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E3 2012: Road trippin’ with Forza Horizon

As E3 comes to a close, Stace Harman takes a drive into the LA sunset and checks out the laid back festival life of Forza Horizon.

It would be easy to be cynical of, even alarmed by, the decision to have Forza Horizon break the franchise’s traditional two-year release schedule. Turn 10 has established its name by delivering quality, Xbox-exclusive, racing experiences every 24 months since 2005, and so news that a new Forza title would be released the year after the critically acclaimed Forza Motorsport 4 will have raised a few eyebrows amongst the series’ loyal fanbase.

"Prior accomplishments are not indicative of future success. Playground knows if it’s to create a title worthy of the Forza name, it must do more than tread a path worn bald by the tires of racers before it."

Furthermore, the fact that development responsibility has been passed to a new and untested studio will have caused heads to shake in consternation, while the new title appearing to take the form of a derivative offshoot will have had many wondering just what the hell Microsoft is doing with its flagship racer.

On its own, the limited slice of gameplay that constitutes Forza Horizon’s E3 showing cannot hope to address all of these concerns. Fortunately, that gameplay in combination with the rolling start afforded by a studio visit to developer Playground Games in the weeks prior to E3 goes an awful lot further to doing so. The developer’s calibre and combined experience offers the first glimpse that the jewel in 360’s racing crown is in good hands; formed of members from other racing powerhouse developers such as Bizarre Creations (Project Gotham), Slight Mad Studios (Need For Speed: Shift), Black Rock Studio (Split/Second) and Codemasters (F1, Colin McRae) the team at Playground Games has earned its racing stripes.

Of course, prior accomplishments are not indicative of future success and so Playground knows if it’s to create a title to be worthy of the Forza name, it must do more than tread a path worn bald by the tires of dozens of racers before it.

“[Forza] is a real flagship franchise and an amazing success, but it can always improve,” states Playground Games’ design director, Ralph Fulton. “One of the ways it can do that is by broadening its reach. Now, that can't necessarily be done with Forza Motorsport because it has his huge, passionate fanbase that’s been build around the motorsport identity ... we need to do something more.”

Forza Horizon E3 Trailer

That’s where the Horizon festival comes in. Set against the backdrop of Colorado’s varied and dramatic landscape, the festival gives Playground a means of introducing a more amiable, laid-back atmosphere than has been possible or even desirable in previous Forza titles. To ensure that the Horizon festival feels both authentic and suitably busy, Playground has enlisted the help of UK Radio 1 DJ and founder of Bestival and Camp Bestival, Rob Da Bank.

“Music and festivals are really my first love,” says the DJ. “I’m not really a huge computer game fan, but I love the challenge of curating a sound track for something ... Coming up to the Playground offices and sitting down with the design guys was great and I was able to get involved in how the festival looks as well as how it sounds.”

Road trippin’

If the festival is the hook, Colorado is the bait. To get the look and feel of its patchwork open-world just right, a number of Playground’s staff had the rather enviable job of a 1,500 mile road-trip around the mountains, canyons, plains and remote mining outposts that make up Colorado’s distinctive environment. The 24 hours worth of video footage and 68,000 photos captured on the trip have been used to build a world that represents, rather than recreates, the US state.

This research has allowed for more than mere aesthetic accuracy, as it also supports Playground’s decision to include some 65 different road surfaces to facilitate a full off-road experience for the first time in a Forza title. The number and nature of the vehicles in Horizon’s catalogue is currently under wraps, but Fulton suggests that the selection, like its predecessors, will be both desirable and extensive, "everything about the festival and Colarado informs the car list," he explains.

The brief section of gameplay available at E3 focuses on the very beginning of the game. Driving to the Horizon festival a shout-out over one of the three in-game radio stations says that the next ten people to arrive at the festival will be able to take part in the festival races and events. What follows is a short race to the festival entrance, although with only eight racers on the field the chance of finishing outside of the top ten is slim to none.

"Event types are many and varied. In one, you race a Mustang car against a Mustang plane - think Top Gear meets Dukes of Hazard."

The open world structure gives rise to a number of benefits and there’s something to do around almost every corner. The natural environment has numerous landmarks by which to navigate but should you get lost, or wish to know where your nearest event is, the Kinect voice-activated GPS is on-hand to provide a driving line to your desired location. It’s an understated and intuitive use of Kinect in a core game and, just a crucially, you don’t feel like an utter tool when using it.

The event types are many and varied, such as one in which you race a Mustang car against a Mustang plane, which provides a glimpse of the kinds of festival events on offer; think Top Gear meets Dukes of Hazard. Combined with the ad hoc street races, organised tournaments and persistent multiplayer options it adds up to a Forza with more roguish flair and gregarious personality than any Forza before it.

“I like to think that's one of the reasons that Turn 10 saw us as a good partner,” sums up Fulton. “Because, although we share a lot of values and feel the same way about games we have a track record of making quite different games and I think these complementary skills are going to be a great strength going forward.”

Forza Horizon launches on Xbox 360 on October 23 in US and October 26 in Europe.

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