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Forza Horizon preview

by Garnett Lee, Aug 30, 2012 6:00am PDT

Despite a now decade long history spanning four consecutive games, the creative team behind the Forza series never set out to make driving sims, at least not according to its creative director, Dan Greenwalt. I'll take him at his word because I get the point he wants to make with such a dramatic statement. The motivation that drove their work came from passion for cars. Simulation racers just happened to be the natural outlet for that energy in the videogame world when they sat down to do it. With Forza Horizon the team hopes to find a different expression that triggers a more emotional response. As he says, "a Ferrari pulls up next to you at a light and you're going to have a reaction." It's that same sort of thing Forza Horizon hopes to inspire.

Setting such lofty goals aside for a moment, Forza Horizon follows a standard setup for an open world racing game. Shake a roster of fun to drive cars out on a map of twisty roads and let nature take its course. In this case, the driving shenanigans take place across a scaled down representation of Colorado, which offers a nice variety of open freeways for top speed runs and two-lane mountain highways that look like spaghetti on the map. To tie it all together, the game taps into the music festival scene that's become popular over the past few years to create a fictitious mashup of bands, girls in bikini tops, glow sticks, and cars it calls the Horizon Festival.

As Greenwalt suggested, I was starting to get a reaction to the game by the time I'd gotten through the opening movie and prelude drive. But I tried to hold my judgment because, much like that Ferrari at the light, it's more about the person driving it than just the car. Once the glitz died down a little, I was left to start my career off in a Volkswagen Corrado. I know, a what? This little-known sportshatch went unnoticed in the US but don't be fooled. It's a fantastic marriage of performance and drivability on a front wheel platform that makes it a solid first car.

I appreciated the chance to get my driving senses about me in the Corrado because though the format of Horizon seems to promise a more casual approach, its Forza 4 tech under the surface maintains a believable experience. I say believable because it definitely eases up some on the strict physics of Forza games. That's partly due to the default assist setting, which I left in place because for this game they felt right. I also found after playing with the different views that I preferred the chase camera to the cockpit view. That sealed it for me, putting Horizon firmly in the blast around without a care category.

I'm right on target then as far Greenwalt is concerned. He says that it's all about motivation. This is not a game about shaving tenths of second off lap times at Nurburgring. It's about having fun and to that end uses a points system like other similar games have to award credit for stylish driving. In Horizon they're called "Popularity Points" and play into the story of building up a reputation to ultimately being the most renowned driver at the festival. In practice, I found it pretty easy to rack them up. Drift around a corner, brush close weaving through traffic, and the usual sort of hoonage got my score adding up.

Familiar as it all felt, I found myself enjoying it more than simply just another nice drive. The clincher comes from the balance I pretty quickly struck of holding whatever I was driving right at that just about out of control but not quite point. The amount of float going through a corner in a drift felt nicely dialed in and I could maintain control with the accelerator. From what I drove it also scaled up to higher speeds well. If anything, it got better the faster I went. I traded in everything I'd earned--a Boss Mustang and an Evo X--to grab a Lotus Evora and it was worth every penny. Blasting down the freeway, hitting an offramp, feathering off the gas, giving the e-brake just a tap, and then flicking the stick to slide into a drift I held with the gas all the way through--that's it right there.





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