Forza Horizon: Epic, beautiful, brilliant
6th Jun 2012 | 11:26
Turn 10's Creative Director Dan Greenawalt will tell you Forza is about turning car lovers into gamers and gamers into car lovers. Except that's not what it's about. Instead, Forza is about maths: it's about throwing numbers at everything from the way light hits your car to how your tyres flex.
When new Brit studio Playground Games started work on Forza Horizon they did it with Greenawalt's vision in mind, but with that maths as the foundation. That's how, in just two years, Playground have made the best-looking and best-handling road racer you'll ever play. While Microsoft's demo pods at E3 are running just the one car - the new Dodge Viper - with every possible assist turned on, you can play Horizon with the full Forza 4 handling model, or with any setting in between. Every car has been custom-tuned for on-road racing, but that's as far as Playground have gone with simplifying Forza's raw science.
"Why would you mess with Forza's physics?" says Playground's Design Director, Ralph Fulton. "It's absolutely best in class. Forza's physics system updates 360 times every second and we haven't compromised that; that level of fidelity is absolutely essential to capture what the cars are going through as they go over the variety of surface types you'll find in our Colorado. We have 65 different surface types; there's no such thing as 'just asphalt' or 'just dirt' - there's so much in between. We've tuned the cars for the road but that's it. You can switch off traction control, ABS, set steering to Simulation, and that experience will be as real as you can get."
A former member of Codemasters' Dirt team, Fulton pitched Horizon to Dan Greenawalt back in 2010. "There's some physics involved in this," says Greenawalt, "and I love physics. We set out to build the best racing studio in the world at Turn 10 and we're based in Seattle, so it's easy to bring in talent from North America but not so easy to bring in talent from the UK, Spain, and all over Europe. The UK has fantastic development talent; I've been playing British racing games since Geoff Crammond! Games like Dirt, Grid, Project Gotham... if you set up a racing studio in the UK and attract British talent it's going to become an amazing studio very quickly so long as it has the right leadership. Playground were the right guys to do that."
Playground built the game while building the studio, but with so much of Turn 10's tech in Horizon, Microsoft's Seattle racing studio get a joint developer credit on the title. "We've done quite a lot of work to the engine," says Fulton. "We took the graphics engine, we took the physics system and we took parts of the driver AI but we had to add a lot on top because we're making a completely different game, both in the sense of the experience you get and the technical demands on the Xbox."
The only concession made along the way was a hit to Forza's signature sixty frames per second. Somewhere between Forza 4 and Horizon, Playground dropped the framerate down to 30fps with motion blur to smooth out the action. In exchange, they've built hundreds of miles of open road in a fantasy version of Colorado. "It's like a mix tape," says Greenawalt. "It's got red rocks and mountains and rivers and tonnes of diversity all squeezed into one area."
"You won't believe the views in Colorado," says Fulton. "We knew we had to invest a lot in the technology to bring those vistas to life. Now, if you've played Forza 4's Bernese Alps track you'll be no stranger to great vistas, but the difference in Horizon is that if you can see it, you can drive it. We had to create what we call 'Uber LOD' tech for the game to draw twenty kilometres into the distance while retaining the high fidelity world."
Horizon's Colorado is home to mile-long curves, off-road dirt tracks, jaw-dropping elevation changes, and the Horizon festival - a racing/music event in the heart of the state where you can paint your car, buy new ones, or enter events. The Horizon festival is easy to find - roadside banners will always guide you home and its searchlights and laser shows are visible from miles away when night falls. Horizon is the first Forza to feature night racing, and once again, it's Turn 10's maths that make it work.
"When we knew we had to create an open world, we knew we had to have a time of day system," says Fulton. "That's just the price of entry for the open-world setting. But we were fortunate because Forza gives us this image-based lighting system which sits the car in the scene - the lighting is real, not baked-in. So we have a dynamic sky and cloud system, atmospheric scattering, the sun is dynamic and casts dynamic shadows, and when you're driving at night the whole driving experience is changed. These are dark, dark roads lit only by your headlights, so the driving experience in Horizon is always changing."
Out on the open road you'll pass civilian vehicles - apparently the E and F class cars of Forza 4 - and meet AI racers in supercars, cruising the state and waiting to be challenged. Without Test Drive Unlimited's massively multiplayer online racing you'll have to do without being called a twat by someone on the other side of the world, but Horizon's AI racers will respond to your challenges and are ready to race at any time.
In place of a true multiplayer world, you're always engaged in asynchronous online play with your friends and the entire world. Every road you drive will have its own leaderboard and every corner you drift around will be tracked by Horizon's own version of Forza 4's Rivals system. Head-to-head multiplayer will be demoed later, but expect Forza 4's sixteen-player racing to give way to eight-player races in Horizon. It's a big world to render and a big world to get lost in.
To navigate it, Horizon has an on-road GPS - cornering chevrons mapping the route to your destination - operable with an in-game map or Kinect voice control. Like a voice-activated GPS, you can tell Kinect your destination or just ask for a route to the next event and Horizon will take you there, offering braking lines on corners as well as the optimal route.
But Horizon's real difference is that - unless you fast travel or enter a key event - you'll never see a loading screen. For the first time this is a Forza where you're always in the action, always behind the wheel, and always on the road. With Forza 4's livery editor, tuning, massive front end and thirty-second loading times it's possible to spend as much time in the menus as it is on the track. The same isn't true for Horizon; in an odd twist, it's the first Forza about nothing other than the car and track.
Horizon is almost certainly designed to be Microsoft's off-year Forza - like Ubisoft's B-team Assassin's Creed games or Treyarch's even-year Call of Duties - but Playground haven't even attempted to mimic what Turn 10 do best. They've taken the maths and the models and built a game that does everything Forza Motorsport doesn't.