Preview: Forza Horizon

It’s not often that a highly acclaimed series changes direction. If Gran Turismo can stick to the same formula for fifteen years and sell millions of copies, it’d be safe to assume Forza Motorsport would do the same. Just four games into the series, however, the second-fiddle has changed its tune into an arrangement with a wider-appeal. In Forza Horizon, car handling takes a backseat to the environment itself.

Not technically part of the main canon, newcomer Playground Games’ (comprised of various racing developer vets) quasi-spin-off Forza Horizon is far-removed from its predecessors. Gone are the days of careful corrections and cornering through self-contained courses. Driving mechanics now happen at a more blistering pace, with more emphasis on speed and distance. While divergent from prior Forzas, Burnout this ain’t; driving will still be somewhat realistic without a single canister of NOS to be found.

The main draw to Forza Horizon is its massive open-world setting — and boy, is it massive. Set in Colorado, Horizon features much of its famous ecology and windy roads. To ensure accuracy, developers took a trip to the Centennial State and documented the environment with over 15,000 photos and hours of video. Throughout the game, racers will encounter waterfalls, damns, bridges, cities, festivals and of course, miles of windy mountain roads. The world will even go through realistic night/day cycles based on time elapsed in the world. Racers can easily be blazing under a beautiful sunset one moment and draped in darkness the next. Fear not, though, as the world has been optimized for night drives down to halogen and LED headlights emitting a different light output.

With an open-world comes exploration, something promoted in Horizon. Not only are there shortcuts that can be utilized during races, but miles upon miles of dirt roads and rural areas to discover. While there are countless structures found around the world, they aren’t all eye-candy. A barn, for instance, may hold unlockable rare cars when discovered and explored. Events range from standard races to outrunning a helicopter (yup) and can be discovered and started by cruising around the environment, or pulling up a map and selecting a GPS route direct to the destination.

While many Forza fans have met the latest incarnation with blistering contempt, it’s refreshing when a series broadens its horizons. A large, detailed open-world combined with acclaimed car handling is a recipe for success that, if handled correctly, could usher in a whole new era of Forza. You didn’t always want to drive in circles, did you?