'Forza: Horizon' looks to blow gamers away

"Forza: Horizon," a Microsoft game, is one of the most anticipated games in 2012. Microsoft

Race Mustang versus Mustang in most driving games, and we’re talking a 2013 version versus a classic like a ’66 GT.

But forget what you think you know about virtual racing with “Forza: Hoirzon,” because while you’re speeding around the open world of the Colorado landscape, the Mustang you’re racing against is actually in the sky.

That’s right, when I got my hands on “Forza: Horizon” the other day during a Microsoft event in San Francisco, one of the first challenges I faced was racing a classic Mustang against a P-51 flying overhead. So while the plane was faster in the straight-away, the car was quicker handling the turns as we went from checkpoint to checkpoint until I eked out a win at the checkered flag.

And that was just the beginning, as I got to play the game for about an hour. And I have to say, the game was so much fun, I was genuinely bummed out when they told me I had to stop playing because my demo time was over (who cares if you want to eat lunch, I’m racing here!).

From the amazing sense of speed to the variety of races to the car culture so intimately captured on screen, “Forza: Horizon” is now one of my most eagerly awaited titles for all of 2012.

“This is a new direction, a new expression of the ‘Forza’ vision,” explains one of the game’s creators, Dan Greenwalt. “'Forza' is very much about car culture and game culture and getting these two things together. Our goal is to get people to start thinking about cars in a new way.”

So while past “Forza” games were about shaving that tenth of a second off your lap time, “Horizon” is more about that open-world exploration. Now it’s not just about the race; it’s about your journey to the event itself.

“We call ‘Horizon’ an action-racing game,” Greenwalt said. “It’s about exploration, it’s about having a good time, it’s about pick-up-and-play fun. We also call this game where competition meets culture.”

And Greenwalt doesn’t just mean car culture, as the game is centered around a giant summer music festival combined with almost Gumball Rally-like racing. The combination allows you to show off your cars and driving ability and winning events, while at the same time winning fans thanks to showboat moves like drifting between cars on a turn (there are over 35 ways to score in the popularity vote), not to mention adding over five hours of music, three radio stations, and over 60 tracks to the game thanks to the music festival playing on in the background.

“If you drifted a Viper around some cars on the open road, people would pull out their cell phones and take a video, and this is what it’s all based on,” says Greenwalt. “So there is this popularity rating, which is all about style, and then we also have these sanctioned events, and those are all about winning and speed.”

But it’s not about constantly replaying the same tracks over and over in order to shave a little time. In “Horizon,” it’s more about how you win. Are you going to bump opponents out of your way? Are you going to cut through the dirt and take the race off-road? So depending on how you’re attacking each of these races, car choice become paramount.

Unlike past titles, where once you buy that Ford Mustang, your Ford Focus is never used again, in “Horizon” that Focus can be upgraded and used to compete all throughout the game. Every car in “Horizon” is tuned differently and they all have their own nuances, so you’ll still find yourself needing your earlier cars, even when you have that Viper sitting in the garage.

Throw in Kinect-enabled GPS where all you have to do is say something like “next race” and arrows magically appear on the road to guide you to your next event, and you can see why someone like me, who still manages to get lost in the same city I’ve lived in for the past decade, would instantly fall in love.

With hundreds of miles of road to explore, the GPS really comes in handy. Even if you don’t have Kinect, you can simply go to the map, highlight where you want to go, and the arrows will appear on screen to get you there as you plow through signs and work on your drifting and drafting skills on the open road between races.

“Every road is an epic adventure,” adds Greenwalt. “Colorado provides a great canvas for diversity, so you start off in this Vail-style ski resort, you go through the crags and canyons, there’s farmland, small towns, mountains, red rocks, golf courses … just a ton of diversity.”

The diversity doesn’t stop with the landscape as the variety of events includes everything from simple point-to-point racing to street racing to showcase events like that Mustang versus Mustang battle, where you’re trying to listen for the roar of the plane’s engine overhead to get a sense of just how close the race is going to end.

Adds Greenwalt: “It’s all about building a relationship with your cars through these different events, and that really comes down to the car list, and trust me, our car list is immense. These are the types of cars you would showoff during a summer music festival, like a Ferrari Spider.”

Besides, where else can take a Viper to a golf course, drift between carts then try to jump a sandtrap?

“Forza: Horizon” (Xbox 360) speeds into stores October 23.