My Maserati is silver-grey with a blood red stripe running from its beautiful head down to the nape of its back. With the accelerator pushed hard against the carpeted floor it makes the sound of a dozen screaming harpies. It fights gravity until the rubber melts into tarmac and pushes me forward, turning fences and faces into warping blurs. The perfect corner is part total mechanical control, part gamble that the lip of my fender will slip effortlessly past the barrier just inches away as the chassis rolls into position for the outward curve. Get it wrong and the jarring shutter of failure crunches and frustrates, time piling on to ruin dreams of slicing away personal records. Get it right, though, and the mercury flow of movement is just sheer bliss. Oh, I don’t own a Maserati, but I drive one, just not on the gridded streets of Vancouver. Or any physical streets, really. She – of course it’s a “she” – exists purely within my save file for Forza Motorsport 3, nestled deep within the digital confines of my Xbox 360, and will remain there until the day a certain disk gives me the chance to take her for a spin again.
That’s the thing with Forza – or at least with the third edition of the series. Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer said something akin to “you couldn’t feel the road more clearly if you held your face against the tarmac”, and it’s always stuck with me as that’s exactly what it feels like to play Forza 3. Whatever voodoo magic Turn 10 conjured to create the handling, it was pure driving gold dust. Gran Turismo 5 may have won the authenticity stakes, but I never felt the root of gaming pleasure lay in passing cone tests, or circuit racing a car even I could afford (though multiplayer Fiat Uno racing remains a weird thrill, granted). No, my yardstick had long been cemented firmly on the “screaming tyres and arcade thrills” side of the garage by the greatest car game designers that ever existed, Bizarre Creations.
Bizarre made their name with Metropolis Street Racer on the ill-fated Dreamcast, a game famous for allowing the player to hurtle through approximations of real-world cities in gleaming supercars. A skill-based system – Kudos – rewarded you for exuberant manouvers, meaning the focus was as much on style as on speed. This addictive formula was moved wholesale onto the original Xbox in the form of Project Gotham Racing, which ended up spreading over three sequels and two console generations. The Gotham games, together with the absolutely wonderful Blur, still give the kind of visceral driving thrills that usually are related to drugs. Activision’s incompetentcy was proved when the lack of marketing caused Blur to flop, which subsequently led to the disbanding of Bizarre itself.
Driving games came and went, including a rather unfocused Forza Motorsport 4, but none seemed able to recapture Forza 3‘s delicious traction or Bizarre Creations’ pounding mechanical heartbeat. At least, until last week.
Forza Horizon came out at the end of my Year Of Living Gamelessly, and followed my aforementioned disappointment with Forza 4, so I didn’t really pay it much heed. Fuelling this further was the revelation that Horizon was actually made by British studio Playground Games, using Turn 10’s assets in what surely seemed like a Christmas cash grab. Also, an open world Colorado based round a “yoof” music festival sounded like a marriage of the factors I liked least about Burnout and Need For Speed. It was very easy to ignore, even after the surprisingly positive reviews emerged. However, I’d been daydreaming about picking up Forza 3 again so I could burn off a few millimetres from my Maserati’s tyres, when Horizon popped up in the recent Xbox Ultimate Game sale for $15. It was more than double that price in other vendors, so it didn’t take much to give in to my urges and set it downloading. At the very least, I reasoned, I’d be able to get a few hours of enjoyment with the usual Forza handling and soak in a chunk of the game’s atmospheric personality that had been so remarked on in the reviews.
I put in a few hours, then accepted the unexpected twist: I can’t stop playing it. Wait, that’s not quite all: I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s nestled so far under my skin that The Last Of Us gathers dust, weeds are taking over my town in Animal Crossing, and everything else is just totally irrelevant.
The handling is there, for a start. The absolute essential first move is to turn off all driving aids except ABS, and suddenly the cars leap into vivid life. Each has a personality and ferociousness, unpredictable at first, but later becoming your partner as you slip in and out of the curves at full speed. You can feel the car at it passes over multiple surfaces, sometimes sideways. You could write entire novels about the near misses and last-minute chase wins. It rewards your bravery, feeds off it, encourages the letting go of pesky thoughts and pushes you to just feel and react.
The game also, very clearly, wants to have as much fun as you. One of the first things you’ll do is race against a plane through a timed series of checkpoints, rocketing around the course as the aircraft swoops threateningly over your head. Every race is backed by the stunning Colorado backdrops as they cycle through day and night, wind almost palpable as it sweeps the dust around you. As you improve, so do your rides, with Horizon constantly drip-feeding you new cars to learn and eventually master. Each of these can also be individually incrementally upgraded, adding new peril to a once tamed engine. It’s wonderful and compelling in a way only a few other games can match. Underscoring all this is the soundtrack that is split over three radio channels, each fantastically populated to suit whatever mood you’re in. As for the Horizon Festival, Playground somehow achieves the impossible and makes it genuinely cool rather than the head-batteringly patronising bullshit that is so often present in these kinds of games.
I’ve barely even scratched the surface of Horizon, yet I already feel it could be one of the stand-out driving games of this (or any) generation. The game sprawls out ahead of me – including the free DLC that adds 1000 new challenges which incorporate all of the available cars – and all I want to do is head back in and step on the gas. It’s taken everything I’ve got to actually finish this article before starting it up again.
It’s been a while since I’d felt the pulsing thrills of a Bizarre Creations racing game, and I was just thinking that Horizon was giving me the same feelings of speed and lust when my driving ticked an invisible box and “ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED” popped up on my dashboard. On seeing it was called “Kudos to you”, a massive smile spread all over my face as I raced into the Colorado sunset. It confirmed my growing notion that Playground Games have as much love and reverence for Bizarre Creations as I do, and that makes my experience with the Horizon Festival even sweeter. The tarmac has never felt as enticing.