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Forza Horizon

Forza Horizon

By now, it feels like we've talked Forza Horizon to death.

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Multiple interviews over the past several months have covered the early concept - Microsoft's premier racing title going open world and into the arms of another developer - and only now are we allowed to get to grips with a controller to actually see what's under the hood.

Yet even with the near-final build of the game sitting only a few feet away and the game's opening hour and a half welcoming us to come and play, we're happy to sit and listen to Turn 10's Dan Greenawalt talk shop (or should that be garage?) about the game as part of the opening presentation for this hands-on.

The reason is that Dan speaks with conviction and the power of belief. in what he works on. When he tells you about his passion for cars, about wanting gamers to embrace that relationship between driver and driven, you can tell he's speaking from the heart. That he and the developers at Turn 10 have crafted one of the most respected racing franchises around feels inconsequential to the conversation he's having with you about his favourite cars. There's no hard sell here.

He's become the series spokesperson. But today he's not the only one - Ralph Fulton from the UK's Playground Games, the studio clutching the keys to Forza Horizon, sits beside him, ready to give a quick overview of what we'll be playing today.

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Forza Horizon

In introducing him and his team Dan rattles off a "who's who" of contemporary racing legends - members of Black Rock, Bizarre Creations and a multitude of other British racing talent are working on the game (even perhaps ex-Studio Liverpool vets, as idle conversation reveals Playground might be interested in talking to members affected by the Wipeout team's closure). Collaborating with Turn 10, this already sounds like a festival of sorts: a supergroup formed of the best racing designers out there and turned loose on a celebration of car culture.

The Horizon tag is the same name as the racing festival. It takes place in an artistically-interpreted Colorado, and umbrellas the entire game experience. The festival itself is located in the heart of the vast swathe of roads and dirt tracks, a glorified rendition of the typical upgrade shops, paint job garages, car rooms parked amid stages, crowds, sports cars and fireworks - the last nicely working as a colourful landmark during night time commutes.

The world's open from the start, and Playground, in Ralph's words, are eager to offer an event "over every crest and around every bend". A quick flick to the game's map and its abundance of iconised activities suggests that's not a hollow boast.

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Forza Horizon

That the game's being produced by racing illuminati placates the initial worry that such a blend - vibrant but clinical lines of Forza, bold and brazen world of an entertainment festival - can't possibly work. Belief, and faith, factor in. You can see what the companies are trying to do here - a culture celebration that embraces not the fake coolness of street racing or extreme wackiness of an unrealistic arcade racer, but something that's true to the conviction that getting behind the wheels of a car - any car - is the most thrilling experience you can have legally.

The result is akin to Dirt Showdown - UI menus splashed with lipstick pink, event advertisements stamping on screen with gusto, festival tunes (split across three radio stations for over five hours of music) blaring from the speakers, drowning the roar of the rides.

But under the altered overlay still rests the same assured handling and car control of past Forza titles. Its an odd juxtaposition, and given the massively expanded roadway the visual quality has shifted down a gear - not in the cars but in the trackside detail, while the rich colours of before are replaced with a more washed out take, perhaps mirroring the dusty sun-bleached climes of the new location.

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You're gently introduced to the festival and your place in it with a series of character-driven cutscenes as you hightail it from the edges of the valley to the festival floor to win your first pass into the Horizon heats, and from there work your way through events to raise your profile on the scene, unlock coloured wristbands to earn wider access to the festival's competitions, win new rides and earn points to build your garage of cars (then customise and tune them).

Every event can be raced in multiplayer, and you'll be pinged updates when friends beat your scores, which is the real heart to the game's longevity rather than the in-built story arc as you race to work your way up to eventually becoming Horizon champion.

Within the first hour we'd won our first car, upgrading from our clapped out Volkswagen to a powerful Mustang by way of an checkpoint race against a Mustang plane. There's a definite injection of Red Bull-style events into the Forza framework, but there's still plenty of classic races, which now have sprawled to include off-road tracks and challenges - we finish up with the purchase of a Subaru (you can use in-game points or splash out real cash on tokens) and blast towards a distant dirt course.

Forza Horizon

Fast travel will be enabled in Horizon, but it'll cost points - Playground would prefer you spend the time on the road rather than looking at info-packed loading screens. Given that there's speed traps to clock best time on roads, and the ability to challenge any racer on the road alongside you (just drive up behind them and tap a button), the game looks to gloriously destroy any notion of a linear structure to your progression.

Assists are on as default, but each race allows you to tweak settings, and the less assists, the more bonus points you get for winning, giving you a gentle incentive to detach yourself from the supports and make your own learning curve.

It's a big world out there, and Playground Games are in for the long run to support it, similar to Turn 10's intensive hands-on long past launch with other Forza titles. There'll be an expansion pack coming December 18th, and updates every month with new challenges. The festival may be about to start, but Playground aren't planning to bring the party to a close any time soon.

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REVIEW. Written by Thomas Blichfeldt

"Forza Horizon is a fresh take on the genre that offers high quality in almost every regard."

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