CHARLESTON, W.Va -- The "Forza" brand has become synonymous with giving gamers realistic, simulation-style driving experiences in intricately detailed vehicles of all makes and models. The most recent release, "Forza Motorsport 4," remains one of my favorite racing games of this console generation.
But while hardcore sim racers are great in their own right, sometimes a guy just wants to turn the radio up, put the top down and feel the wind blow through what used to be his hair. This is the kind of experience that I wouldn't expect from a typical "Forza" game, but "Forza Horizon" is anything but typical.
Developed by Playground Games, a new studio whose talent has worked on some of the industry's most popular and successful racing games from the likes of Codemasters and Criterion Games, "Forza Horizon" eschews the structured nature of previous "Forza" games in favor of a large open world that you're free to explore at your leisure.
Set in Colorado during a fictional music and automotive culture festival, "Forza Horizon" turns gamers loose on hundreds of miles of roads that wind through mountainous passes, large cities, small neighborhoods and everything in between. Various events and races are scattered throughout the open world for you to discover and participate in whenever you want, and doing well in these events earns you credits that can be used to purchase new cars or upgrade your current ride. Or you can simply spend your time driving around the huge open world, looking for speed traps to tear through in order to best your friends on the leaderboards. No matter how you approach it, "Forza Horizon" offers something for racing fans of all types.
Though the trimmings may be different, the engine under the hood in "Horizon" is pure "Forza." Described as Forza DNA, the driving experience in "Horizon" offers everything gamers have loved about the "Forza" franchise - the accurate physics, the tight controls and the flexible difficulty. As such, making the transition from "Forza 4" to "Horizon" is smooth and easy, and anyone who's familiar with Turn 10's series should feel right at home behind the wheel here. Whether you're blazing down a straight stretch of asphalt or taking a hairpin turn on a gravel side road, you never forget that you're playing a "Forza" game.
To show off this excellent racing experience, Playground Games has packed "Horizon" full of races and events to keep you driving. The Horizon Festival is the main hub from which you can take on challenges in what amounts to the story mode as you work your way from an unknown racer to the king of the festival. Smaller outposts offer their own events like PR stunts and photo shoots, and unsanctioned street races pit you against tough competition (and street traffic) in pursuit of big paydays.
"Forza Horizon" shares more than just its racing DNA with its cousin. There is a plethora of real vehicles to pilot, customization is in full effect and you can form car clubs with friends. Speaking of friends, "Forza Horizon" offers a full suite of multiplayer modes, from racing against your buddies' ghosts in Rivals mode and competing against them in games like Tag and Cat and Mouse, to meeting up for an eight-player free roam through the Colorado countryside.
From a visual standpoint, "Horizon" is a powerhouse. Everything from the varied terrain that blazes by at a smooth 60 frames per second to the cars, themselves, looks amazing. The transition from day to night and back again is well done, too. The audio presentation is just as solid, with two radio stations - each with a killer soundtrack - available to listen to. The DJs on the stations also provide clues to upcoming events and hints to find hidden cars.