The Forza Horizon demo has landed on Xbox Live as an exclusive for Gold members for a week. It’s the first public taster of the ‘action racing’ work of Playground Games, and is building towards the release of Forza Horizon on October 23rd, 2012. Having spent a day weaving through traffic and taking part in the three included events, here’s our first impressions of the experience:
Forza Horizon: The Demo:
The overall impression of Forza Horizon is that it feels strangely familiar. That impression even started as the game loaded, as the logo for Playground Games takes top billing, and has that same ‘game power-up’ icon feel that the Bizarre Creations logo had (Having been founded by former Codemasters and Bizarre Creations staff, that may just be the power of association!). And then it’s followed by the familiar sight and sound of the Turn 10 logo, Microsoft Studios, and we’re into the game itself.
The combination of a music festival with racing events still feels slightly strange to me, as I tend to associate festivals with binge drinking and sleeping in tents. But rather than ploughing through under-age drunks lining up to buy overpriced burgers, it’s basically the hub for all the action – the sort of premise that Need for Speed ProStreet used back in the day.
It’s a scenario that probably won’t mean much to us racers, but might give a chance to hook in more casual gamers. The main impact is that the game characters all seem to come from the ‘streets’, if those streets are largely comprised of hip marketing agencies, and a music selection aided by DJ Rob da Bank. The music in the demo is pretty reasonable, with the choice of two dance stations and a rock station, but we’ll have to wait for the full game to see how long it lasts before the radio gets turned off for good. There’s 20 songs per station so it should be a while, but I’m still waiting hopefully for someone to deliver Eden Games promise of real streaming radio for the original Test Drive Unlimited, as that’s about the only solution to a finite music selection.
One minor niggle is that the D-Pad radio selection seemed a little sloppy, meaning that I occasionally careered into barriers whilst trying to find the right station.
Engines noises are typically good – working in collaboration with Turn 10, they’d need to be. And you can certainly tell the difference between the Mitsubishi Evo, Boss Mustang and Dodge Viper available.
Graphically, Forza Horizon looks pretty good. Roaming the open world element is pretty much seamless, with the only interruptions coming when there’s a game mechanic explanation. The mountains, lakes and trees are all nicely represented, and as you’d imagine, the cars look great. There’s only limited cosmetic damage, which is a bit of a shame as it’d be more realistic to see players crawling towards an event on 3 wheels after totaling yet another oncoming car, but it has to be remembered that these are licensed automobiles and this isn’t Burnout.
The day and night cycles work well, with dusk falling and merging into darkness. In-car, there’s a good feeling of driving fast in the dark, although head movement inherits the strange Forza belief that humans can’t look anywhere other than right angles.
Gameplay and Handling:
This is the bit I’d assume all of us at ORD are interested in. And so far it’s proved pretty enjoyable. The demo includes an off-road race to start with, followed by the much-hyped Ford Mustang vs Mustang plane, and finally a big road race. In addition there are also a couple of speed camera based open world events which record the highest speeds achieved for leaderboard boasting.
Having played around with the controls, I did notice a couple of things. The first is that even with a pad, Simulation mode is definitely more enjoyable. The second was that initially, I couldn’t find the manual options – it turns out that Manual has to be selected in the Difficulty settings, before you then set the layout in the Controller settings. That’s fine, but having the ‘Reverse Clutch/Handbrake’ option available when Automatic confused me for a good few minutes.
Top tip if you’re new to Manual with Clutch – you’ll go off the road a fair bit in Forza Horizon, so don’t forget to hold down the clutch and give it some revs to get going again.
The ‘action racer’ handling is pretty decent. The cars feel nice and weighty, which adds to a more realistic feel than something like Burnout. They still get unsettled by bumps, and you have to actually slow down for quick direction changes, which means relearning bad habits from arcade racers. It also means that drifting takes a bit of prompting but is fairly controllable once it’s going.
It’s not Forza Motorsport level handling, that much is obvious. But it’s good enough that you know you’re in control, and any mistakes are down to your driving, not the game. Personally, I’d like it a little more towards simulation, as I do wonder how many times you’ll attempt to improve your time at each event without that fine control, but it’s not far off. Certainly it’s familiar enough to anyone that’s played Forza that you’ll immediately get to grips with it, and also the particular traits of cars you probably already know from circuit racing.
The Evo was definitely a good choice – it handles the rally track well, and also makes for a good general cruising machine. The Viper also shines in the demo, but I did wonder about the muscle cars in general. There’s going to be quite a few in the game, and Forza Horizons might uncover the sad fact that although they’re cool, they also handle like a soggy waterbed on skates. I’m a big muscle car fan in the Motorsport series, but I’d rarely drive one without upgrading the brakes, suspension, and lowering the weight at least.
The potential problem is that upgrades are going to be available for each car, but tuning isn’t. Depending on what effect the upgrades have, it might make the muscle cars more enjoyable, or might highlight their problems. We’ll just have to wait a couple more weeks to find out.
One thing that is apparent for each car is that the select screen will include details such as the Car Rank and Performance Index, meaning that there are going to be events limited by the ranking system. It’ll be interesting to see whether the dominance of some cars in Forza Motorsport translates directly over. More than 100 cars have already been confirmed, so there’s going to be plenty to choose from.
After each event, you’re immediately challenged to beat your nearest rival on your friend list, which will obviously add to the replay value as your learn the layout of each race. The one thing that is missing from the demo is an overview of all the various challenges to allow you to quickly jump to wherever you want to improve your times – hopefully that’s in the main game as it’d be nice to be able to stay on top of things.
It looks like Forza Horizon will be a good game and worthy of a purchase on release day, judging by the demo. It’s not innovative, but it’s well-crafted from good source material, and could be expanded in the future.The cars and handling are familiar from Forza, speed camera tests have been around in games like Test Drive Unlimited, and as mentioned previously, the idea of car festivals and selectable events has been around for a long while.
What makes Forza Horizon different is that this could be the first time all of these elements are done well in a game. All of the obvious influences, Burnout, TDU, Need for Speed etc have had significant flaws. In fact, the closest games in terms of an overall package were Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit , Project Gotham Racing, and the lamented last product from Bizarre Creations, Blur, which all remain fun and playable today.
Roll on October 23rd!