It’s been some nine years since the Forza Motorsport series got its first off-road spin-off. I’m not sure why, but I never really played the original Forza Horizon, though I was big on 3, 4 and 5. So this week I’ve been playing the first one as if it was a new game, to see how it compares to its spectacular modern-day iteration and if it’s still any good.
And you know what? Surprisingly, it really is.
I should just note that I’m playing it on an Xbox Series X, which does have some graphical improvements over the original Xbox 360 release thanks to Microsoft’s backwards compatibility program. It’s nothing miraculous, but it does look nice if a little high in the contrast department as Forza games were around this time. Forza Horizon remains the only old Forza game playable on new machines, but at least it’s a good one.
The key difference between the first Forza Horizon game and its sequels is the solid nature of its walls and most fences. You can’t just plough through scenery to maintain the shortest route between checkpoints, though there are off-road areas that can be exploited if you’re brave.
The tracks mostly have clearly defined limits, and your skill at manoeuvring between the apices is tested with no mercy. This makes for a much tighter racing experience than in modern iterations, and one that relies much more on car control than geographical awareness.
This tighter racing feel is exacerbated by the absence of the ‘Drivatar’ system, which is still finicky in the 5th instalment, sometimes seeing the leader pull away from the pack, rarely to be seen again.
In this game, the AI drivers just have simple names like ‘Ray’, and race very convincingly. I’ve had far better, more exciting and challenging races this week than in many modern racing games from the past five years and I do put it down to old-fashioned, no-nonsense AI design.
What’s also undeniably better in this original game is the damage model, which is more pronounced and violent in its impacts than the versions that followed. It’s pretty amazing just how bashed up the licensed vehicles can get, with windows that smash out and fenders that fall off onto the track.
This really does feel like an old-school racing game in that respect, favouring close contact, spectacle-rich racing over glossy, popcorn gaming. I’m not saying there’s no place for that – I love a virtual holiday as much as the next person – but this offers a genuine racing challenge.
What is really cute is the way the Horizon festival itself is fledgling. No, I don’t mean soft and fluffy – I mean the festival itself feels smaller and comparatively low key, and the outposts are much more diminutive. There’s still the hub over at Race Central, with crowds of people, light shows and fireworks going off, but it feels like the inaugural year of what is now a gargantuan event on the racing calendar. It’s more intimate as a result.
This carries over into the structure of the game. First, you must enter the festival and then strive to work your way up the tiers of wristbands. While you can still tackle events in your own time and order (to an extent), it takes several hours before the map looks anywhere near as full as FH5’s does after 20 minutes.
The original feels much more curated, which is fine because it means the illusion of scale lasts far longer than it should.
Few games really nail the feeling of being inside a car with the radio on, driving through the middle of nowhere while the sun sets behind the trees. Forza Horizon does it really well. And while the soundtrack may be a cliché considering how many similar games use the same songs, it does have a genuine atmosphere that I really didn’t think was possible so early in the series.
While the technical limitations are evident, the package is still impressively close to the series we know and love today. The map is smaller, the variety of events is less broad, and while many of the ideas like barn finds, road discovery and skill chains are all present and correct, they do feel embryonic.
The game is charmingly boasty when it comes to its three in-game radio stations, even though the new game makes nothing of having six. It’s also completely closed-off when it comes to changing your character. While the new Horizon lets you choose your voice type, gender preference and outfit, the original Horizon forces you to play as a ‘pretty boy’ man.
And those aren’t my words. One of the most surprising things that stands out when revisiting a game from less than 10 years ago is just how much sexism is baked into it. You’re clearly supposed to find the event organiser lady attractive, even though she lives very low in the uncanny valley. But the camera lingers on her behind nonetheless, and there are girls in small tops hanging around for no apparent reason other than to add glamour. And one female character asks you if you’re ‘man enough’ to beat her. Regardless of your opinion on gender representation in games, there no denying the cringe here is real.
But for all the distasteful DNA leftover from the previous two decades of videogames, there’s a lot that is forward-thinking too, laying the groundwork for the subsequent four instalments in convincing fashion.
The love for the cars is apparent, and the detail’s almost all there too, with super-shiny car models only exhibiting flat headlight textures as any kind of obvious compromise. The in-car view is solid and assured and the day/night cycle is smooth. The Showcase events aren’t as wildly inventive or showy as the modern ones, but they’re present and correct, with races against jet planes and hot air balloons making for some lovely and memorable scenes.
Even the online integration is still present and correct, and most of it still works, too. Something I was not prepared for was an old Xbox Live friend popping up as a rival having played the same event as me at some point in the past decade.
Having their ghost on the same track, separated by all those years is something I forgot the internet had the capability to provide, and it’s something that we’re going to see increasingly as time goes on. This particular friend is still alive, but one day we’ll be racing more literal ghosts in modes like Rivals here. Spooky. Still, the mechanics of the Rivals mode itself are rock-solid, offering up ever-faster ghosts until you’re done.
I’ll be honest. Having seen the series’ inexorable pursuit of arguably one gameplay ideal, I expected the original Forza Horizon to be a rough, shonky collection of off-road events loosely tied together by a sparse, old-gen open world full of busywork.
What I got was a trip back in time to the beginnings of the Horizon Festival. And I’m very glad I bought that ticket.