My parents frequently tell the story of how I beat the original Super Mario Bros when I was only three years old. So, I’ve got about three decades of the hobby under my belt, and like many others in the 90s, I grew up as a Nintendo kid. My young, inexperienced mind thought of Sega as an off-brand. I felt that the Genesis lacked the charm of Nintendo’s already well-established franchises and icons and that the controller was overcrowded and cumbersome. Because of these reasons, it gathered dust in my closet for the majority of my childhood. It wasn’t that I hated it… It simply felt unnecessary.
1995 rolled around to bring about Sony’s first foray into the console war. After years of Nintendo’s monopoly on my game time, it didn’t take much for Sony’s darling to win my affections and form me into a PlayStation die-hard with its ergonomic controller, exceptional graphics, and an enthralling library of new mascots and experiences. From the moment I played Final Fantasy VII, Spyro the Dragon, and Crash Bandicoot, I knew I had a new favorite console.
Years later, when Microsoft released the Xbox against the PS2, I found myself experiencing those familiar Sega vibes. Like the Genesis, the Xbox sported a bit more power than its competitor and felt more futuristic, but it once again offered an impractical controller and felt very focused on only sports and shooting games. Still, I was a gamer first and a PlayStation fan second, so I dove right in nonetheless. I came out feeling underwhelmed and disappointed in the fact that, like Sega before it, Microsoft seemed to lack the charm, whimsy, and general sense of “just fun” that I experienced with my PlayStation or Nintendo. This feeling continued with the Xbox 360, which I used for the typical Halo and Gears of War playthroughs, then quickly discarded it under the shelf to remain untouched for sometimes well over a year.
I bought Microsoft’s Xbox One at launch eager to see them use the momentum they built with the Xbox 360’s admittedly superior online platform to propel themselves into a wider array of first-party franchises and impressive hardware. I appreciated the improved controller and general sense of new purpose Phil Spencer brought to the table early on in its life-cycle. However, I was still entirely disappointed in its meager exclusives, underwhelming hardware, laggy UI, and the fact that it lacked basic functionalities like built-in rechargeable batteries or Bluetooth headsets available with the cheaper PS4. Like the Genesis in my childhood, I didn’t hate it… It simply felt unnecessary.
I proceeded to break out my Xbox One for Halo, Gears of War, Sunset Overdrive, and a handful of other games before slowly leaving it to die covered in dust alone on a shelf as the PS4’s library and playerbase grew exponentially larger. However, thanks to my ongoing Xbox Live subscription, I continued downloading Games With Gold releases each month. Eventually, that dedication paid off.
Enter: Forza Horizon 2. Having never been a racing game fan, I expected to enjoy less than an hour of the popular game before quickly deleting it and moving on. What I never expected was to be awake at 4 am telling myself for the tenth time, “Okay, just one more race.” Still, there I was with my eyes bloodshot when my wife woke up for work the next morning, but I’ll be damned if I hadn’t saved up enough CR for that new car.
Oh, what a joy I had discovered racing in a solid black Ferrari through France and Italy at 145mph while tearing through local towns and narrowly missing devastating crashes. A person who once criticized car people for getting too wound up over hunks of painted metal was suddenly poring over which car would be best suited for which race and working out my in-game finances to save for my next exciting purchase. Out of nowhere, my Xbox One X was finally worth every penny.
It’s been a few weeks since I finally gave the franchise a shot, and Horizon 2 has quickly become one of my favorite games. I’ve since downloaded and devoted myself to both the original game and the gorgeous third entry, both of which ooze with excitement and fun. Additionally, I’ve already pre-ordered the Ultimate Edition of the upcoming Forza Horizon 4 with zero hesitation, eager to explore its stunning take on England and revolutionary season changes. I’ve gone from utterly indifferent to hopelessly addicted in under a month, and there’s no sign of slowing down.
The Horizon franchise excels thanks to its unique and lighthearted approach to a genre so well known for mundane simulation. Unlike the mainline Forza games, Horizon sheds some of its sim roots for a more arcade-y free roam experience. You spend your time exploring gorgeous countrysides in unique and expertly-crafted environments as you seek out new cars hidden in barns, challenge other cars to impromptu races, and complete “bucket list” challenges in a wide variety of unique vehicles and scenarios. You can spend endless hours exploring without ever entering a single race, choosing instead to merely drive at blistering speeds and enjoy the absolute smorgasbord of optional content available in each game.
The gameplay itself is exceptional, resting perfectly on the line between simulation and arcade. Thanks to myriad difficulty sliders, you can adjust how much of the sim aspect you’d like to invest in. From adjusting the level of brake assistance to deciding dead zones on acceleration, the Horizon games let you decide for yourself just how deep you want your experience to be. This is incredible for an inexperienced person like me. I started things off on the absolute easiest of settings during my initial few hours, but time and patience have taught me the intricacies of each car and surface type to the point that I’m now able to enjoy the games on their base settings. The game rewards you with extra currency for turning off various assistance settings, so it creates a perfect blend of accessibility and incentive to improve and makes Forza Horizon a perfect franchise to break in new racing game fans.
These choices carry over into the franchise’s upgrade system as well. While there’s a prolific amount of upgrades, tuning options, and car selections, very little of it is required to finish the game or enjoy your time with it. Enthusiasts can delve into these options to enhance their experience, but newbies like me can simply engage with it only so far as I’m comfortable.
Strangely, however, it wasn’t even Horizon’s core gameplay that initially drew me in. No, I knew I loved Horizon as soon as I drove into the festival for the first time. The Horizon Festival is a booming, electric thrill full of ecstatic crowds, thumping music, and vivid colors. The entrancing aesthetic of the games mixed with the lively and upbeat announcers give them a lightheartedness that just isn’t found elsewhere. One of my most memorable gaming moments in recent memory was the opening of Horizon 3; driving along a breathtaking coast with entrancing music beating loudly through my headphones as I focused my camera on a staggeringly beautiful setting sun in the distance. The announcer excitedly explaining things as I closed in on the explosive festival full of adoring fans and striking visuals gave me a feeling of ramping up to something truly special. I felt a smile creep along my face as I fired into the festival at full speed to begin my adventure in the Outback. It’s moments like these that, when combined with the excellent RPG-esque leveling system and constant reward system, always keeps me visually, audibly, and emotionally invested in Horizon games. It’s a triple threat, and it’s damn near perfect.
The part that I find most interesting about it all is that Horizon has somehow single-handedly given me a new perspective on my Xbox One. I no longer look at it with contempt and resentment as it sits there covered in dust. Alongside Halo and Gears of War, Horizon rounds out a trio of meaningful long-term franchises I’m interested in that finally make me feel proud to own the system. It feels so at home on Microsoft’s system thanks to the Xbox One’s controller’s rumbling triggers and pressure sensitivity being so beautifully suited for the minute applications of the gas and brakes. I never expected to say it, but I wouldn’t want Forza Horizon on my PS4 even if it was multi-platform.
Ultimately, I’m still very happy as a “Sony guy” and feel no shame in saying so, but thanks to Forza Horizon, I can finally say that I’m excited for my future with the Xbox brand. I may never be able to explain precisely why this one series changed my entire outlook so abruptly, but I don’t have time to analyze the psychology behind that when I’m so busy ripping down the coast in a McLaren P1.
- Billy Givens