Forza Horizon. Not a bad title actually. This game takes many of the familiar cars from Forza 4, rips them out of the race track environment and lets you blast down freeways – ever onwards towards the horizon.

It’s explained a little differently in game though – the game centres around a music and racing festival called, er, the Horizon Festival that takes place in Colorado. The intro cinematic shows your character (a young petrolhead with a  VW Corrado VR6) heading down and hearing an announcement on the radio that the next ten cars that arrive will be granted places to race in the Horizon Festival’s events.

So immediately you’re dropped into an intense street race. All the familiar feel and detail from Forza 4 is there – your Corrado handles like a grippy, fairly powerful front wheel drive car. But quite a soft one – reluctant to turn in at first, snaps to lift-off oversteer if you turn too much. 

Assuming you make it in time, you get access to compete in the racing at the festival – very quickly you can win a vintage Boss Mustang (heavy, soft rear wheel drive muscle-car handling) and an Evo 10 or an Impreza (Japanese 4WD handling – useful for some of the stages that have loose surface sections).

So immediately the variety and detail of the car handling physics is placed back under the spotlight. The different classes and types of car feel as different and plausible as ever. A lot of other familiar Forza highlights are here too – the cars look amazing and as realistic as ever. 

Forza 4’s Photo Mode is back and the cars often can look photo-realistic. The design and livery of your car can be as intricate as ever – Forza 4’s design tools are back again. The car upgrade system is virtually identical to Forza 4 – all cars have performance classes and races allow different classes of cars to enter. Tune yours right up to the performance limit of that class and optimise your chances – either with auto upgrading or by cherry picking the tuning parts you would like to install.

This is all good stuff – these areas were real strengths in Forza 4. Beyond this however, everything is different. There are no circuits in the game. No race tracks. No ovals and definitely no Nordschleife. It’s all about the open road. The beautiful, open scenery of Colorado is very well rendered. You will travel through vast swathes of scrubland, through towns, past dams, over and under bridges and more. The roads are challenging enough to actually require forethought about braking, turning points etc. But they are open enough to enjoy breaking free in every car and really revving them out, right up through all of their gears.

It’s a liberating feeling in a driving game. You can pull up a map and set a destination into your car’s GPS (or just speak the command if you have Kinect) – maybe head for the next race, maybe try and beat your best speed on one of the many speed cameras dotted throughout (the game tells you if one of your friends beats your best speed – and invites you to fight back). Maybe find one of the 216 roads that you haven’t driven yet – the game logs how much you have explored on the vast map. It’s a huge, automotive sandbox.

The open world feel is further enhanced by a selection of three radio stations you can listen to, with playlists arranged by Radio 1 DJ, Rob da Bank. There’s a great selection of tunes from Indie, through metal to Drum and Bass to Dubstep. All throughout, the DJs on these stations keep you informed about events in the game world and the Horizon Festival. It definitely adds at Grand Theft Auto feel to things – just driving and exploring, while enjoying some tunes.

The racing is exciting and pretty tense. However, on medium difficulty, at first I won every single race I entered. None of those wins were easy – in fact I only just squeaked through usually – but a real Forza veteran will need to choose one of the harder settings initially. As the game progresses, you unlock different, er, wristbands – they allow you access to higher classes of racing. It soon gets more challenging.

But this is the point – Forza 4 is a game that rewards hard practice, knowledge of racecraft, knowledge of vehicle dynamics and car set up. My other bro-in-law (not Dan, regular readers) has sunk 248 hours into Forza 4 – he’s a serious player. Here, the incredible assets from Forza 4 have been crafted into an open, accessible game that anyone can enjoy – casually, or they can choose to go deeper.

Multiplayer is fantastic as always – to enjoy it most, join or form a car club. There you can share your best vehicles among each other in the club garage, arrange events, beat each other’s personal best speeds through speed traps and more – it’s the back bone of the community experience here.

Also – if you have an Android phone or tablet, download the free Microsoft SmartGlass app – this works with the game and will display the full world map at all times. You can set the GPS with it and more – a neat and handy little debut for the SmartGlass service.

Criticisms… well, the Horizon Festival yoof aspect can just occasionally be annoying. It does look like a Red Bull marketing wet dream. Your character is as generic looking as a Fast and the Furious character and the hawt female organiser of the championship is obviously meant to be gawked at. Max Moseley she ain’t. There are lots of sponsors here – some of the events are pretty amusingly named, from the Old Spice Muscle Car Mash to the Adidas Drafting Challenge…

That’s nowhere near enough to be remotely annoying though. This is a great game that has exceeded my high expectations for it. It’s so damned accessible, yet the heart of Forza 4 remains, with all of its challenge and integrity. There’s a sense of relaxation and freedom while driving and playing this game – just point the nose somewhere and floor it - then drive until the sun sets and your headlights come on. Keep going all the way through to the morning if you like – it’s Vanishing Point on your Xbox and it’s one of the season’s must-have titles.

Buy, enjoy. Floor the throttle and head towards the setting sun, far-off on the Horizon…


Forza Horizon is out now for Xbox 360