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Petrol festival: what is Forza Horizon?

As Forza Horizon gets set to roll out next month, Stace Harman speaks to Playground Games’ design director Ralph Fulton to find out how the game fits into the wider Forza family.

For those struggling with what Forza Horizon is and where it fits in the broader spectrum of both Microsoft’s critically acclaimed franchise and the racing genre as a whole, Playground Games design director Ralph Fulton has a message for you.

“[Forza Horizon] is all things to all men and I mean that in the best possible way. You can really have whatever experience you want with it and play it however you want,” he pauses before adding, “But I guess that doesn’t really help people pigeonhole it, does it?”

No, Ralph, it doesn’t. So, instead, how about this: Forza Horizon is like the series packed up its bags and went on holiday, in the best possible way. It’s chilled out, willing to try new things and much more open than its more serious Motorsport cousin. It’s also ready to party at the drop of a hat. Underneath it still belongs to the Forza family, as evidenced by its obsession with providing the authentic driving experience that diehard Forza fans crave, but it’s also eager to meet new people with a ready smile and laid back attitude.

Those worried that this is tantamount to the series dumbing down needn’t fret; the familiar Forza physics have been applied to more than 60 road surfaces and there’s the added depth and breadth of both on-road and off-road racing. There’s also a multitude of options, offered on a race-by-race basis, which will enable veterans to toggle the numerous assists that will be so welcoming to series newcomers. Want to ride without ABS, traction control and that telltale green racing line? No problem. Want to graduate from automatic to manual gears and then move onto using clutch control too? You can do that. But for those that have perhaps been intimidated by Forza Motorsport’s adherence to authenticity or turned off by its po-faced, almost clinical presentation, Forza Horizon is an ice cream on a sunny day.

“What we've done with Horizon is make a game that's absolutely compatible with that Forza DNA,” assures Fulton. “So, it's all about quality and passion, innovation and authenticity but expressed in an entirely different way. We’ve done that by asking ourselves what car experiences we can bring to Forza that the series hasn't already afforded. The core promise of Forza Horizon is it’s the first time were allowing you to take the car away from the race track and drive on the open road with your stereo up loud.”

That’s not just a metaphorical stereo, either; music is a key part Forza Horizon’s identity. If you’re thinking that the notion of the Horizon festival around which the game world is built is a gimmick or a feeble attempt to cash-in on some imaginary cool factor, then stop it, stop it right now. The Horizon festival is a key differentiator not just to other Forza games, which have rarely been lauded for their soundtracks, but also to other racing titles. Three in-game radio stations play a variety of Dance, dub step, indie and rock featuring the likes of The Maccabees, Arctic Monkeys, The Chemical Brothers, Skrillex and The Enemy. Even if you’re not particularly keen on a particular genre or act, you may be surprised by what your ears find appealing when you’re cruising an open road with the sun at your back or tearing up a canyon pass at dusk.

The Horizon festival acts as the hub, where you’ll return again and again. You’ll head there to receive your next festival wristband that entitles you to enter higher level events, to tinker with your growing menagerie of vehicles, soak up the festival atmosphere and revel in the adulation of your growing fan base. Your popularity with the festival goers is the game’s mark of how successful you are, which Fulton likens it Project Gotham’s Kudos system. While discussing Forza Horizon’s influences he also references both DiRT and Colin McRae and it’s clear that here is a developer who is proud of his team's heritage and the fact that its veteran members have worked on a number of well regarded racing series’ in the past.

Outside of the festival, events are dotted all over the wide expanse of Colorado: from A to B sprints, off-road circuit races, night races and showy festival events in which you’ll race against a variety of vehicles from planes to helicopters to hot air balloons. During extended play it’s clear that the structured events are necessary, but when you’re not racing there is something really quite delicious about turning your stereo up loud and driving against the traffic, while the GPS system tells you to “turn around when it’s safe to do so.” The colour of freedom is Colorado sunset red.

I come away from Forza Horizon with a smile on my face and an extended play list of songs to add to my music collection. These are the memories that linger after spending time with Horizon: it’s feel-good, it’s as difficult as you want it to be and it’s a huge amount of fun. The events lend structure as well as a necessary sense of progression and are well tailored to suit a variety of tastes and play styles, but it’s the intangible sense of freedom that lingers.

“The undirected experience of Horizon is harder to quantify than simply listing the different kinds of races,” confesses Fulton. “It can be thought of in terms of us creating an open world that we've filled with stuff, but it’s also a world that we’ve filled with great roads; roads that are fantastic to drive on and that might reward you with something as simple as a great view.

“Another thing we've been trying to get at is providing that feeling of freedom that you get from the best open-world games. Here we go to something like Red Dead Redemption, which is probably the best example of an open-world in this generation. Our intention is to provide a world that's so rich and so immersive that it rewards you just for exploring it. But that can be something that’s very difficult to articulate.”

Actually Ralph, I think that sums it up pretty well.

Forza Horizon arrives exclusively on Xbox 360 from October 23 onwards.

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