Release Date: October 26 (Europe), October 23 (North America)
Platforms available on: Xbox 360
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Forza Horizon, a spinoff of the long-running Forza series, takes the ideas put forward by other racing games but refines them in a better package. The game has Test Drive Unlimited's large open world, but without the frustrations of that game. It has the same mission structure and feel as Midnight Club: Los Angeles, but without the merciless and dispiriting sense of challenge.
It takes the sense of fun, accessibility and variety of DiRT Showdown yet wraps it in a package that is better-looking, more engaging and, yes, actually more fun. This is a more accessible take on the Forza brand, but it retains the sense of heritage, presentation and challenge, which is no mean feat.
Unlike the tightly crafted motorsport tracks in previous Forza games, most of your time in Forza Horizon will be spent hurtling around the countryside of Colorado as part of the Horizon Festival, a get-together of 250 of the biggest petrol-heads in the world. You are the rookie at the bottom of the tree and must build up your rep by wowing the crowd and winning events to move up through the coloured wristbands.
Whilst the open world is new, the layout of the game will be familiar to Forza fans. Races fall around themed categories each with their own performance limitations, depending on how far you are through the game. You will wrestle fish-tailing muscle cars in the early stages, but rise up to superfast Ferraris in no time. The progression between each wristband level is smooth, and challenges the player without ever becoming frustrating.
The game further mixes up the racing via different terrains that require you to adjust your driving style, such as when moving from asphalt to dirt roads. Periodic Showdown events also require you to engage in more usual contests, such as driving a '70 Ford Mustang Boss 429 in a race against a P-51 Mustang World War II fighter plane through a series of checkpoints.
There is plenty of additional challenge in the world away from the events, such as setting the highest miles per hour on leaderboards while travelling through speed cameras; illegal cash races around the streets; or just pulling up behind other festival competitors and triggering an impromptu tear-up.
One major issue about Forza Horizon that strangely dates the game is its story. Playground Games has trotted out pretty much every adrenaline-junkie stereotype for the game, and these cookie-cutter characters spend more time tediously boasting than they do actually racing.
Thankfully, Forza Horizon amends for its narrative shortcomings with its presentation. This is a beautiful game. All the Forza heritage in creating amazing-looking cars is in full effect, but it's also the world that impresses.
The Colorado plains kick up clouds of dust as you speed down the sun-baked roads around mountainsides. And powered by a full day / night cycle, when darkness falls things get even better.
At night, the kaleidoscope of lights around the main festival centre illuminates the sky, as dramatic fireworks go off, really giving the feeling that the party is actually going on. This contrasts starkly to the daytime when Colorado feels much more staged and empty. Overall, though, Forza Horizon conjures a racing world in which you are happy to spend some time.
Car customisation is not quite as deep in Forza Horizon compared to previous games, but there are arguably more engaging options for photographing and sharing any customised artwork, particularly with the rather lovely Colorado backdrop. The vehicle-sharing Car Club returns for the new game, and the online storefront enables you to market any old vinyls.
The multiplayer game is certainly entertaining, but things are less successful with the co-operative free-roaming modes. The idea is that a group of players come together in the world and take on a range of challenges, such as getting four players through a speed trap at 200mph close to each other. But the weak direction and signposting means that it is generally a confusing affair, and so many players may be put off.
It will be interesting to see how Forza Horizon fares against Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion's new open world racer that is out next month. But in the absence of that review, it is clear that Playground Games has seriously raised the bar in all areas for the non-linear racing genre with Forza Horizon, and others will now have to play catchup.