Cars, you see, have different gears for different jobs. It's easy to forget because track racing in video games is about a race to the redline, ploughing up the gears and only dropping down when forced by corners or other racers. But out on the open road it actually makes sense to keep your Ferrari in fourth and your accelerator halfway down because sometimes the traffic is dense and sometimes the road is narrow and sometimes you just want to take the world in.
Horizon takes Forza 4's handling model out on the open road in a miniature version of Colorado where the tracks are city streets, dusty lanes and miles of freeway. It's a Need For Speedified Forza centred around the Horizon festival - Glastonbury with Lamborghinis - with its own plot and rival racers you'll meet and challenge in game.
Sim racing is well-known for its clinical nature and forensic attention to detail, but Horizon is the first of its kind to carry a personality. The series was never about how much the designers could show off; but instead hiding all the immaculate design work and putting every second of focus on the cars. Forza is the Iceman of video game racers - form following function, design at arm's length, the car's the star.
Horizon is even more flamboyant, almost to the point of obnoxiousness, and is so conspicuously Dad Cool it comes off as crass. But the Horizon Festival element amounts to a tiny proportion of the game compared to how much is dedicated to driving endlessly on the open road, forever being given things to do.
There are point-to-point and circuit races, contests against aeroplanes and helicopters, and one-on-ones against the racing elite.
When you're not racing towards a finish line, you're still competing using Forza's own version of Project Gotham's Kudos system where every risky move gives you more points and more popularity and unlocks new events to compete in.
Colorado Me Good
Horizon's Colorado is a world where point-to-points make sense. This isn't Forza 4's segmented version of the Nurburgring or Fujimi Kaido, but endless open road where the scenery and terrain changes as you head closer to the finish line.
It's a world of hill climbs and steep descents, of mountain roads and country lanes, and the first place Forza has ever gone off-road.
The moment you take your two-wheel drive Koenigsegg onto a dirt track you'll realise Playground's version of Forza's handling model is more forgiving than Forza 4. It lets you get away with murder off the track and turns you into an unstoppable battering ram on the open road, where civilian traffic can be barged aside, with only a modest drop in speed being the trade-off. But it's still undeniably an authentic Forza game wrapped up in an arcade racer's cuddly exterior.
Form doesn't follow function the way it does in Forza 4 and it's a more personal piece of design for Playground with lashings of the team's Codemasters heritage, but the cars are always centre stage, never better than when they're let loose on the best driving roads ever featured in an open-world racer.
Back on the track those cars have no room to breathe but out in Horizon's open world you can explore every one at every speed on every surface. Suddenly it seems absurd you were ever constrained to tracks in the first place.
Horizon doesn't match the sheer scale of Test Drive Unlimited 2 or the clever gimmicks of Need for Speed, but it captures the absolute freedom of a fast car on an open road better than any other open-world racer and better than Forza 4's closed tracks ever could.
In fact, Horizon's only real problem is Forza 4. By comparison, Horizon is a game of holes. The usual Forza tuning options are off the table which means you can't take that 370Z and turn it into a drift machine. Or set up your GT-R so it hits the redline on sixth gear at the exact right moment on game's longest straight.
There's no way to auction your cars online, though you can still buy and sell decals. Forza 4's technical HUD is missing, as is its punishing crash physics and semi-realistic damage model. You can only race against seven opponents rather than Forza 4's fifteen, and you'll meet only sparse traffic on the roads of Colorado because the 360 is being pushed hard enough, thanks very much.
The car models aren't nearly as detailed for obvious reasons, but why does every car have the same speedometer when Forza 4's were bespoke? And where's the Top Gear license Microsoft spent so much money on?
Forza 4 was so comprehensive you have to feel bad for Dan Greenawalt and Forza 5's designers who have to conjure stuff up just so they have something to write on the back of the box. Horizon isn't built like Forza 4. Playground's game is a starting-point utterly rammed with things to do but missing some essentials that make Forza 4 the game it is.
But really, who cares? Sure, there's no car auctions or custom speedometers, but Horizon has night racing, a fully-fledged Kudos system and an Achievement referencing the dearly departed Bizarre Creations, lots of new exotic cars like the British-made Eagle Speedster, an open world, a better campaign and races against bloody planes.
Yes, we want the option to switch between Forza 4's jagged-edged physics and Forza Horizon's safety scissors version, but we can't say we'd ever use it. Yes, we want the technical HUD even though we'd never see it. And yes, we want the Clarkson voiceover even though it was crap. Why do we want all that stuff? Because Forza 4 has taught us that's what Forza is all about.
It's not fair to call Horizon a rush job, except of course, it was a rush job. The credits list a dozen smaller studios working on everything from character animation to car modelling because that's what it takes to go from zero to AAA racer in under two years.
Between them, Playground, Turn 10 and everyone else have made the best open-world racer on any console, and it's just a foundation; give it two more years and see how many holes are left in Horizon 2.
An exceptional open-world racer, burdened slightly by the series' heritage and all the expectations that the Forza brand brings.
- Accomplished open-road direction
- Loaded with charisma
- Excellent portrayal of empowerment and freedom
- Missing some signature Forza elements