10/23/2012 01:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Forza Horizon' Review: Open World Action Racing Does Donuts On The Competition

This "Forza Horizon" review will attempt, as much as possible, to give a non-hardcore simulation racer gamer's opinion on the latest game in what has traditionally been a franchise for the hardcore simulation racer.

Don't mistake "Forza Horizon" for an arcade racer though, because it is anything but. Think more of an "action racer with simulation elements." There are still options galore for fine-tuning each car, down to the headache-inducing minutiae of previous "Forza Motorsport" games, but unlike in previous Forza games, "Forza Horizon" offers a level of accessibility to gamers who may aspire to God-like racing and tuning skills.

Previous "Forza Motorsport" games have required a nearly obsessive-compulsive level of tinkering on a car to really nail it on a track, and that's why I was never very good at it. Tuning a car for hours to get a better track test time just wasn't all that appealing to me, no matter how strong the game was. I don't know what "camber" is, nor how to adjust it, but there are plenty of people who do and those people beat me in races.

"Forza Horizon" attempts to appeal to both crowds, and in large part succeeds, even though some of the more fine-tuning aspects from previous Forza installments were axed. But where Horizon succeeds most of all is in giving gamers the joy of the open road to explore and compete in.

One of the ways Horizon does this is through its ridiculously gorgeous visuals. The setting is Colorado with all of its environmental beauty and variety, and the game centers around the Horizon Festival -- a music infused car show slash festival slash cool kid gathering that draws in car enthusiasts and racers from around the globe.

Gorgeous visuals.

Between mountains, desert, forested peaks, crackling fireworks of the Horizon Festival and a day-night cycle, "Forza Horizon's" settings seriously shine. Adding to this open world driving experience are the solid-looking and seriously, stupidly pretty cars featured in the game. The cars in this game are like baseball cards, you want to keep them in mint condition. Mint!

There's also an in-game paint shop, where you can create custom vinyls to apply to your cars and even load them into the game marketplace for other Forza players to download, either for free or for an in-game credit fee.

I'll admit to spending a couple hours messing around with the paint tool and neglecting the open road. While the tool is pretty much exactly the same as in "Forza Motorsport 4," it's still very good. It's hard to complain about a lack of "newness" when the tool is still a (paint) blast to use. There will be people who undoubtedly spend a majority of their time on this game designing new vinyls.

Once I was able to pull away from the paint shop and get back to the road, my first inclination was to explore what "Forza Horizon's" Colorado had to offer. I bought a 77 Trans Am for the occasion and took to the road. For those of you with a Kinect setup, you'll be able to bring up the in-game GPS simply by saying "GPS" then vocally selecting where you'd like to be directed.

Forza Launch Trailer

What you'll find when you start driving around the world are a variety of incentives to keep you exploring and having a good time doing it. Speed Traps, wrecking some landscaping, hitting discount signs, engaging in near-misses with other cars, drifting, scoring combos and challenging other Horizon drivers to races can all increase your popularity and earn you in-game credits to be used to buy new cars. Its a nice way of keeping things fresh between events and encouraging gamers to get better without the stress of a race.

Tooling around in the open world also allows drivers to get a feel for a car and the variety of surfaces before hitting up any one of the 250 events. Not fully confident you have a handle on a car yet? Take it out for a spin. Get blown out in a race? Head back to the garage and tweak a few cars, test them out, then try again. The open world element provides a much more attractive testing ground than just a track.

Dirt tracks in "Forza Horizon"? Oh yes.

The races can be thrilling, euphoric and downright stressful. Not in a bad way, but in a way that makes you really want to win. There is no second place -- second place is for losers. Third place? Forget it. The artificial intelligence can be tough and makes for consistently aggressive drivers. Until you've raced a particular section enough times to know the route, prepare to be schooled by the AI on the higher difficulties.

Luckily the difficulty modifier has a range of settings to tune, such as sight lines, brake lines, AI difficulty, etc. Tried an event 65 times? Drop the brake line in, downgrade the AI to easy and hit the rewind button if you screw up a turn and try again. This keeps the game moving at a nice pace and helps you avoid getting bogged down on any one particular event.

I doubt I'll ever play "Forza Horizon" on hard, as I like not getting lapped every race.

The game progression is smooth as well. "Forza Horizon" always offers enough carrots dangling in your face to keep you wanting to race more. You can play 250 events, find cars hidden in barns around the map and earn credits to upgrade the cars in your collection and buy new ones; it always feels like there's something just around the bend that you want.

This feeling of progression is carried over into the multiplayer as well. Every time you level up online you're treated to a lotto reward. You can win credits or a new car, both of which carry over back into the single player. Its a nice touch.

Don't have. Do want.

The multiplayer itself is fun and engaging with a variety of game types, from the standard point-to-point races and circuits to the more insane "cat and mouse" and "infection" types, which are great for a casual romp. My favorite of all the online multiplayer game types had to be the "cat and mouse" variation. A surprising amount of teamwork is needed for the "cats" to get the "mouse" to the finish line, as each team has one mouse, and the first mouse to finish the race wins it for the team. There are equal parts frustration and elation to be had here. I won a game of "cat and mouse" as the mouse and I wanted to play all night after that.

"Infection" is basically Forza zombie mode. One car starts out infected and has to tag others to infect them. The last car that is uninfected wins.

All told, up to eight players can participate in any of "Forza Horizon"'s online multiplayer modes, down from "Forza 4"'s cap of 16.

There are also co-op challenges, in which online friends join you in your open world.

Gamespot's review of "Forza Horizon" wasn't that kind to the co-op free roam, but Gamespot is also incredibly picky when it comes to reviewing games. There's some fun to be found with co-op, but the other modes are better.

There are a few niggling issues with Forza, one of which is the storyline, which I could really care less about while playing the game -- that's probably why it's getting an afterthought mention. All you need to know for the story is that you're a cool 20-something trying to win the Horizon title, and that pits you against other cool 20-something drivers.

I'm also not a huge fan of the loading screens, but I understand there's a lot to load in this game. But it can get annoying to go to the Garage -- load screen -- leave the Garage -- load screen -- drive a second to the paint shop -- load screen -- and so on and so forth.

Small issues aside, reviews for "Forza Horizon" have by and large leaned on the "this is an extremely good game" side, and I'd have to agree. The love of cars from the Forza franchise is present here in spades, and the freedom of an open world game infused with that love of cars makes for an engaging and highly enjoyable "action racer" bolstered with strong simulation aspects.

"Forza Horizon" is a great game, and it is abundantly obvious that the developers behind it over at Playground Games knew what they were doing when they built it. It helps that they pulled together a team comprised of top people that worked on racing heavyweights like DiRT, TOCA and GRID.

"Forza Horizon" releases on the Xbox 360 in the United States on October 23, 2012.