There's something oddly romantic about Forza Horizon. Gone are the real-life circuits of Motorsport, replaced by a gorgeous stretch of the American West. Sweeping praries and looming peaks set a grand stage, and a persistent sense of competition keeps the vast expanse from feeling lonely. Add in Forza's famously stellar driving physics, and you have a game that makes it a joy to hit the asphalt and roam wherever the road takes you. The experience isn't as refined as its predecessors, but Horizon is an exciting and adventurous spinoff just the same.
Horizon's setting is a fictional interpretation of the Colorado countryside, with the Rockies on one end of the map and an imposing desert on the other. In between is a rolling mesh of highways, dirt roads, and small towns. It's a beautiful landscape, where varied geography and a full day-night cycle combine to create some impressive vistas. Moments like cresting a hill at 150mph just as the sun begins to rise are a frequent occurrence, leading you to throw your car around one corner after another in a fit of automotive wanderlust.
Of course, it's not all free-form exploration. Horizon's story--yes, this is a Forza game with a storyline--revolves around the titular Horizon Festival, an event that attracts 250 gearheads to compete in a slew of events spread throughout Horizon's version of Colorado. The story unfolds through cinematics depicting your rise through the ranks of the competition, hitting a few awkward notes along the way by focusing on a cast of desperately hip 20-something drivers and their penchant for forced trash-talking. Awkward though it is, the story never becomes invasive or obnoxious; it's merely forgettable fluff that serves to explain your place in Horizon's collection of events.
The structure of these events should feel familiar to anyone who has played a Forza game. Races largely fall into themed categories with performance caps that scale according to your progression. You might begin the game by facing off against C-class muscle cars before eventually moving on to a competition against S-class Italian sports cars. Horizon has inherited the smooth difficulty curve of previous games, so building up your skills from one tier to the next remains a nice, gradual process. It's unfortunate that so many of these cars are carryovers from previous games, and the overall selection isn't quite as expansive as Forza 4's, but the process of working your way up the performance index remains as enthralling as ever.
Where Horizon deviates from Forza's past is in its mixed-surface events and point-to-point races that take advantage of the expansive, sprawling terrain. This version of Colorado isn't all asphalt; you often find yourself tearing through winding dirt roads on your quest for victory. These surfaces don't feel as chunky and volatile as a rally racer in the vein of Dirt, but adjusting your driving style to handle varied terrain is a refreshing challenge. Events like these, as well as endurance runs that send you clear across the road map through constantly shifting geographical terrain, help to set Horizon apart from its circuit-based predecessors.
One of Horizon's great strengths is that, even outside of organized events, the sense of competition is all around you. At any point you can pull up behind other festival drivers (distinguishable from regular traffic by the name above their car) and challenge them to a race on the spot. Speed trap cameras are placed on just about every road, capturing your high speed as you pass through them, registering your pace on a leaderboard and, if you're good enough, sending a message straight to your Xbox Live friends that they've been outperformed.
Throughout all this is a real-time feedback system that functions as a natural extension of the one found in Forza 4. Only here it's not just stylish drifting that's rewarded, but also narrowly avoiding head-on collisions, knocking down stop signs, and catching the occasional bit of air. The rewards aren't massive--you're granted credits when you perform such-and-such number of dangerous maneuvers--but they function as a persistent form of positive feedback, letting you feel like you're never wasting your time by just driving around at your own leisure.
Despite Horizon's newfound focus on style and flash, sim enthusiasts need not be alarmed: this is no arcade racer. Like in previous entries in the franchise, vehicle handling is determined by a modular collection of driving assists, such as traction control, that let you fine-tune the experience to your liking. With all the assists enabled, Horizon is an accessible racer that doesn't command expert-level driving skills. But disable all those assists, and the cars are short of lively and demanding. You need to be wary of the Hennessy Viper's penchant for skidding around like mad when you've hit the throttle too hard in the low gears, just as you need to respect the Ford F-150's habit of flipping over on fast corners like a dog who wants its belly rubbed. But, as in previous Forzas, taming these beasts is a deeply rewarding endeavor.