It’s been about nine years since the Forza Motorsport series got its first off-road spin-off. Not sure why but I never actually played the original Forza Horizon even though I was big in 3, 4 and 5. So this week I played the first one as if it were a new game, to see how it compares to its spectacular modern version and if it’s still good.
And you know what? Surprisingly, it really is.
I should just note that I’m playing it on an Xbox Series X, which has some graphical improvements over the original Xbox 360 release thanks to Microsoft’s backward compatibility program. It’s nothing fancy, but it does look nice if it’s a little high in the contrast department, as Forza games were around this time. Forza Horizon remains the only old Forza game that can be played on new machines, but at least it’s a good one.
The main difference between the first Forza Horizon game and the sequels is the solid nature of the walls and most of the fences. You can’t just plow through the landscape to maintain the shortest route between checkpoints, although there are off-road areas that can be exploited if you’re brave.
The tracks usually have clearly defined limits and your skill at maneuvering between the peaks will be tested mercilessly. This makes for a much tighter racing experience than in modern iterations, and one that relies much more on auto-control than geographic awareness.
This tighter racing feel is compounded by the absence of the ‘Drivatar’ system, which is still finicky in Episode 5 where you sometimes see 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 they race very convincingly. I’ve had much better, more exciting and challenging races this week than in many modern racing games over the past five years and I blame it on old-fashioned, no-nonsense AI design.
Also undeniably better in this original game is the damage model, which is more pronounced and more violent than the versions that followed. It’s amazing how beat up vehicles can become licensed, with windows smashing out and fenders falling off the track.
This really feels like an old-school racing game in that regard, with close contact, high-energy racing taking precedence over shiny popcorn gaming. I’m not saying there isn’t room for that – I love a virtual vacation as much as the next person – but this presents a real racing challenge.
What’s really cute is the way the Horizon festival itself kicks off. No, I don’t mean soft and fluffy – I mean the festival itself feels smaller and relatively quiet, and the outposts are much smaller. There’s still the hub at Race Central, with crowds, light shows and fireworks going off, but it feels like the inaugural year of what is now a massive event on the racing calendar. It is therefore more intimate.
This is reflected in the structure of the game. First you have to enter the festival and then try to work your way up the rows of wristbands. While you can still tackle events in your own time and order (to an extent), it will take several hours for the map to look nearly as full as FH5’s at 20 minutes.
The original feels a lot more composed, which is fine as it means the illusion of scale lasts much longer than it should.
Few games really give the feeling of being in a car with the radio on, driving through the middle of nowhere as the sun sets behind the trees. Forza Horizon is doing really well. And while the soundtrack may be a cliche when you consider how many similar games use the same songs, it has a real vibe that I really didn’t think possible this early in the series.
While the technical limitations are obvious, 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, path discovery, and skill chains are all there and correct, they feel embryonic.
The game is charmingly boastful when it comes to the three in-game radio stations, though the new game doesn’t mind having six. It’s also completely shut down when it comes to changing your character. While the new Horizon allows you to choose your voice type, gender preference and outfit, the original Horizon forces you to play as a “pretty boy” man.
And those are not my words. One of the most surprising things to notice when revisiting a game from less than 10 years ago is how much sexism is ingrained in it. Obviously you have to find the lady organizing the event attractive, even though she lives very low in the uncanny valley. But the camera still sticks to her behind, and there are girls in little tops hanging out for no apparent reason, except to add glamour. And a female character asks you if you’re “man enough” to beat her. Regardless of your take on gender representation in games, there’s no denying that the cringe here is real.
But for all the unsavory DNA left over from the past two decades of video games, there’s also a lot that is forward-thinking and lays the groundwork for the next four episodes in a compelling way.
The love for the cars is evident, and the details are almost all there too, with super-glossy car models showing only flat headlamp structures as an obvious compromise. Visibility in the car is solid and assured and the day/night cycle is smooth. The Showcase events aren’t as wildly inventive or ostentatious as the modern ones, but they’re present and accurate, with jetliners and hot air balloon races making for some beautiful and memorable scenes.
Even the online integration is still there and correct, and most of it still works. Something I wasn’t prepared for was an old Xbox Live friend who showed up as a rival who had played the same event as me at some point in the past decade.
Having their minds on the same track, separated by all these years, is something that I forgot the internet could provide, and it’s something that we’re going to see more and more over time. This particular friend is still alive, but one day we’ll be racing against more literal ghouls here in modes like Rivals. Spooky. Still, the mechanics of the Rivals mode itself are rock solid, offering progressively faster ghosts until you’re done.
I will be honest. Having seen the series’ relentless pursuit of arguably one gameplay ideal, I expected the original Forza Horizon to be a rough, grubby collection of off-road events loosely linked by a sparse, old-fashioned open world filled with busy work.
What I got was a trip back in time to the beginning of the Horizon Festival. And I’m really glad I bought that ticket.