The effortless quality of the Forza Motorsport series has never found itself wanting for much, but if there's one ding on an otherwise pristine bodywork it's a lack of personality. The clinical professionalism of the early games gave way to an unpleasantly smug Jeremy Clarkson in the otherwise marvellous fourth game: despite the obvious brilliance of the stuff under the hood, Turn 10 has always struggled to imbue its work with a true identity.
A similar argument could be levelled at Forza Horizon, Playground Games' début attempt to transpose the beautiful physics and vehicular voyeurism of Microsoft's premier driving series into an open-world arcade burn. At least the smugness has gone, replaced with a slightly dated jaunt to Colorado's fictional Horizon festival, complete with cringe-worthy cutscenes, banging tunes and wittering radio DJs. Thankfully, though, Playground has also brought across Forza Motorsport's one truly important characteristic: class.
Forza Horizon is a driving game that shoehorns the tried and tested Turn 10 physics model into a compact section of open American roads, and what a game it is. Within seconds of booting up the game you're dropped onto the streets, hurtling towards the bright lights and thumping bass of the festival site, as a choon blasts out of the radio and the DJs chunter excitedly about this apparently life-changing event. As you speed down the highway, you're joined by sportscars and supercars, all roaring in the same direction. It quickly turns into an impromptu race as you desperately try and keep up, and the effect is staggering. Yes, you want to beat the other cars, but more than anything, you want to be there. You want to get to this amazing place and experience this phenomenon.
So, yes, the cutscenes are a little off, but Forza horizon nails the festival atmosphere spectacularly. You genuinely feel like you're part of something, and your rookie driver is simply a cog in this wax-polished machine, soaking in the gear shifts and the good times. Once you're out of the paddock in your car of choice - and Playground has done marvellous work cramming almost any vehicle a Forza-head could think of into its line-up - then you're free to drive wherever you want.
Most likely you'll elect to plough through the event structure, which borrows liberally from the likes of Burnout Paradise, Need For Speed, Test Drive and others without even feeling second-hand. There are standard races, illegal street challenges, PR stunts that let you test ludicrous, unobtainable cars, special events (think Top Gear), and everything in between. Other competitors will also be seen speeding through the streets in open play, and you can battle them in point-to-point races by simply driving up their backside and issuing a challenge.
The blend of emergent and structured gameplay is fantastic. For every circuited race there's another speed challenge along a twisting, treacherous mountain road. For every aimless drive into the wilderness there's a secret to uncover, or a new shortcut to dig up. Success in any area adds to your overall popularity, while competing in sanctioned events lets you get hold of new fluorescent wristbands, and entry into a higher level of lucrative races.
You don't just have to win events to gain fans, either. Playground has incorporated a slick skill system into its driving model, which rewards the familiar (near misses, drifts) and tacks it onto a tidy combo counter. You're positively encouraged to occasionally sack off the whole festival and go for a leisurely cruise into the Rockies.
And that's where the true joy in Forza Horizon's thumping heart comes piercing through. After a few hours of levelling up, bouncing from race to race and earning cash, I had enough money to buy a low-level Lamborghini. So naturally, I did just that. Instead of pootling along to another race event, though, I just started driving - 5.1 headphones, in-car view, Porter Robinson's Language on the radio. Bliss. Truly a seminal moment in video game vehiclism for me. I learned this new car on the road, I felt its subtleties, how it liked to slide through turns, how it roared through an apex. An hour of driving felt like ten minutes. Nothing achieved, really, in traditional gaming terms. But this was more than that. This, as stupid and preposterous as it sounds, was not gaming for the grind. It was gaming for the soul.
These kinds of magical moments are a huge part of why I still feel so passionately about the power and potential of video games, but outside of Criterion's portfolio I've never had that feeling from any other driving game. These things don't happen by accident, of course: the combination of Playground's superbly designed simulacrum of Colorado and Turn 10's majestic physics is an irresistible allure. Even with assists on, and handling that now leans subtly more towards the 'arcade' model than traditional Forza, there is a weight and feedback to the driving that simply doesn't exist in other games. Not even close.
Whether you're clutching a pad or sat at a wheel, too, Forza Horizon never misses a beat. The handling is so good, in fact, that it's quite distracting to just bounce off civilian cars when you plough into them at 150mph. Probably a wise design choice and a good way to differentiate the game from Criterion's work, but still a hammer to the face of your suspension of disbelief when everything else is so gloriously immersive.
If there's any other blemish on this otherwise sublime piece of work, then it's Forza Horizon's slightly flimsy multiplayer. Here you're offered car clubs, online races and grindable XP, but it all feels a little bit thin when compared to the freeform experimental stuff going on in Burnout Paradise and the upcoming Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
In truth, most of the true multiplayer will probably take place asynchronously, as Forza Horizon frequently chucks friends' times, speeds and challenges your way as another neat distraction from the upwards progression. That's another borrowed idea, of course, but Playground Games does it seamlessly, and truth be told it would actually be far more erroneous if this feature wasn't there in 2012. On top of this, too, there is the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, where players can trade their customised cars for credits and populate each other's Colorado with beautifully designed autophilia.
Still, I find it easy to ignore Forza Horizon's traditional multiplayer when the single-player is so captivating and enriching. Driving games are unique, because they are probably the only genre that backloads its prime content, meaning Forza Horizon only gets better as you progress. Once you've earned enough credits to get behind the wheel of the truly beautiful motors, the experience only becomes more euphoric.
Clearly, then, Forza needn't worry about its personality crisis any more, though Forza Horizon isn't a game that needs tedious cut-scenes to force a narrative; the road will do that on its own. Who needs a clumsy virtual love interest when you've got a Pagani Zonda in the garage?
Version Tested: Xbox 360