When it comes to driving games, there's very little deviation from the norm; racing games are predicable, and games that aren't just straight-up racing games are exceedingly arcadey. It's as if one has to sacrifice the actual driving element of the game in order to add in anything else.

What is so interesting about Forza Horizon is that it promised to blend a more casual sort of game-play with realistic physics...and good music to top it all off. 

We were excited when Turn 10 Studios contacted us to send us a review copy of the game, and just a tad giddy when the box, containing a copy of the game, a reviewer's guide, some basic ear-buds, some sunglasses that would fit right in at a ZZ Top concert, and a USB drive that can be worn as the world's dorkiest bracelet arrived. 

The game is set at a fictional festival in Colorado which rewards hoonage (just short of reckless driving) above all else; think of it as a strange alternate universe in which Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson is the governor of the centennial state and has outlawed dying in automotive accidents. One of the radio DJs even quips that it's "amazing that in the history of the Horizon festival, there have never been any fatal crashes."

 

One of the radio DJs even quips that it's "amazing that in the history of the Horizon festival, there have never been any fatal crashes."

 

The game throws you right into the action, putting you in the shiny new SRT Viper that you saw on the front of the box in a brief chase behind Darius Flynt, the reigning champion of the festival. Just like in Forza 4, after this bit of fun your brand new exotic is taken from you and you're dropped into a much more modest car. Forza 4 then offered a choice of a few crappy front-wheel drive subcompacts, but Horizon plops your digital ass in a very cool '95 VW Corrado. From there it's up to you to earn credits by competing in events that run the gamut from street races to off-road rallies, gain popularity by driving like a lunatic without crashing on public roads, find cool old cars hidden in barns (like the BMW M1 that shows up very early), or just play around. 

The game offers a lot of action, but it's all introduced to the player in a way that feels natural, not overwhelming or patronizing, and each element interesting. The difficulty level can also be adjusted before every event, which makes it easy to scale the game up as you gain skill and confidence. There are just enough options, in terms of computer assistance like ABS or the racing line projection, to AI difficulty levels, that you can slowly notch things up, and get more money from wins, at a rate that isn't punishing but is challenging. You'll want to forgo the higher difficulties unless you've invested in a good wheel and pedal set, however. When the game is set to "simulation" there's no way in hell that you'll manage with a controller. 

It's not without flaws, but the flaws are in the parts that make up the trimmings; the characters are largely just embodiments of tropes we've all seen—there's a shit-kicking truck-girl and a young 20-something from the city in a tuned Civic, for example—and the Kinect voice commands are so finicky that it's not worth using, but the driving is enough fun to make you simply not car about that. The walking tropes are all voiced well, and the cast is large enough that you don't have to hear anyone's voice too many times The only exception is your guide to the festival, who is simply pleasant to listen to. When she's introduced it comes across as overly sexual, but the tone changes to what seems like a combination of old friend (who just happens to be hot) and ultra-cool radio personality, which is perfect.

It's not all just driving about in solitude and humiliating stereotypes in races though, you can also, of course, play with your friends via the magic of the Internet. You can attempt a variety of co-op challenges, which consist of things like navigating to a landmark and are, honestly, not terribly enthralling. You can also play "playground games" like Cat & Mouse (where the mice attempt to complete a course while being hunted by the cats), or post a time in the Rivals mode. In this mode, you can post a time on any event that you beat in the single player mode that all of your friends can see. When you're racing a rival you can see a ghost of the lap record you or your friend set already, which certainly helps keep the tension alive. 

It all comes across as very fun, and in many ways like a weird mash-up of GTA's open world freedom with Forza's realistic physics. If you like cars but can't bring yourself to get into a more car-geeky, race simulation like Forza 4 or iRacing, or are just looking to kill some time behind the digital wheel in a more casual way, this is what you're looking for.