The secret best part of every Forza Horizon game is the highways. Whether it’s driving down the freeway under the shadow of Forza Horizon’s imposing Colorado mesas, or across the wide, open dual carriageway that runs from Surfers Paradise to the Outback in Forza Horizon 3, it’s always a thrill.
In most racing games, these long, high-speed routes would be the centrepiece attraction, but Forza Horizon rarely draws attention to them. A few races will make use of stretches of each highway, but the majority of routes are winding country roads or chaotic all-terrain scrambles. If Forza Horizon’s maps were just a way to link a selection of events, such restraint would be a waste. That they do still feel like such an integral part of each game is a testament to the series’ breadth of purpose. The Horizon games are about more than just racing. This is a series that celebrates driving – a mission statement that’s achieved in more ways than mere competition.
In addition to the main progression, each Forza Horizon lets you earn points from skills, earned through adept displays of dangerous driving. You are awarded points for drifting, jumping, smashing into small objects, driving pants-troublingly close to other cars, or even just going very, very fast. These skills can also be chained, increasing your multiplier.
Each of the skills is risky. A near-miss can easily turn into a crash, and a drift can send you skidding into a roadside barrier. If you do crash, you lose your current chain. To bank the points, used to unlock passive perks, you’ll need to stop earning skills for a short period, thus ending the current chain.
It’s a fantastic system, because it’s a simple, compelling and immediate battle of risk and reward. Skills are earned frequently, and often accidentally. It’s easy to clip a sign post as you take a sharp corner, or drive slightly too close to a car as you pass. Do so, and the UI springs to life, hanging on the screen, goading you into doing more.
As your points build, the skill display starts to vibrate. It’s as if the game is genuinely excited about your achievement. But there’s a hint of tension, too. Horizon’s UI is telling you that you’re driving on a knife edge between banking big points and losing it all. Do you play it safe, or keep pushing? Further complicating matters are the special skills, earned for particularly skilful or reckless manoeuvres. A few jumps in a row will earn a ‘kangaroo’ bonus, or you can gently nudge your rear bumper against a barricade during a drift for a ‘drift tap’. These add a significant number of points to your total, which, if you’ve already built a large multiplier, can mean the difference between a good score and an amazing one.
Hence the allure of the highways. It’s not necessarily the most efficient way to build a skill score, but it is one of the purest – the perfect confluence of challenge and fun. Always busy, these straight, long roads dare you to drive fast while dodging and weaving through traffic. You’ll soon chain multiple near-misses, as well as special ‘daredevil’ and ‘threading the needle’ skills – the former earned for rapid near-misses, the latter for driving between two side-by-side cars. Add in speed and wreckage skills, and you can build a respectable score. But the slightest mistake, and you’ll lose it all.
If you don’t want the tension of perfect, breakneck avoidance, the other secret best part of the most recent Forza Horizon games – yes, there are multiple – is driving across farmland. Forza Horizon 2 introduced off-road driving, letting you take you car across the lush rolling hills of Europe. As you speed across the country side, you’ll plow through crops, vines and other small vegetation.
All of this builds points. The simple, cathartic act of drifting through a field may be disastrous for local agriculture, but it’s a sure fire, entertaining way to build your skill meter. This is how Forza Horizon distinguishes itself from Forza Motorsport’s skill system. Outright mistakes are punished, but, here, vehicular mischief is celebrated – farmers be damned.
Skill points add purpose to Forza Horizon’s open-world. Driving to a new location is enjoyable, but skills give your journey true meaning. It’s a chance to earn rewards from the otherwise rote act of travelling to a place, and turns the time spent between each race into a meaningful activity. This is how Forza Horizon sets itself apart from other open world racers. Burnout Paradise’s map features hundreds of collectibles, but they’re a distraction from the main, and thus fully justifies its size and scope. Forza Horizon doesn’t distract, it adds. It turns the map into a space for freeform, self-directed challenge.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.