With Forza Motorsport in its fourth generation and still releasing new downloadable content - such as the recent Porsche car pack - this racing game now defines the genre in terms of graphics, physics and playability. So perhaps it's surprising to learn that Forza's creators, Turn 10 Studios, is creating "son of Forza" in conjunction with British developer, Playground Games.
With industry leaders producing new titles on an annual basis, the new title - Forza Horizon - would buy the studio time before Forza Motorsport 5 is released. Eager to find out if this was a standalone game or simply a distraction, we had an opportunity to sit down with representatives from both companies and get some seat time on the game.
We spoke to Ralph Fulton, Playground's Design Director, who previously worked at Codemasters on titles such as Grid, DiRT and F1 2010. And with that kind of resume, Playground wasn't going to be overwhelmed by the Forza franchise.
Ralph explained that Horizon is an open-world action racer that aims to encapsulate youth culture in a game that combines cars with music, racing, parties, speed and style.
As such, they engaged British DJ and festival promoter Rob da Bank to create the music selection, available on three different radio stations. Rob also consulted on what Ralph described as the Forza Festival: this forms the hub of the game, from where players disperse into the open-world environment.
Having studied the best roads and scenery in the world, the developers chose Colorado as the location for the new game, mapping it in detail and incorporating 65 different surfaces into the gameplay. This is something new for Forza, with an element of off-asphalt racing that plays into Ralph's DiRT experience.
The game is mapped up to 12 miles from any point, allowing you to drive into the environment and explore the game's uber LOD (level of detail) to provide authenticity to the surroundings and road surfaces.
Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any weather patterns in the game, but it does have a 24-hour cycle that alters the sun's position, cloud cover and lighting. This is done in real-time, so is constantly changing, adding an extra dimension to races.
In the Festival area, players can find new cars, paint them, select a race, etc. You can also organize impromptu races anywhere in the map if you come across another competitor. All this takes place on public roads, with Forza's AI program introducing slower, unexpected traffic into the mix.
Players amass points through racing as well as drifting, damage, weaving ,etc. Your points tally then allows you to buy new cars or modify them. It also increases your "popularity", resulting in more invitations to race.
Dan Greenwalt from Turn 10 explained that it was his dream to turn gamers into car enthusiasts, and car enthusiasts into gamers. He felt that Forza Motorsport did the latter and is hoping that Horizon with reach gamers who might not have caught the automotive bug yet.
The open-world format and the ability to flit from one race or challenge to another, allows players to dip into the game without being committed to a long series of races as you would in Forza 4.
By tying car culture to music and lifestyle, both parties are hoping it will bring a new group of fans who might have perhaps been put off by Forza's hardcore racing simulator in the past.
So is Horizon dumbing down the Forza recipe? Dan sees it as a way to ignite a passion for cars. As such, Horizon is like the entry drug to Forza Motorsport's uncut racing game. Yet it still possesses all the breathtaking beauty of Forza graphics and the stupidly realistic physics that makes Forza such a joy to play if you're into racing games.
We had a brief chance to sample a portion of Horizon, driving the latest Dodge Viper that will grace the cover art when the game is released on October 23 ($59.99).
The race begins with competitors leaving from a dusty parking lot, kicking up gravel, engines roaring, perfect reflections in the paintwork.
As you set off in pursuit, you discover that an excursion onto the grass verge won't slow you like in Forza 4, but you will lose traction and risk a spin. Dodging the occasional Toyota Prius is all part of the fun as you race for first place, gaining points for speed and daring.
Up to 45sec of rewind is available to avoid those continuous do-overs if one section of the game is defeating you on a regular basis - Playground don't want the game to frustrate, but do want it to be absorbing, so it features all Forza's online community elements, allowing friends to compete against you or against your times.
Although we didn't experience it, the game will have a multiplayer "rivals" mode as well as co-op to bring even more depth.
As far as licensing is concerned, Horizon won't have the same immense depth of cars as Forza 4, but will have models suited to different terrains, so expect the Audi quattro, Mitsubishi Evo, etc.
We drove a Viper against a Mercedes SL, BMW M3 and other exotica. But it's not all brand new supercars. Ralph Fulton hinted at a "barn find" section that allows you to uncover classic vehicles.
Car damage is limited to visual impacts, with no detrimental affect on the car's performance, no matter how hard you hit. However, the damage physics are reprogrammed from Forza 4's model, according to Fulton, so the cars are damaged in a different way and at a different rate since impacts are now part of the gameplay, not a consequence of your mistakes. Again, this speaks to the accessibility of the game and a new direction for the franchise.
So if you're into racing games but don't like the rigid format of track-based titles, or you're simply looking for a game that will let you taste what it's like to get sideways on gravel in the latest supercar, Forza horizon should bring you a great deal of enjoyment.
We'll bring you more details as they are uncovered closer to the October launch date.