Concept + Car: The Surprising Brilliance of Forza Horizon

I have a strange relationship with cars. My father worked at General Motors for 35 years, so my youth was full of impromptu lessons on different makes and models. I was mostly uninterested at the time, but I have fond memories of a yearly tradition: the Detroit International Auto Show. I found myself fascinated by the idea of Concept Cars; vehicles designed to chase blue-sky dreams and fantastic visions of the future. I remember my dad explaining that these concepts rarely make it to production, but still, I found them infinitely more immediate and interesting than anything else on the show floor. They were evocative of what cars could be, unbound by legality, affordability, or practicality.

Racing games trade on your fantasies, perhaps more so than most other genres. It’s rare that a racing game forces you to confront character flaws, desperate circumstances, or deal with any sort of trauma at all beyond the sting of a 4th place finish. Instead, they’re mostly interested in giving you a feeling of control: over a car, a bike, a jet-ski, a hovercraft. Further, they want you to experience a mastery of that control, and the pride that comes with winning as a result.

This is as present in abstract, arcade-style racing games as it is in deep simulations. Learning to powerslide effectively is a key part of Mario Kart. It feels good. Just as good as mastering corners in a Mitsubishi Lancer in Gran Turismo. The difference is where that rewarding feeling is coming from; executing a Mario Kart powerslide is immediately satisfying from a game feel perspective, even before you master it. Taking a corner in Gran Turismo is unpleasant until you’ve really got a handle on the driving model of the game, but the gently-feathered accelerator and optimal driving line are their own reward.

Historically, racing games end up chasing one of these two. Ridge Racer is a game entirely about kicking the tail end of your car out and driving sideways around long corners. Its handling is forgiving and encourages you to really push the envelope on every turn. Project Cars lives up to its serious-faced name and offers a (mostly directionless) simulation of professional race driving, down to tire pressure and gear differentials. It dares you to tweak every little setting in hopes of finding a zen-like automobile equilibrium.

There is, however, at least one game in the last decade that managed to straddle the line between these two kinds of thrills: Forza Horizon. Developed at the height of Forza’s critical popularity by a new team of veteran racing devs, Horizon was conceived as a way of annualizing the franchise without burning players out. If simulations like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport were about pristine, showroom-quality cars, Horizon was about their TV ads; all winding mountain roads and speeding across the desert, electronic music and dramatic VO. A parked car in a dealership is beautiful, but wouldn’t it look better on the highway? Isn’t it more fun to race through the country than on a carefully-groomed track? These are questions that the game answers with an airhorn and a resounding “Yes.”

Of course, games had attempted to tap into the fantasies of car ownership before Forza Horizon. The Test Drive Unlimited games were ambitious attempts to marry a living open world with real-life cars and traffic, but they were ultimately underbaked. Many of Need for Speed’s various incarnations have a strong focus on customization and personalization, mostly playing to the popularity of street racing. The fantastic Burnout Paradise traded real-life vehicles and physics for a long checklist of sick ass jumps to conquer with your friends, encouraging the kind of camaraderie inherent in motorsports. Still, Forza Horizon presents the most pure version of the race car fantasy.

There are, in my mind, two components to this. First, there are the cars themselves. Forza Horizon has a strong advantage over any competing arcade/sim hybrid by inheriting the realistic driving model of its parent franchise. There are few other games on console that communicate the “personality” of individual cars the way Forza does. When you discover an old Barn Find car and take it out for the first time, you can practically feel the years on it as you drive. When you strap into the thrilling Volkswagon Golf, it somehow feels like less of a burden than it does in competing titles.

It helps that the game is absolutely gorgeous, wringing a surprising amount of power out of the late-model Xbox 360. Small details on the interior, such as your player character’s hand changing the radio station, help to push immersion further. Forza Horizon was the first racing game I played almost exclusively in cockpit view, as to maintain the illusion that it was me driving these cars around Pretend Colorado.

That setting is depicted just as beautifully as the exotics that speed through it. A well-paced day-night cycle is a subtle reminder of the passage of time as you kick around the varied biomes of the map. The sunset plays off the hood of your car as you blast towards the neon-lit central hub. Perpetual fireworks explode in the sky. Through it all, an expertly-curated soundtrack bumps between cartoonish DJ voiceovers that are constantly reminding you: This is a party. You’ve been invited here by a bunch of affluent 20-somethings to tear shit up.  

It’s this premise that makes the game so incredibly compelling. Sure, the music festival atmosphere can grate at times, with some pretty flat “storytelling” in the career mode and hilariously one-note antagonists, but it’s still a great excuse to be driving around an open world. The concept of a freewheeling racing festival leaves room for improvisation in a way that a strictly-structured career mode can’t.

A lot of that comes down to the way the game incentivizes you to simply drive. Horizon is the kind of game that offers you a fast travel system and then gives you a thousand reasons to never use it. You’re constantly earning points while driving; for drifting, for speeding, even for running into environmental objects. It’s as if the developers are saying “it’s alright, have fun however you’d like. We’ll make sure you get yours.” These points feed into a wristband-based progression system for unlocking events, ensuring that your map is constantly flooded with new things to do.

The formal racing in the game is a great blend of serious motorsports events, street races, and wildly original showcase events. The latter are elaborate challenges wherein you might find yourself racing against a biplane or a series of hot air balloons. They’re a great break from racing hot hatches around a circuit, and if you need even more variety, you can challenge AI drivers in the open world to a one-on-one race at any time. Forza Horizon encourages freedom. It’s your car, you earned it, you painted it… so drive it anywhere and anyhow you like.

That freedom extends to the tuning. Instead of choosing to implement a potentially out-of-place arcade leveling system to vehicles, the game smartly allows you to customize your tuning and parts within a car’s given power tier. If you have no interest in carefully crafting your perfect Volvo, you can just hit one button to automatically optimize your vehicle for an event. It’s an absolutely painless experience for those who just want to race while still offering the ability to tinker for those who feel inclined. Forza Horizon doesn’t gloss over the complexities of tuning a vehicle, but it does allow you to take the easy way out without being patronizing.

It’s for these reasons that Forza Horizon remains my favorite racing game. Horizon 2 pushed things in new directions with its off-road sensibilities and european setting, but the spirit that I loved about the first game was sanded down by a focus on next-gen scale. Plus, its music was just… forgettable. When I originally saw the trailer for Driveclub, I thought for sure it would dethrone Forza, but alas: that game had some of the most confused driving physics i’ve ever experienced. It also lacked the personality of its trailers, with next-to-no customization options and a bunch of incredibly boring courses.

So here we are, as a new Forza Horizon approaches. Will the new Australian leg of the Horizon Festival have staying power? My short time with the game at this year’s E3 was promising, and the preview coverage has been mostly positive. In the meantime, I’ve dusted off my Xbox 360 to tool around in the first game again, partially to research this piece and partially just to check in on my fond memories. Great news: It’s all still there. If you have a love of driving but can’t get used to strict, overly reverent simulations... if you love kicking those blue sparks but long for something beyond the Mushroom Cup… Turn up the Avicii, open the throttle, and drift into your very own sports car advertisement. You won’t be sorry.

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Jeff Soulliere

Jeff Soulliere is a writer, video game enthusiast, and nervous wreck, not always in that order. His opinions are his own, and do not represent those of any larger organization or publication. Complain about his poor taste on Twitter: @Jeff_Soulliere.