E3 2012: Forza Horizon – preview

Forza Motorsport expands its horizons with a new open world racing game for the Xbox 360

Developed specifically to compete with Sony’s arch-racing sim, Gran Turismo, the Forza Motorsport series has always taken a rather clinical approach to the breakneck joys of motorcar racing. Indeed, developer Turn 10 struck a deal with the BBC’s enthusiastic Top Gear team for last year’s Forza Motorsport 4 specifically to introduce a little colour to the otherwise dry presentation.

So the announcement of Forza Horizon at E3 2012, an open world racing game set around a fictional music festival held in the state of Colorado was unexpected. Created in collaboration with British DJ and music festival curator, Rob Da Bank, Forza Horizon is filled with character and charisma, as well as a sizeable dollop of inspiration from Burnout Paradise.

“It’s almost two years to the day since I met Dan Greenawalt [Forza Motorsport 4 creative director],” explains Ralph Fulton, design director at Playground Games, the studio handling Horizon’s development under that watchful eye of Turn 10.

“We had dinner at E3 2010 and spent the entire time talking excitedly about racing games. Dan used that dinner to talk to me about his vision for the Forza franchise. He said wanted to do more with it: to turn car lovers into gamers and gamers into car lovers. That phrase resonated with me. We set up Playground Games to make racing games that make a difference. That’s what Forza Horizon is about.”

For Fulton and the team, the challenge to create a characterful game based upon Forza’s sim-like core engine was a tall one, and the key to unlocking the conundrum was in the music festival concept. “We were thinking about where car culture and youth culture intersect,” Fulton says. “Part-race meet, part-auto show, part-music show the idea was to create the kind of event where you can take your car and your friends, have fun and show off. That’s Horizon. As soon as we created the festival a lot of things fell into place.”

Once the team knew that they wanted the game to revolve around a music festival they needed to find a location. “We knew by then it was going to be a vast open-world game; environmentally-diverse. And we knew it would have to be visually spectacular. We started looking for a place that ticked all of those boxes – somewhere that would offer all of that. That’s when we arrived at Colorado.”

The US state provides not only beautiful vistas, but also different road types for the cars to contend with. Indeed, Forza Horizon sees the introduction of off-road racing to the series for the first time in its history. “This was hugely exciting to us as a studio,” says Fulton. “Many of our team members have worked on Colin McRae, DiRT and other high profile rally games. Forza Horizon boasts 65 different surface types. It’s not just about dirt and asphalt. We have many nuanced combinations in between.

“In fact, our team travelled to Colorado and took 60,000 photos. The game world is a mixture of real-life roads and sections that are purely ‘inspired by’ the landscape. But one thing we have nailed is the sense of scale and space. We developed a new technology called which allows the game to draw 20km into the distance while maintaining visual fidelity. It’s spectacular.”

As an open world racing game, the player is free to drive around the map, taking on races as they arise and even fast-travelling to key action points. “The festival conceit informed our gameplay,” explains Fulton. “It’s not just about winning but also having fun, showing off and doing all kinds of amazing things in cars. The system tracks how stylishly you play – weaving in an out of traffic, drifting and so on. Points mean popularity. One of your goals is to become the most popular driver at the festival. But it’s also about the freedom of the open road; the chance to drive along some of the greatest roads in the world: high speed interstate highways, off-road dirt tracks and winding mountain climbs.”

These features are far from novel, but there are innovations here too. “One of the things we quickly found was that players became lost easily. The world is so large that players would forget where they were, or where they were supposed to be going. We solved this with Kinect. A GPS system is always on in the game, controlled with voice. If I say: ‘GPS festival auto-show’ a green line guides me to where I want to go. I can even say things like: ‘Where’s my next race’ and the game will point me in the right direction.”

Underneath the more accessible front end, Forza’s sim-like core is still present and correct. “We haven’t touched the core handling of the cars,” explains Fulton. “Why would we tamper with that? But we do give players a bunch of different assists from the off to ease them in. they can switch these off if they want to have a sim-like experience. The point is: this is not an arcade racing game. It’s an action racing game. If you love driving cars fast I believe Horizon will be best in class for graphics, physics and handling. Horizon proves you don’t have to compromise.”

• Simon Parkin travelled to E3 2012 with Microsoft

E3 2012





Racing games

Simon Parkin

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