It's been a tough few years for studios specializing in racing games. A slew of them folded as the industry went through a tumultuous transformation. Bizarre Creations, makers of "Project Gotham Racing," and Black Rock Studios, the team responsible for "Split/Second," closed their doors.
Though they're defunct, the talent lives on. Developers have a way of coalescing, and members of both teams have joined up with former members of Codemasters to form Playground Games. The team's first assignment was a big one: working with Turn 10 on a spinoff to the popular "Forza Motorsports" series.
Playground Games offers a different take on racing, though. Instead of a straight sim, "Forza Horizon" goes the open-world route. Not focused on fastest lap times and tweaking rides, the game takes a more casual approach as players head to Colorado, where they take part in the Horizon Festival. It's like Lollapalooza set on a NASCAR weekend. Racers take over that stretch of the country and use it for their own personal playground.
Players start on the lower rung and work their way up the ranks of the racing festival circuit by entering competitions scattered throughout the Centennial State. It's a setup similar to the "Need for Speed" games, except there's no crime drama to get in the way.
Winning races earns them points that boost them to the next level of competition represented by wristbands. But "Forza Horizon" has other distractions
It's unusual and gives the title some personality that it desperately needs. That's because rival racers, including the vaunted Darius Flynt, don't offer much in terms of character. The star of "Forza Horizon" has to be the virtual Colorado that Playground Games built. It's a diverse place filled with a mind-boggling number of tracks.
Urban areas offer short courses full of right angle turns and tight bends. In the rural spots near the highway, long straightaways will test a player's ability to weave in and out of traffic while keeping ahead of the pack. On dirt tracks, they'll need to know how to drift in and out of corners. Each event needs a certain type of car, and players earn money for them by challenging random strangers in streets races or by searching the Colorado landscape for classic vehicles hidden in barns.
Playground Games does a brilliant job maximizing the terrain and populating it with lakes, ravines, mountains and buttes that players are drawn to explore. And when it comes down to it, that's the direction "Forza Horizon" takes. Instead of memorizing tracks and pushing for the best times, the team gives players miles of road to cruise down, dozens of cars to test out and a camera to photograph it all.
While the focus is new, the physics engine and hard-core racing elements are still there. Each vehicle controls differently, and players will learn that there's no one car that dominates the field, though racing veterans will discover that "Forza Horizon" is forgiving even under harder difficulties.
The rewind option gives players a mulligan if they spin out. Meanwhile, they're not penalized for bullying rivals, crashing into them or cutting corners. Every race is pretty much a free for all.
With that experience underneath the hood, it's no surprise that Playground Games made a good racer. In large part, it's a success, but "Forza Horizon" lacks the personality or gear-head mentality of the main series. When compared with other recent racers, it won't take the checkered flag, but a Top 5 finish isn't so bad.
* * *
Platform: Xbox 360