Ten years on, is Forza Horizon still exciting?

11th October 2022
Ethan Jupp

For fans of the open-world racing genre like myself, fresh from their time with the Test Drive Unlimited (TDU) franchise, the promise of a game that took Forza physics, graphics and car lists beyond the confines of a list of circuits was very exciting. What the first Forza Horizon and indeed entries since have delivered isn’t exactly what I wanted but right from the off, it was a formula with mass appeal and serious commercial potential.


Less an open world and more a sandbox, the Forza Horizon franchise has stayed true to its idea of a smaller-scale playground for cars, rather than trying to be an out and out lifestyle simulator. No you can’t buy a house, but you can play tag. No you can’t spec your car up in a dealer, but there is a battle royale mode called ‘Eliminator’. No, the map isn’t an expansive, immersive and careful recreation of an entire state and its road network, it’s a small smattering of roads, with a token urban environment and visual cues and topography borrowed from a real-world setting.

And that’s fine. Horizon was never meant to be the World of Warcraft of open world driving. It was meant to be the Call of Duty of open world driving. Digestible, with mass-appeal and 30-minute smash-and-grab playability, rather than offering hours-long levels of immersion.

As an avid TDU lover who had unrealistic expectations of those first couple of Horizons, it’s taken ten years for me to realise that Forza Horizon was never meant to be what I wanted it to be. Its promise was of the latest greatest cars, the latest music, fun and games and a playground in which to lark about. Just because it hasn’t delivered what I wanted every time, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t delivered what it promised.


Watching that initial teaser over again, showing real-world clips of cars on highways and twisting mountain roads, of music festivals, gatherings and so-on, I can see why I thought it would wind up being a lot more than it was. That said, I can also see I loaded a fair weight of my own expectation on it. Horizon didn’t replace Test Drive, and it was never meant to.

What Horizon has become in these last ten years however, is somewhat stagnant. What we see in Horizon 5, released in 2021, hasn’t moved the game on from 2012’s original all that much. Yes, the graphics are sharper. Yes, the map is slightly bigger. Yes, there are new cars. Yes, there are new multiplayer modes. But that’s about it. In terms of giving players the ability to enjoy cars in greater detail, with greater immersion, there’s not a lot that’s changed.

Horizon 5 only added removable tops for some convertibles in 2021, a feature first seen in driving games 13 years previously. You can’t turn your lights on or off, switch off your engine, or do much else other than hurl your car at the scenery, as you could in the 2012 original.


Then there are the cars themselves, with some using models dating back to 2007’s Forza Motorsport 2, sporting dodgy details, wonky proportions and visibly poor fidelity – the Nissan Silvia, Vauxhall Monaro, Ferrari 360 Challenge and Ferrari F50, to name a few, are all so afflicted. Not a good look for a franchise that trades heavily on its graphics.

And as for the maps, is it not time to be a bit more ambitious? Their diminutive size and road networks seemingly designed by throwing spaghetti at a wall have until recently been forgivable given platform and timing limitations. On the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, you could have size, or fidelity, not both. Just look at The Crew 2.

But with today’s consoles delivering performance on a par with £1,000 gaming PCs, it’s time we saw a marked improvement in Horizon’s locations. They did the UK dirty with Horizon 4, its single token driving road and its abject denial that 95 per cent of Cumbria, the Lake District, Scotland and the incredible roads therein actually exist. Likewise, the South of France in Forza Horizon 2.


I personally thought that the added year for development of Forza Horizon 5 would deliver on improving some of the things that have become gradually more irritating about Forza Horizon. Indeed, it is by far the best entry since the first, for its increased map size alone, but it was far from the significant evolution I’d hoped for.

Forza Horizon has been an incredibly successful franchise over five games and ten years. What it’s offered gamers has been exciting, if tailored to a more general rather than enthusiast audience, deliberately so. It’s been almost universally loved, but as its harshest critic, I've seen points that I've been making about these games since day one start to be discussed by fans and creators alike, more widely with every release.

As other monster franchises know all too well – CoD, FIFA, Need for Speed, to name a few – stagnation can be dangerous. Audiences will only be amazed by more of the same for so long. Yes, continue to build games that will amaze gamers who are just getting into the franchise, but try to move it on for those dedicated players that made the series the success it is.

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