The oft-quoted tagline for Forza is that "it makes gamers into car lovers and car lovers into gamers". Playing Horizon, you wonder why it's taken an external developer to achieve that objective quite so successfully.
For all its incredible fidelity, the Forza mothership has - recent dalliances with Top Gear aside - always been a rather cold, clinical simulation, like visiting one of those high-end car showrooms where there's no obvious way to get the vehicles in, and suited assistants would rather you didn't actually touch them. Horizon is like going to a flag-bedecked car-park where somebody in a polyester tie will enthusiastically attempt to sell you a sports car of dubious provenance.
Its event-filled open world is a cheerier, more inclusive experience, and one that's a lot more game-like. Instead of hopping between race circuits, here a chunk of Colorado has been cordoned off for an impossibly expensive car festival run by a lady called Alice, who is second only to Outrun's whooping Ferrari passenger in her enthusiasm for dangerous driving.
You're actively encouraged to game speed cameras, power-slide round intersections and attempt near-misses on oncoming traffic as you drive around. These actions can be chained together to boost a driver score like Project Gotham Racing's much-missed Kudos system, which unlocks extra challenges on the sprawling map.
While the heart of the game is a series of steadily tougher races populated with the occasional sneering foe to beat, the diversity of the world's challenges and the constantly-climbing points they award are what keep you playing. Other drivers can be discovered and raced with, distant barns contain abandoned classics to collect, and there's always the compulsion to keep doing something, even if it's just colouring in the map by driving down every road on it.
The sheer volume of distractions is reminiscent of Driver: San Francisco, but where Reflections began with Bullitt, this is all built on that precision-engineered Forza floorplan. For all the bright colours and mugging personalities, there's still the proper simulation underneath, albeit with fewer customisation options: while you can make your choice of spoilers, valves, flywheels and the like, you're picking from a few preset configurations rather than tweaking individual gear ratios.
Even that's surprisingly well-hidden, though. Just completing challenges provides a steady feed of suitable vehicles if you don't want to spend your race earnings on the vast store lineup, and if the car you own doesn't meet the race requirements, it takes two button taps to rebuild it.
The core races carry certain restrictions - confining you to classic Minis, American muscle cars or convertibles, for example - and in a first for the franchise take you both into darkness and off-road. The latter is well handled, doubtless due to that Codemasters DNA in the development team, but even if you don't fancy it then you can probably stick to tarmac work - you don't have to complete every race to advance to the next tier.
Mixed in among these are fan-pleasing, profile-boosting challenge races. These tend to be point-to-point contests against improbable opponents like biplanes or hot air balloons, like in Top Gear, and like Top Gear they invariably end in a suspiciously wafer-thin victory for the car. It's one of several moments where you wonder if Playground has turned things down a little too much: on default settings you can ace most races with ease, although the assists can be disabled if terrifying understeer really is your thing.
It's a thoroughly excellent collection of driving experiences with an almost MMO-like seductiveness, and speaks to a side of car fandom that games don't normally address: the side that dreams of finding a classic Porsche in somebody's shed, or identifies a really great corner and wishes for a Corvette to powerslide round it, rather than a tired hatchback with half the service lights activated. In doing so, it carves out a niche all of its own.
As a street-legal version of a purebred racer, Horizon is something that anybody with an interest in cars can pick up quickly and play for ages. And if you don't like cars already, well, it might just persuade you.
This year's most enjoyable racing game
- Hugely accessible
- Excellent race variety
- Massive range of vehicles
- Endlessly engaging
- Oh-so-slightly oversimplified