The category of racing games has been dominated by a handful of franchises over the last couple of decades. I’ve been lucky to play one or more editions of these games. Like any form of entertainment, video games cover a wide span of genres with sub-genres within them. In the broad category of racing games, there are two broad factions: Arcade and Simulations. Most competitive driving games offer a close-to-reality simulator experience, often with cars and tracks directly from global motorsport. Meanwhile, an arcade-style racing game needs to offer more in terms of entertainment as well as engaging driving physics. So, when XBOX needed a platform-exclusive title to expand on the success of its Forza Motorsport racing simulator into a more fun-to-play racing game genre, it gave us one of the best open-world driving games ever: Forza Horizon.
The title made its market debut on October 23, 2012, and it is now in its fifth generation, i.e., Forza Horizon 5. Developed by Playground Games since the beginning, the core concept for a Forza Horizon game has remained the same: offering an open-world experience based on a singular/bunch of real-life locations with a wide selection of road cars. Oh, and a banging playlist.
Some might say that Need For Speed already mastered that concept years before Forza Horizon. But this game was different from our beloved NFS franchise in so many wonderful ways. There was no punk, racers-vs-cops angle to the Horizon gameplay because it was all about having a fun time. Yes, there is a storyline to the campaign mode with the player being the new guy on the scene who rises to the top and takes down the arrogant champion. Again, not original but not quite the same as others.
Over time, the graphics on the XBOX 360 were some of the best the console scene had ever seen, making Forza Horizon a cinematic experience as well. Even if you were not trying to ace races for cash to buy the fastest cars, you could just go for a nice drive in-game. Ten years later, these core pillars are still what makes Forza Horizon stand out from most other open-world driving games.
The first Forza Horizon was set in the state of Colorado, USA which offered glorious landscapes. In terms of gameplay, it was pretty good for the time with engaging elements such as skill points that could be earned from drifting, near-missing AI traffic, doing burnouts etc. There was also a levelling-up system for more free stuff and unlocking other things in-game, along with fun non-racing activities such as finding and smashing boards for rewards, barn finds for exclusive and iconic cars, as well as skill zones also called PR events. I never got to play the game that started it all, but it got me really excited for the next one.
Following its success with the first one, Playground Games went global for Forza Horizon 2. After much scouting of exotic and scenic locations, the team settled on building the new, much larger, open-world map based on Southern Europe (i.e. France and Italy). This part of the world featured everything from twisty mountains to seaside towns and oceanview highways too. It debuted just two years after the first instalment in the franchise.
I did get to play this edition of the Horizon series on an XBOX 360 and it was one of the best ways to spend my summer nights while the adults were asleep. Too young to actually be driving and too far from those views, it allowed me to enjoy a virtual reality of road-tripping through Southern Europe in a white Lexus LFA.
After completing the campaign, in between grinding events for cash to buy more stuff in-game, I’d often just drive around and explore the map. There was no rush, I’d stay on my side of the road, only driving fast occasionally, slowing down to take in the gorgeous backdrops, and enjoying the tunes in-game.
Forza already had a multiplayer aspect to the game experience, but it’s never something I dabbled in. However, player reviews suggest these gameplay modes were quite enjoyable as well and offered a cool social aspect for young teenage petrolheads to live out their driving fantasies and build friendships.
Forza Horizon 3 went to the other end of the world, this time with the Australian continent as its inspiration. It was released just two years after Horizon 2. Once again, the open world map was scaled up significantly over the previous game with improved graphics for a more realistic and cinematic experience. This edition is reported to have truly expanded the gameplay to cover various types of terrains and driving experiences. The new landscape also opened the gates for new vehicle formats such as buggies, trophy trucks and utes.
I missed out on this edition of the Horizon series as well. I don’t recall if I had the chance to purchase a copy or not, but I know I did not have the hardware to fully explore the graphic potential of this new-era driving game at the time. The FOMO intensified when Forza Horizon launched the HotWheels expansion pack, catering to my exact boyhood dreams.
Playground Games had set the bar pretty high with this one and they knew they had to do something quite extraordinary for the next one. And they did. Forza Horizon 4 debuted in late 2018, the Horizon Festival this time set in the UK. Not only was this going to be the best-looking game of the franchise so far, with a bigger open-world map, but it also had to be the most diverse. Introducing seasons, wherein the world of the game would cycle through summer, rain, autumn and winter, each bringing their own unique environmental experiences for the gameplay. Of course, it had to be somewhat detached from reality to be a lot more fun, and so the seasons would change every week.
In 2020, I was ready with the hardware and luckily Microsoft’s new structure made it far more accessible. I got it on the PC as part of my subscription to GamePass. The gameplay was addictive, even more so with the new weekly challenges that offered new rewards in terms of exclusive cars and character customisations. If I had not been actively engaged in other racing games at the time, I would have played it a lot more. Additionally, being an avid viewer of British automotive YouTuber Shmee150, there was an extra thrill for me to recognise similarities in the Horizon 4 map with real-world views as seen online.
A large number of cars, varied weather, and weekly contests kept me coming back to the game pretty often. Combined with the best graphics to date, it offered a new degree of escapism while the pandemic had us locked in our houses. At the end of each work day, just firing up the game, picking a car and then tour around a virtual version of the UK was the kind of therapy that I did not know was effective.
In the end, I had put in over 100 hours into Forza Horizon 4 before the delayed release of Forza Horizon 5 in November 2021. Once again, the improvements over the previous edition included better graphics, more storylines, more cars along with the biggest and most varied open-world map yet. This time the racing festival heads to Mexico, a location rich in landscapes and culture. It marks a return to the American continent for this International brand while also bringing along some of the more influential characters from Horizon 4. The new location is not as green but there’s a lot more to take in with the various ancient temple structures, the desert area, the waterfalls, and even a volcano mountain.
One of the most important things about the Horizon gameplay experience for me, at least in the last two instalments, is the freedom of vehicles. Apart from specific challenges, the player is free to choose any car of their choosing as long as it meets the performance class criteria. That means you can use a Koenigsegg for off-road races and a Jeep Wrangler for street races if you so feel like it. Of course, some choices make it harder to win but the game does not deny you the chance to play as you wish in solo vs AI mode.
Another key aspect of the Horizon series is the sound. Forza’s team does a great job of reproducing the sounds of the cars they’ve put in the game. There never seems to be any sense of false enthusiasm or out-of-time revving noises, which make a huge difference to the game’s immersive experience. This time the game even features a fair number of performance-oriented EVs which I’m a big supporter of. We need to appreciate the brands that are trying to make these electric cars more than just smartphones on wheels. In fact, I have done the most in-game miles in EVs, from the Porsche Taycan to the Rimac Nevera, Lotus Evija and more recently, the Audi RS e-tron GT.
My only experience with the multiplayer aspect of the Forza Horizon games has been the weekly events and occasional free-roam interactions. Sometimes I get to play some of the custom maps made from the Eventlab and most of the time I am blown away by the creativity on display that opens up new gameplay experiences within the existing mechanics. I wish there were a way to enter lobbies, like in GTA V Online, just to compete on those kinds of tracks.
Like most Microsoft-owned games, Forza also comes with a string of in-game purchases for extra cars and expansion packs. The CarPass should have been a free feature that rewards players who put in time while models linked to other licenses/franchises such as Formula Drift or Hoonigan can remain behind a paywall. Their restricted access does not affect your gameplay, just makes you pay for your specific car of choice. The expansion packs are separate from the core game features but could be worth picking up at a discounted rate.
While I have not been on board for the entire 10-year journey of Forza Horizon, I’ve been able to play three of the five editions so far. Perhaps the highest praise I can give to top of this tribute is that I am as excited for the next story update in Horizon 5 as I am for the next instalment in the franchise.