multiplayer mode. Sure, you can choose any number of racing modes (street race, point-to-point, regular course, whatever) to play with friends and you'll have a great time. The racing doesn't have famous tracks and it won't allow you to tune, but you do have mixed-surface courses.
An added level of enjoyment is that you can enjoy this open world together, with friends, all connected over XBOX Live. This can mean setting up your own routes and races in the big open world. Or you can compete in group challenges that involve all driving past a certain point at over 150 mph, or crossing the city in a certain brand's car. For this you can earn up to a million credits and buy whatever you want!
Most of us, though, will be playing the variations on tag. One is called "King of the Hill" and involves trying to maintain being it. Another one involves being infected with a virus and trying to be the last one standing. There's also a version of "Cat and Mouse."
Allow me to recommend the golf course and a Lamborghini Gallardo for any of these.
It's not perfect, and the big travesty of the game is when you're in the open world there isn't traffic to play against beyond your friends. They should fix this. They should fix this immediately.
What else is there? I don't know. I'm still playing. Still discovering. I can't wait for all the rest of you to get the game so we can play it together and you can face off against my stupid R-Class vintage Mini Cooper with wacky gearing.