Those are my only notes so far. Notes that, in principle, are supposed to allow me to review Playground Games’ Forza Horizon.
Scribbled hastily in my tired, frayed old notebook, the blue ink phrasing everything in CAPITALS as if to make each line more important, more thorough, more detailed. In essence, they form pretty much everything you need to know about the game, but it’s equally likely that in a day or two I’ll have forgotten what they represent. I mean, do you even need notes when reviewing a racing game?
I do, and Forza Horizon seems like the sort of game where notes are pretty important. HEY BOY? That’s the intro, a slightly bastardised version of the Chemical Brothers track that immediately sets up Horizon’s flawless carnival atmosphere. You thought the big sweeping arcs of the camera over MotorStorm’s pack of ravers was neat? Horizon has more sweeps and more ravers.
And better music.[videoyoutube]In fact, the music’s downright brilliant throughout, but we’ll come back to that. For now, know that this game captures the feeling of a big racing meet with great effect. And then sets it in a sleepy, dusty American desert.
We’ll come back to that, too.
PINK? That’ll be the neon everywhere. Not necessarily strapped to the undercarriage of my R34 (matte white, with a few engine tweaks and nothing in the way of downward pointing artificial lighting, if you must know) – but rather in the game’s graphic design, which looks like it’s tried to copy the entire last three years of Codemasters’ back catalog and thrown them all into an 80’s day-glo blender.
The effect is actually much better than it sounds, but it’s two backyards away from recent Forza games, bathed as they were in minimal monochrome with the occasional dash of red.
The graphic designers have even thrown in some grungy edges and tilted the entire UI about 15 degrees counter-clockwise, just in case you were scared they were keeping up with modern trends.
What is modern, though, is the soundtrack. It’s a damned good job, too, because it’s all you can hear. For reasons I can’t explain, Playground have decided that it’s perfectly fine to have the engine sounds piped through an Olympic swimming pool (and back) before being pushed out to your TV speakers. Despite my best efforts (and that of my surround sound system) the game persists in sounding like I’ve got my fingers in my ears, the three-litre cars never so muffled and muted.
But don’t worry, the soundtrack – as utterly fab as it is – is crystal clear.
Things got a little bit better when I finally started picking up some nice cars (that R34 made a handy trade in for a GTR, by the way) and the throatiness of the VR38DETT at least started to poke its head through the speakers, but this is meant to be a 500HP+ monster, and it still sounded like those Saxos you see on Morrisons car park with wheels bigger than a truck’s.
Engine upgrades help a little, but there’s a clear audio mixing issue that’ll hopefully get fixed in an update. If it doesn’t, expect weekly blogs on it until I drive myself crazy. Anyway, that’s NERO, whose music (along with loads of other bands) complement the game beautifully.
SKIDDING? Yeah, the handling. It’s looser than I’d expected (especially given the game’s branding) but there’s a joyful sense of disconnection that accompanies the transition from tarmac to dirt, the car suddenly having a life of its own that requires careful wresting at 100 MPH. Horizon is meant to be a mix of arcade and sim and it actually does a great job of sitting somewhere in-between, the twitchy steering capable enough at high speeds but delicate enough when racing a hatchback around a set of city streets. Yes, Colorado apparently has streets as well as dirt tracks.
Which brings me to the last note, a none-too-subtle nod to a certain games journalist, and one that somehow always seems to be just ahead of me in the leaderboards.[drop]Horizon’s clever in that, even in Single Player mode, after each race you’re shown the time of your nearest rival, which happens to be consistently CULLEN – you can elect to race their best lap, which is modelled and displayed exactly like it would be if we were racing online at the same time, except (obviously) you can’t crash into them. That would have helped, a little bit of barging never really hurt anyone, but instead I found myself stuck on a single race trying to beat his time for about thirty minutes.
In a bloody DS3.
In the end, I gave up. It’s a really neat, nicely implemented and well integrated feature though, and you get a handful of credits each time you better their time. Not that that happened often for me, but if you’re not terrible at racing games you’ll find a dose of healthy rivalry is actually quite entertaining.
The game is out next week. I’ve set up a thesixthaxis car club, where I’m currently depositing all the crappy cars I can’t win any races with and aren’t worth any money. I’m also in the process of writing a full, proper review of the game (I normally try to avoid doing so with racing games, as some readers might have noticed) but I’m tempted to think I might need a slightly better set of notes.
If you’ve pre-ordered though, and are wondering what it’s like – it’s very good. The visuals are gorgeous and the sense of immersion is unmatched on console, two things that are massively important to a game like this. Fix that sound and I’ll be a very happy boy.