Forza Horizon hands-on preview – Getting into a new drivers seat

Some of us are drivers who prefer arcade racers, but we’ve always appreciated the Forza series from a distance. But Turn 10’s Dan Greenawalt is convinced that this is the racing game for us. “One of the things about is that it’s not an arcade racing game,” he says. “We think of it as an action racing game.”

Forza Horizon (opens in new tab) is an interesting hybrid. It carries certain core elements of the Forza series–rewind functionality, the green trackline–and weds them to a more forgiving, more daring driving style. It’s a game that lets you drive cars with a degree of permissiveness (compared to most simulation-focused racers), in order to let you pull off far more outrageous maneuvers that what’s been seen in past Forza games. It’s a game that, so far, will feel immediately intuitive for those accustomed to slipstreaming behind other ridge-racing sports cars and taking down the opposition.

Greenawalt provided us with a breakdown of the scope of FH’s shortened Colorado roads. There are sections that emulate the red hues of the desert, and there are segments that evoke the high peaks of Vail. It’s all designed around the diverse roads of the Centennial State. It also touts a day/night cycle, which ranges from the glowing rays of sunlight to the luminous laser beams of a music festival that’s brought hundreds of cars to race. While the in-depth details are still not fully established, FH will support Kinect functionality that lets you route your GPS for whatever activities you want to do on its roads.

FH’s backdrop–a truncated summertime in Colorado, with the music-driven, car-centric Horizon Festival propelling the action–seems as interesting a backdrop as the Burning Man-meets-death race setup that drove the first MotorStorm game. It fosters an ambience that lends itself to copious amounts of licensed music. FH will tout five hours of beats across three radio stations, all curated by British DJ/producer Rob Da Bank, who also lent his expertise into the authenticity of Horizon’s music festival (apparently down to parking and the location of Porta Potties).

With that, we jumped into the first 45 minutes of FH. It’s plot-driven, and the action starts, quite literally, with your nameless hero hopping into his 1995 Volkswagen Corrado and furiously racing past other “civilian” cars to stake out a spot in the Horizon Festival. It’s a solid introduction into FH’s handling, which feels like it occupies a sweet spot between Forza Motorsport’s precision and the looser, more forgiving handles of a Ridge Racer game.

FH looks to provide some entertaining race parameters. In our first Horizon-sanctioned competition, we raced a Mustang against an aircraft. As the plane looped around certain checkpoints, we hugged tight rust-hued desert curves and followed the trusty Turn 10-designed green line of stability. It’s hard to tell if the plane was “rubber-banded” to keep the race tight and intense, but we certainly felt a palpable relief as we hit the finish line just shy of the aircraft. The early race also serves as an introduction to vehicle inheritance. In the case of this Mustang race, we unlocked the car as a new vehicle. You may not always want to abandon your current ride for those fresh wheels, but it’s nice to have the option.

We jumped into another race, and it was here that we began toying with the difficulty settings. It’s possible to win even more experience points by turning off assisted settings. If you’re inclined to rack up the XP, you can adjust a number of variables, including transmission, opponent AI, and anti-lock brakes. There are numerous tiers that will allow you to either maximize or minimize your risk before jumping into a race.

Forza Horizon is a pleasant surprise. Its vehicle handling feels immediately accessible, yet it can be tweaked for extra doses of both challenge and reward. Its setting allows for a range of visual diversity, from mountains to deserts, and it looks to fuse the trademark tropes of Forza Motorsports’ driving with the accessibility of more casual friendly racers. With less than two months to its October launch, this looks like a racer that’s worthy of your attention.

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