After the launch of Forza 3 in 2009, Turn10 was itching to expand its Xbox racing franchise. So it was at the following year's E3, with Forza 4 in the pipeline, the keepers of the franchise met with a British startup without a single finished product to its name: Playground Games.
"We wanted to ratchet up our ambitions," says Forza creative director Dan Greenawalt. "We needed a partner, more capacity." And though Playground Games had no track record itself, it had racing game expertise in spades.
Founded in 2010 by UK industry veterans and with a staff roster that has surged from 19 to 108, Playground grew out of a rocky period for the British development scene--in particular, a spate of studio closures that left experienced racing game makers at a loose end. Out of that upheaval, Playground drew together staff from shuttered studios Bizarre Creations and Black Rock, as well as former Rockstar North, Ubisoft Reflections, and Codemasters developers.
"Condensing UK talent into a super studio," Greenawalt calls it, standing in the converted Regency townhouse where Playground has set up shop in Leamington Spa, England. It's nearly two years after that initial E3 meeting, and Ralph Fulton, Playground design director and co-founder, formerly of Codemasters himself, is ready for his studio's first game to meet the press.
The game is Forza Horizon: an open-world racer set in Colorado, combining race events and free-roam driving, and centred on a fictional festival named Horizon. "It's an auto show meets a music festival," says Fulton.
In and around the show, you vie with other festival-going car lovers to become Horizon champion by winning races and special events, but also by increasing your popularity with show-off driving. When you drive, whether in a race or on the open road, you accrue popularity points for impressive or risky manoeuvres such as drifting, drafting, skilful overtaking, near misses, and jumps.
It is unmistakably a Forza game, not least because it looks glorious. With Forza's own tried-and-true engine as a graphical foundation, there are shiny cars and pretty lighting to beat the band, and to those Playground adds a dynamic day-night cycle and wide-open vistas. It can have been no mean feat blowing the limited draw distances of the franchise's usual racetracks out to these distant rocky horizons at Forza-grade quality, but Playground has done just that.
The physics and car handling also lift the tech from Turn 10's games. As Fulton says, to do otherwise would have been madness. "Starting a racing project with a car that already travels best in class, that doesn't happen every day," he tells us. "So we started on a really firm footing."
That footing makes for a sweet driving experience in a Viper GTS 13 for our hands-on--handling is tactile but drifty and, again, recognisably that of a Forza title. (Though Playground isn't talking the specifics of its licensed car lineup, Fulton says not to expect any "low-end" cars better suited for shopping trips or Le Mans prototypes--sporty circuit racing machines designed for the racing circuit tracks, not the open road.)
The gameworld is an abridged map of Colorado, with discrete zones arranged around the festival hub to form an expansive, diverse network of road types. Among these are foothill roads with fast, soft curves; winding mountain passes; switchbacks around the state's red rock canyons; and dirt tracks across Colorado's open plains, marking Forza's first foray into off-road driving.
At first blush, Horizon fares decently in comparisons with other open-world racers like Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited 2. Though it doesn't have the massively multiplayer functionality of the latter, all events can be played competitively online, and you can likewise hook up with friends to tool around Colorado in a spot of free-roaming action. Exploration will be rewarded with collectable barn finds: rare classic cards waiting to be discovered and restored. Asynchronous multiplayer--the lure of the leaderboard and friend stat tracking--features as well, appearing in the shape of speed-trap-like points that capture and compare you and your offline friends' speeds as you whiz through.
The hands-on demo involves a race from a diner to the festival grounds, where fireworks flicker over the huge crowds assembled around tents and stages for the start of the show. It's a show put on in part by British Radio 1 DJ and festival magnate Rob Da Bank, who has curated the game's three genre-based radio stations: one featuring dance music, one indie, and one heavy rock. Three is a modest spread besides the likes of a Grand Theft Auto game, leaving certain genres out altogether, but them's the breaks. Licensed tracks will include songs from Friendly Fires, The Hives, and The Black Keys.
As in earlier Forza games, the player is given a suggested racing line, which is colour-coded red or green for braking or accelerating, and an instant rewind function, letting you take back a botched corner for another shot with a press of a button. New among its features is a Kinect-enabled, voice-based GPS navigation system that lets Kinect owners call up travel instructions with voice commands (those players without Kinect will use a pause menu to request directions on the world map).
Despite the briefness of the demo, this is an assured and revealing first encounter with Forza Horizon. Turn 10's faith in British talent (at an untested studio) looks well placed. "I think it speaks volumes for the UK they had the confidence to go to a startup, with no track record of their own, and trust this enormous task to them, says Fulton.
And if there is an upside to the upheaval in UK racing game development, he says, it might be the alignment of conditions that allowed Playground to flourish. "If there is a silver lining [to the studio closures], and I'm at pains to point out not everyone from those studios works here, they all went all over the place, but what I keep saying to people is: although those studios themselves have gone, the talented people who made those games are still around, and are still really passionate about making triple-A games."'