There's a short list of open-world racing games that you can classify truly great, and an even shorter list of those that veer towards realism. It's generally a result of the fact that people enjoy a good driving sim for the exact opposite reason they enjoy a good sandbox. What it comes down to is familiarity: a great racing sim is one that makes it a joy to learn every last nuance of a circuit so that you can speed through it with maximum efficiency, while a great sandbox constantly surprises you with unexpected delights. It's the known versus the unknown.
Dan Greenawalt realizes this. That's why Turn 10's creative director wants us to know that the upcoming Forza Horizon (developed by Playground Games in the UK) isn't simply Forza Motorsport in an open-world setting. "In Forza Motorsport, your motivation is very much about shaving ten-tenths of a second off your time at Nurburgring," says Greenawalt. "In Horizon, your motivation is in pick-up-and-play fun. It's in exploration."
While Horizon's driving model can still get awfully demanding when you disable the various driving assists (it's the same engine as Motorsport, but made a tad more forgiving by default) the focus here is very much on the setting. Horizon's world is one continuous swath of Colorado countryside, complete with sweeping highways, sun-baked deserts, and towering Rockies. The anchor is a fictional automotive festival attracting gearheads from around the world. That story conceit--the Horizon Festival--brings with it some light narrative and a noticeable tonal shift. There are shaky-cam cutscenes. There are neon lights and dance music. There is a man named "Krash."
None of that focus on hyper-stylish festival culture feels very invasive, though. It's a big part of the game, sure, but it's goofy rather than cynical. If anything, it serves as a good springboard to get out on the road and look for a good time.
If looking is what you want to do. Because you can just as easily wander with nowhere to go and find plenty of challenges to take on. Driving up behind another festival-goer and hitting the X button lets you challenge him or her to a point-to-point sprint. Randomly placed speed trap cameras record how fast you're going at a specific location and add it to a leaderboard. You can even discover challenges that simply ask you to find a scenic viewpoint and snap a snazzy photo of your car.
Half the fun, though, is simply driving around looking at the scenery. Imagine an entire world made up of vistas like the Bernese Alps circuit and foliage like Maple Valley Raceway. That's the Colorado of Forza Horizon. There's a full day-night cycle to go along with it, as well. But be warned: driving 130mph at night feels, well, like driving 130mph at night. It's slightly terrifying.
Where Forza Horizon looks most promising is in the way it marries this sense of freewheeling exploration with the more traditional elements of Forza Motorsport. "We don't want cars to be disposable," says Greenawalt. "With a lot of [arcade racers] the car is a weapon. You might start off in a Ford Focus, and the moment a Ford Mustang is available, the Focus is useless. It can't compete. Eventually it leads to a one-way street where the game is ultimately disposable because there's no depth."
In other words, Forza Horizon may not be about developing an intimate relationship with real-world raceways, but it's still very much about developing intimate relationships with your fleet of cars. Once again, you can get in touch with your inner auto mechanic by upgrading various parts of your car to keep it competitive over longer stretches of time, as well as decorate it with vinyl decals that you can then sell on the community storefront. And, yes, you can port over your custom vinyls from Forza 4.
The game will throw some curveballs your way to force you out of your comfort zone, though. With new racing surfaces like dirt and gravel, you'll sometimes find yourself in a rally-oriented event that's more Dirt than Forza. In these situations, you'll need to switch from the Volkswagen Corrado you begin the game with to a more off-road-friendly vehicle like the Subaru WRX or, if you really want to embrace the Colorado setting, a Ford F-150 pickup (SVT Raptor edition).
At other times, you might not even be racing cars, as one event early in your career will have you going head-to-head against an airplane--one that makes it feel like the world is ending when it buzzes over you. Initially, it feels a little odd to take part in this sort of over-the-top race with a driving model that feels more or less like Forza Motorsport (it's perhaps a tad more forgiving, but you can still scale the difficulty level by toggling numerous assists), but in our hands-on time we quickly learned to throw our expectations out the window and embrace the silliness.
And that's kind of Forza Horizon in a nutshell. It's a game that borrows from Forza Motorsport where it makes sense, and then fills in the gaps with its own oddities and eccentricities. Bottom line, though, it feels good. All that business with the festival atmosphere and stylish storytelling won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it doesn't seem like it'll get in the way of what appears to be a very promising spin-off of the Forza franchise. Hopefully that list of great open-world racers will have one more added to it come October.