Although this Forza is unlike any Forza you’ve played before, it will feel familiar to anyone who’s played Smuggler’s Run, Fuel, Test Drive Unlimited 2, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Burnout Paradise, or Driver. Basically, there’s a lot of driving between the driving. How do you do this without making it feel like a commute? Forza Horizon mostly handles this adroitly. It’s a laidback road trip with lots of road running through lots of scenery. Kick back and drive.

But if you’re looking for a well-made open world, you’ve taken a wrong turn into the sort of festive racing fest you’d find in an EA game or one of Codemaster’s latest games. You play yet another mute character racing against a bunch of trash talking douchebags, but this time you wear the world’s ugliest watch. What, you don’t drive from the cockpit view? Given that timepiece, I can’t say I blame you.

After the jump, where would you like to go today? I hope you said Colorado.

This chunk of Colorado isn’t nearly as varied, broad, active, or online as Test Drive Unlimited 2. For all its myriad faults — don’t get me started! — Test Drive Unlimited 2 was densely packed with things to do, sights to see, stuff to buy, career tracks to advance. Even though a lot of it was silly, it was effective. It had a sense of place. Two senses of place, in fact, as you bopped freely between Hawaii and Ibiza. Forza Horizon feels smaller, more limited, more modest. More post-apocalyptic. Where are all the cars? At least it looks good. It’s nothing if not lushly lit.

One of Forza’s trademark features is the lack of a meaningful economy, and that’s particularly disappointing in an open world. A fast travel feature, which isn’t really relevant in such a small world, is a minor money sink for how you’ll probably never even use it. If you care enough, you can do challenges to reduce the cost of fast travelling. Car upgrades, often handled for you, are another minor money sink. You might think you’d want to save up to buy cars. Not really. You’ve already got plenty of cars and you’re going to get plenty more. Have a car for leveling up. Have a car for finishing this race. Have a car in the multiplayer slot machine. Have a car from the Forza Community Team Ingame Spam Mailer. Find a car in a barn. Cars everywhere. Have another car. It’s a bit much. The audience of an Oprah Winfrey taping would feel right at home.

Don’t get me wrong. I like cars as much as the next guy. But Forza’s firehose approach to new cars — it’s raining cars! — cheapens the caRPGness of their games. I don’t care much about any given car, much less any upgrades. That might be a me-problem, since the Jay Leno approach to garages has been a Forza feature all along. Not everyone can appreciate the more meaningful cars parked in the more modest garages of Need for Speed: Shift, Test Drive Unlimited 2, and Midnight Club: Los Angeles.

Then there’s the driving. Let’s put to rest any notions you have that the driving model in Forza is serious. In Forza Horizon, racing is rubbing, wrecking, banging, and rewinding. Without a meaningful economy, there’s no incentive to drive anything other than completely wrecklessly. The driving physics concur. This is one of those games that has no solution to the problem of videogames teaching kids that the best way to keep inside a turn is to bounce off the side of another car. Bounce off other cars, rear end the guy in front of you to slow down, and cut across corners with impunity.

Forza 4 levied damage fees. It furthermore pushed dirty drivers to the bottom of the leaderboards. But the unserious Forza Horizon does no such thing. There is no incentive to drive responsibly, or even well. With Forza’s trademark rewind system, all mistakes are immediately erasable unless you turn off the rewind for a paltry cash bonus to your earnings. Why would you do such a thing? You need money? Have some of mine. I have more than enough. There are plenty of social leaderboards to climb, but I’m convinced that anyone better than me is just using driving assists that leech all personality from Forza’s already glib driving model. Hope you guys are having fun brute force arcading your faster times. Come beat my times in Need for Speed: Shift when you’re ready to get serious.

But as far as taking an easy ride through fancy and blandly pleasant graphics, Forza Horizon is a tough game to beat. It takes a certain kind of driving game to make me care that the radios in these cars suck. They only get three stations, so I have to choose between twee indie rock, twee electronica, and twee dub step. Why am I paying attention to the music? Because that’s what you do when you take an easy drive. And that’s exactly what Forza Horizons is. The miles tick by easily, the cars purr obligingly, the races are doled out like candy and just as gratifying. The road goes on and on through that patch of faux Colorado between wherever I’m going and wherever I’ve been.

3 stars
Xbox 360