It's impossible to count the number of times I've raced on Suzuka, Silverstone, and Spa, the number of times I've hit every curb, or the number of times I've smashed into a wall. In this world of digital racing it's always been about registering the fastest lap, to edge out your opponent by a fraction of a second, and naturally also about pleasure of driving really fast.
There is something wonderful about sitting down in a car with a full tank of gas and know you can go wherever you want. It tastes of freedom, adventure and exploration, and it's something that has often been missing from digital experiences in the past, but that didn't stop the new studio Playground Games from giving it a go.
Freedom embraces you right from the start of Forza Horizon, and Colorado is scene for this world full of challenge for you to explore at your own pace. The excuse to do so is a rickity story about the so called Horizon festival - that's best described as a car lover's Ibiza. Lots of young people, generic dubstep, and the kind of attitude you only ever see in movies and commercials meant to be young and hip.
Thankfully there are lots of cars as well, and pretty much all types and eras are represented, so you can cruise the roads of Colorado in everything from a Shelby Cobra (1965 - Dayton Coupe) to a Pagani Huayra (2012 - perhaps the best named car of all).
The progress in game plays out as you'd expect, with the rookie bracelet I'm given at the start I'm given access to races where the cars appear to have had their engines removed in favour of pedals. It's slow and it feels like unnecessary and boring work to get going, something that is at least countered somewhat by the freedom right from the start to choose which races and challenges you want to compete in.
Thankfully you quickly rise up the ranks, and there are plenty of rewards for winning. In-game currency that can be used to buy new cars to your garage as well as tune them and pimp them out to your heart's delights. In other races the cars themselves are up for grabs, but the most important rewards are the points that gradually unlock more coloured bracelets, and subsequently more challenging races.
Every new bracelet is accompanied by a character, and these characters represent a part of the game that could have done with some more work, or perhaps should have been cut out altogether. With colourful names like Duke Macguire, Marko Baran, Zaki Malik, Darius Flynt and Ali Howard, they offer up their own unique challenges, but they never rise above their names and remain flat stereotypes throughout the experience. You can't avoid them, and this makes it all the more painful to hear clichés like "don't be blue when I beat you, its something you get used to". Sigh.
The actual races, however, offer a delightful range, as the developers take full advantage of the freedom the concept offers. In the beginning you mainly race in your typical lap races, and point races. Then it starts to open up with more creative solutions - races were you're competing with a plane, races on public roads, and races where you're just given a destination and have to come up with the best route on your own.
The variation is not only found in how the races have been designed, but also in the different racing surfaces on offer. While Forza Horizon stops short of including a rally mode, it still offers gravel roads that challenge you in a completely different way than the tarmac. Another nice touch is how in the latter part of the game you start to mix the two surfaces into the one and same challenge. It makes your choice of car all the more important and puts your driving skills to the test.
Another major feature are the night-time races. As the game has a dynamic day and night cycle you will get to experience the first sunrays of dawn, as well as the dense darkness of night, and these changes are something that can be taken advantage of in certain races. It's a challenge to control the 500 brake horse power of a Ford GT at daytime, but it's something entirely different if the only thing lighting your way are your headlights.
Colorado's commuters also provide an extra dimension on the roads, even if the traffic is far sparser than we would have liked. In fact, you're running into other Horizon drivers that can be challenged to improvised races more frequently than regular drone drivers, which strikes us as a little odd.
Unfortunately it is in the racing where the first faults and shortcomings present themselves. If you're not already sitting in a car suitable for the race, the game will automatically provide you with a selection of suitable cars that you can purchase on the spot. Once you've bought the car you're taken directly into the race without any opportunity to tune it, which often results in races where you fall hopelessly behind as you lack the proper settings on your car. It gets even stranger as when you do have a suitable car, the game suggests an automatic tuning before the start of the race.
This strange omission means that you will often find yourself driving back to the central hub of the Horizon festival - where you can buy cars and tune them - before a race, then head back to compete in the competition. This problem is exaggerated by the fact that the fast travel system costs a lot of credits to use (except for when you travel back to the central hub), which means you will be driving long distances in order to save some money.
Thankfully, almost everything is as it should be once you're behind the wheel in your chosen car. The physics are clearly borrowed from previous instalments, and even if the atmosphere here is more relaxed you feel in control at all times. There is a minute tendency for understeering and cars feel a bit heavier than necessary, but this issue can be solved by choosing a car that corresponds to your tastes and tune it to suit your driving.
The graphical package lives up to our lofty expectations, and much like the case was with Forza Motorsport 4, it's hard to imagine how more could be achieved with this hardware. Colorado with its mountains and rolling landscape is a perfect fit for this kind of game. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the interface.
You don't have to spend much time with Forza Horizon to land at the conclusion that the team over at Playground Games is made up of many former members of Codemasters. Everything from the choice of fonts, colours and the confetti that marks the end of each race, feels ripped out of the most recent Dirt game, without ever looking quite as good. It's difficult to shake that copycat feeling, and I would rather have seen the developer try something a little more original as far as presentation goes.
The Forza Motorsport franchise has up until now been at the top of its class with every release (if you were to ask the opinion of this reviewer), but sadly Forza Horizon doesn't quite live up to the same high standards. Mainly due to some idiotic flaws, and seemingly simple elements that could have done with a bit more time and care. One of the strengths of the franchise is that you've always been able to shape your own experience with the cars you want to drive. Forza Motorsport 4 perfected this, but here you're not getting the same experience.
All the same, Forza Horizon is a fresh take on the genre that offers high quality in almost every regard, a tremendous amount of content, and a sense of the joy the open road provides you with that most games fail to replicate. I'm convinced Colorado is a beautiful place, but as the sun slowly sets behind the mountains, and I cruise in my Ford Mustang Boss 429, I can't see myself leaving this virtual Colorado anytime soon.
The multiplayer component was not accessible in our review version of the game, and therefore we will have to return and give a verdict on that part of the game at a later date.