Original cover art featuring the SRT Viper GTS
The game revolves around the fictitious Horizon Festival, a street racing event set in the state of Colorado. The aim is to progress via winning races, while also increasing popularity level by performing other stunts and antics. It features the physics of Forza Motorsport 4, which have been optimised to work on the 65 variants of terrain said to be present in the game. Players can drive off-road in select areas, while others, such as large cliffs, are limited by guardrails or other means.
It was released in October 2012 to critical acclaim, being rated 9/10 by major reviewers, two "perfect" scores by Giant Bomb and Eurogamer Sweden, and an overall Metacritic score of 85/100. Forza Horizon has spawned three sequels: Forza Horizon 2 in 2014, Forza Horizon 3 in 2016, and Forza Horizon 4 in 2018.
Forza Horizon focuses specifically on casual street racing, rather than professionally on race tracks, as it takes place on a map of temporarily closed public roads. It features multiple types of races, from drift to rally and point-to-point races. The roads feature both AI traffic and when playing online, other festival drivers. Players may challenge the other racers they encounter in a one-on-one race to a given location. The races start at the current location, and finish at a randomly generated way-point. A skill system is implemented in the game; players earn popularity during races by driving aggressively. Acts such as drifting, jumping over obstacles and getting a car on two wheels all contribute to the player's popularity level. These can be chained together in a combo, which in turn affects the money players are paid at the end of a given race. Cred also affects a player's popularity level in the game. As a player's popularity level increases new special events are unlocked, such as races against helicopters and planes.
In an interview with Turn 10's creative director Dan Greenawalt, he stated the game was developed in close relation to real music festivals—namely Coachella—and that he envisioned a more relaxed game-play experience than other games in the Forza series, while keeping a more realistic handling style. Being the main theme of the game, a large focus of the game is on the festival itself and activities surrounding it, rather than just racing.
Speed traps are present in the game, and players can challenge each other for the top speed in a given area. Cameras record player times, which can then be shared among rivals. Those rivals can then attempt to beat the shared time. A photography mode is also included. In addition to races, the map is scattered with barn find cars, rare classical vehicles that can be restored and added to the players garage.
Other aspects of game-play include an auto-show, in which the player can buy or sell cars; a garage, in which the player can manually or automatically upgrade their cars, and a paint shop, in which players can create custom paints, liveries, and paint presets for their vehicles. When free-roaming, the player may encounter discount signs which, when smashed, give a price reduction on all upgrades from that point forwards.
Forza Horizon was developed by UK-based Playground Games, which is composed of employees who formerly worked at various studios renowned for earlier racing titles and series such as Project Gotham Racing, Driver, Colin McRae: Dirt, Colin McRae Rally, Race Driver: Grid and Burnout. When asked about Playground Games' involvement, Dan Greenawalt said, "I wouldn't trust this partner as much as I do if I didn't expect them to surprise me and surprise our players. I have respect for their ability to come up with great ideas. So I think yes, they are challenged by the customers the same way we are to surprise them with innovation. That's how they see themselves, that's how we see them, it's how they see us. It's really a shared goal."
|“||Of course it's a risk, [...] but some of the best racing games in the last twenty years have come out of the UK racing game development studios.||”|
|— Dan Greenawalt, head of Turn 10 Studios on collaborating with the UK-based Playground Games.|
Though Forza Horizon is in the hands of an outside developer, Dan Greenawalt believes such risks are needed to meet the vision for the franchise.
Development of the environment began with research on almost 30 real-world locations. After initial research, creative director Ralph Fulton stated that there was "one clear winner", Colorado, USA. Trips were made to the state to take footage and over 50,000 still photos for reference. The goal, stated Fulton, was to "build our own take on Colorado". Initial world design began with a 2D layout which then evolved into multiple areas created with 3D models. The game features several types of landscape including snow-covered mountain roads, plains, foothills, and an area inspired by Colorado's Red Rocks Park; all are featured in a fictitious form alongside the game's Horizon festival location. The developers stated that finding ways to transition between these areas was one of the greatest challenges. Flora and fauna are also visible in the game for increased realism and depth.
A partial reveal of the vehicle list began on Forza's Twitter and Facebook pages on 23 August 2012. The list includes a 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge, a 2012 Hennessey Venom GT, and a Lamborghini Countach LP500 QV, among many others. A season pass was confirmed for future downloadable content (DLC) on 25 September 2012. It allows players to download the first six car packs, consisting of six cars each, gives players five exclusive cars, and will grant access to the game's rally racing expansion pack slated for 18 December 2012 release. Vehicle selections vary between monthly instalments, and each vehicle can be purchased individually if players so choose. These vehicles include the Lamborghini Aventador J, Gumpert Apollo Enraged, Alfa Romeo 8C Spider, 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor Halo Edition and the 1993 McLaren F1. Unicorn cars — cars that are rare and unobtainable through conventional means — can be given to players by the developer for community involvement in both in and out-of-game situations and events.
The 1000 Club was released on 16 April 2013, as a free DLC pack in the Xbox Marketplace. It was designed to extend the gameplay of Forza Horizon by adding new achievements and in-game medals. It includes two free cars, the Ruf CTR2 and the Ford F100. With the 1000 Club, each car in the game has about five or six in-game achievements that can be unlocked. By completing some of these achievements, players can unlock Xbox achievements.
Community Manager of the series, Brian Ekberg, announced in September 2016 that the game has reached the "End of Life" status, meaning that the game and all its DLC has been removed from storefront effective 20 October 2016.
The game's soundtrack contains several dubstep tracks, with a demonstration showing a variation of Avicii's "Levels" remixed by American music producer Skrillex. Three fictional radio stations are featured, all catering to different styles and genres of music. Some featured songs are from highly popular producers, while some are from lesser-known artists, and multiple Australian artists, such as Cut Copy and Empire of the Sun. Playground Games also worked with Bestival founder and DJ Rob da Bank. He curated the featured songs and design of the festival, giving a more authentic experience. In an interview with DJMag, he said, "I was brought on board right at the start as a sort of creative consultant. Not just overseeing the music soundtrack, but also the design of the festival within the game, how the radio stations work in the car, and loads of other bits — including how you never put toilets near the food areas.[...]"
Forza Horizon received "favourable" reviews according to the review aggregation website Metacritic. Scores range from a two perfect scores given by Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb and David Wahlström of Eurogamer Sweden to a 60% approval from Philip Kollar of Polygon. The majority of scores were of an 80% approval rating or higher. It ranked in the top 20 Xbox LIVE titles for the first two months following its release.
Eurogamer deputy editor Oli Welsh called Horizon "a big, exciting game that finally brings car enthusiasts together with the realistic open roads they crave." Welsh noted that the control scheme and realistic handling allows players to enjoy driving even the slowest of cars. GamesRadar's Sterling McGarvey felt that sometimes the cars lacked precise handling, but gave high marks for the game's environment and vast amount of activities to do. Matthew Kato of Game Informer praised the game's visuals. He gave high marks for the dynamic day/night cycle and the detailed environment and vehicles. He also praised the online multiplayer, including the game's Cat and Mouse multiplayer chase mode. Kato did note that much of the open world is blocked by guardrails, thus blocking a player's ability to chart their own paths during events such as a race against a plane.
In a more critical review Polygon's Philip Kollar noted that he felt the open-world environment felt empty. He further criticised the game's aggressive and expensive DLC plan. He stated that while the content is not forced on the player "it feels like the game is desperate to squeeze your wallet empty." Kollar said that Forza Horizon "is at its best when it drops the sim pretence and embraces its arcade nature".
Non-video game publications gave high praise for the game also. The Digital Fix gave it nine out of ten, saying that it "marks a new direction for the series and one that deserves your attention. Not only does it provide top notch visuals, a fantastic summer soundtrack and a wealth of racing options, it makes a traditionally sterile racing simulator just down right [sic] fun." The Daily Telegraph gave it a score of four stars out of five, calling it "a thrilling, charismatic, feel-good racer. They are the definitions that matter." The Globe and Mail also gave it a score of eight out of ten, calling it "a refreshing take on the racing genre that successfully straddles the line between serious car porn simulation and arcade-like bang 'em up games (including its voracious hunger for your "quarters")." Digital Spy similarly gave it four stars out of five, saying, "It will be interesting to see how Forza Horizon fares against Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Criterion's new open world racer that is out next month. But in the absence of that review, it is clear that Playground Games has seriously raised the bar in all areas for the non-linear racing genre with Forza Horizon, and others will now have to play catchup." The Guardian likewise gave it four stars out of five, praising its "RPG-like popularity engine" that encourages players to perform stunts and make riskier decisions rather than to simply follow racing lines. 
In Japan, Famitsu gave it a total score of 36 out of 40. One reviewer said, "The way you participate in events and run races on public roads serves well as a new direction for the series. Earning popularity for things like drifting and other stuff makes it fun to just drive around, but I still wish there was something more unique to this game. I have to give top marks to the graphics and ease of play, though." Another reviewer stated, "This used to be a really stoic racing simulator, but this is more of a driving game designed to be easy to pick up. I feel like the controls are more forgiving, too, and the open-world freedom makes the whole thing a lot more approachable."
- Additional work was provided by Turn 10 Studios.
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