Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: Forza Horizon (Xbox 360)

In so many ways Forza Horizon feels like it’s a game trying to play catch-up.

Apparently inspired by some of the superb open-world racers we’re seeing these days (not least of which those of the brilliant EA studio, Criterion). Forza Horizon is at times carbon-copy of those games. Within the context of a plot that… you’ll not care about after a few minutes, you’d drive around a particularly large open world, taking on street racers or some truly spectacular special condition races. This is a game more concerned with raw speed than tweaking cars to maximise their performance, it’s more concerned with ramming through the opposition than hitting that perfect racing curve.

The first time you’ll realise that Forza wants a piece of the over-the-top-racer pie is when, early on, you’ll join in a race against a Mustang airplane – yep, that’s your into to the showcase events. Perhaps the team from Top Gear were called in as consultants for those. That’s not to suggest the regular races are bland, though. The sensation of speed with Forza is seriously impressive. Sit yourself down in one of the high calibre cars and you’re going to genuinely feel out of control once the pedal really hits the metal.

I’m by no means a pro racing game player, but I’ve played enough in my time that I know what I’m doing. I was barely able to keep up with the sensation of speed from the fastest cars. At those speeds, the simplified turning and physics is not only a design decision – it’s absolutely necessary to even stay on the road. Thankfully there is a really neat rewind feature for people who are truly struggling with a race, which gives you the opportunity to take back a couple of seconds of race time to correct an error. It feels like you’re cheating yourself out of a genuine victory, but the difficulty level of this game can ramp quite high, so that rewind feature might be necessary to save your controller from being hurled against a wall.

That said, even though Forza is clearly inspired by the more arcade style thrills of its peers like Need for Speed rather than its traditional rival, Gran Turismo, there’s just something about the game’s mechanics which just doesn’t suit this raw speed. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about Forza 4 that feels out of place, but as well-crafted as this game is, it never quiet shakes the impression that it’s trying just a little too hard.

The festival atmosphere that is central to the game’s plot is awkward and the voice acting is just this side of the awful overdone work of an Asphalt game. The open world is huge, yes, but unless you’re involved in a race then it feels horribly empty, and even less engaging than a menu system to simply pick your next race.

It’s almost like Forza 4 is actually the first in a new franchise, built by a newly-formed development studio. The ideas and quality are there – you can see what they are trying to achieve, but there’s a lack of confidence about the execution that is slightly off-putting.

That said, there’s some truly great toys to play around with in this game that make the experience well worthwhile. Forza 4 integrates with SmartGlass, for a start. Here it transforms your iPad (or other SmartGlass-enabled device) to act as a giant GPS system. It’s a brilliant application of the technology – freeing up a chunk of the on-TV real estate to render the gorgeous racing environment, while at the same time giving people a better idea of what’s going on around them than a traditional mini-map GPS would ever manage. Between this and Halo 4, SmartGlass is off to a killer start.

The multiplayer racing is nice, too, if somewhat no-frills. There’s levelling and the like for doing well at races, and the game has a neat class system to make sure races are not a case of “he who has played the longest to unlock the fastest wins,” At the same time the levelling feels largely tacked on – it’s as though the developers thought Forza needed it because all the FPSers are doing it, so it must be a good thing. I’m not sure I agree with that line of thought.

So, while I’ve got a lot of small quibbles with Forza, it’s hard to deny that it’s a bold step in a new direction for the series. On the technical side of things it’s nearly flawless and this new direction for the series is very accessible, and highly entertaining. It’s just a change I’m not sure will go down so well with the Forza faithful.

- Matt S






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