Comparison Review: Need for Speed Most Wanted vs. Forza Horizon

I’m going to try something experimental here – review two games at once (separate scores). I decided to do this as both games are very similar and were released in the same year.

I’d first like to say that I am a fan of both series. I’ve loved all the Forza games except the first one, and that is probably because I never played it. I also love the Need for Speed series and I’ve played pretty much all of them. I never liked Pro Street though, no idea what that was all about. For this reason it will be interesting to see how these two games compare, considering Horizon is more or less what Need for Speed has been doing for years.

Traditionally Forza has always been about racing on a closed course. Forza also leans more towards simulation racing, although not nearly as much as Gran Turismo, which allows Forza to appeal to a wider range of audiences. Forza also focuses on the cars as well – each car can be upgraded, tuned and painted pretty much any way you like. Forza also attempts to create communities with things like car clubs and marketplaces so it also includes a social aspect. Horizon steps out of the series’ comfort zone, with slightly less realistic physics and more importantly, an open world environment –  two things that make it more closely related to Need for Speed.

Need for Speed on the other hand focuses on the street racing scene, even in the early days with games like Road Challenge, Hot pursuit and even one of my favorite, lesser known underdogs, Porsche Unleashed – all of the racing takes place on public roads. This means that you’re not just battling with other racers, but traffic and sometimes cops as well. This usually makes for some interesting gameplay and definitely changes things a bit. For example – the concept of the racing line is completely thrown out, as you have to account for traffic and avoiding the cops. Sometimes, you can also play as the cops as well, which again makes for a change in gameplay.

The first major feature of both games is that they both feature an ‘open world’ environment. In Horizon, you’ll be roaming the streets that are based on Colorado. You’ll be dodging traffic, setting speeds with speed traps and smashing signs for discounts at the upgrade store. Not only are there asphalt roads but dirt roads too, so sometimes AWD can come in handy, but is not necessary. There are also other NPC racers roaming around, which you can challenge, and if you win, you’ll get some money based difficulty. Getting to race events in Horizon means setting waypoints to them and driving there. You can teleport (fast travel) to the Horizon festival locations, such as the garage, paint shop etc, but other places must be driven to. There are also outposts which you can teleport to for a fee to make travel quicker, although I preferred to drive to locations simply because I enjoy the driving in Horizon. Outposts’ teleport costs can be reduced to free by completing ‘PR Events’ at each one. There are some great looking locations in the world, but for the most part, you’ll be speeding past it, so it’s hard to appreciate any detail, including the day/night cycle. A lot of the roads are mostly twisting one or two lane roads – perfect for car enthusiasts and as mentioned before some dirt roads. There are also small towns/cities with a grid like setup to make things a little different. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of traffic and coupled with the fact that a lot of the roads look pretty much the same it can feel a little lifeless at times, but it’s still fun to drive around in.

Most Wanted’s world is very similar to Horizon except in Most Wanted you’ll be avoiding cops. Getting to events means driving to them for the first time, but after that you can teleport to them via an in game interface that’s really easy to use. The traffic feels a little heavier in Most Wanted, though not by much, however the world does have a bit more variety than Horizon, which really comes in handy when trying to avoid the cops and is also more pleasing to the eye. As with Horizon, traffic is made up of your regular family sedans, light trucks and SUV’s to make it feel a little more realistic.

In terms of looks, Most Wanted’s world edges out a bit over Horizon, however I like how Horizon’s world is set up. For example, to get a new car in Horizon, you simply drive or fast travel to the ‘Auto Show’ and you can buy any car you want as long as you have the credits. In Most Wanted however, you have to come across it in the street somewhere and drive up to it. Once you have found a car, you now own it and can get in it at any time whilst not in a race. This sort of forces the player to drive around the world hunting for cars, which I found a little annoying. I preferred buying them from one place. Horizon has something similar though, called ‘Barn Finds’. These are 9 unique classic cars that are located somewhere in the world and you’ll be notified when one can be found. There will be a general area that you can look in to find the car, so it cuts down on the time spent roaming around, wasting time. If you want to waste even less time you could just look up the locations online, something I recommend instead of buying a treasure map from Xbox Live marketplace that reveals the locations. In free roam mode, Horizon features a few more things to do, but in race mode, for both worlds, the open world aspect is largely pointless as the routes for the races are linear and don’t allow for much freedom at all.

The story for both games are very similar – you’re basically trying to be the best racer in the respective world and you do so by competing in smaller racing events to get a chance to challenge one of the celebrities or top racers. Once you beat them, you climb to the top even further to beat the top racer and become the best racer there is in the world, at which point you can exclaim Hammond style “I am a driving God”. Horizon has 7 bosses, whilst Most Wanted has 10. In either case when you beat them, you win their car. The smaller events in Horizon feature different types of races that contribute to a points system that lets you access more races to challenge your rivals. Some of them are closed circuit and there are no traffic, but still take place on public roads. Others are are point to point and have a linear route with traffic. There are also a few events called ‘Showcase’ events that usually pit a given car against a plane, chopper and even a hot air balloon. This is a point to point event and when you win, you get to keep the car. Horizon’s races aren’t just about winning though – there is a ranking system based on popularity. You get more popular by showing off your skills, which can be done in and out of races. Skills are things like drifting, burnouts, near misses with traffic and getting air. Leveling up your popularity can gain you an extra money bonus as it impresses the Horizon sponsors.

There is just as much variety in Most Wanted’s races, except cops are involved. This changes the gameplay a bit as you’ll have to come up with different strategies for winning races, as not only will you be attempting to overtake other racers and dodge traffic, but also outrun the cops, get through their speed blocks and avoid spike strips. The more damage you cause and the longer you keep the cops chasing after you, the bigger your wanted level becomes and the harder the cops are. There are places that you can hide in that reduce your wanted level and make it hard for the cops to find you. Another alternative to losing the cops is to drive through a gas station that repairs your car. These stations not only repair your car, but repaint it too and you don’t have to stop either.

One thing that can make or break a driving game is the driving physics – just look at Test Drive: Unlimited – great game concept, but the awful driving physics made me hate it. Both Horizon and Most Wanted feature a more laid back physics engine and Most Wanted even more so. Horizon’s cars feel a bit more like driving actual cars, but not so much to the point where it feels like a simulation. In addition, the difficulty can be tweaked to make driving a lot easier, something Most Wanted is lacking. For this reason, Horizon wins here as it can appeal to the casual gamer, whilst still retaining the Forza fans and  driving enthusiasts. That’s not to say Most Wanted’s driving physics are bad – the cars in Most Wanted all feel different, but is clearly leaning more towards a more ‘arcadey’ feel, especially when it comes to drifting – it’s so much easier to drift in Most Wanted, but it’s still not that hard in Horizon. Whilst I’m on the subject of difficulty, Most Wanted rates races as either easy, medium or hard and that’s about it. Here, Horizon shines as things like driving aids and opponent difficulty can be adjusted and tailored to suit any player of any skill. Of course, turning down the difficulty in Horizon means you get less of a reward, which only encourages you to challenge yourself. There is also one aspect of driving that I must call attention to for Most Wanted that I feel ruins the driving experience. In Horizon you have different cameras – third person near/far, in car and a hood view – standard for most, if not all racing games. Unfortunately, the Most Wanted developers chose to ignore this standard and you only get two cameras – third person and first person hood view with no hood. This is disappointing not only because it shows lazy developers but it makes the game feel cheap, like a budget game – a low level of production quality I don’t expect from a Need for Speed title. I’m not asking for detailed interiors, just give me a hood in first person view so I can drive more accurately. You might argue that Most Wanted isn’t supposed to be a realistic driving game and you’d have a point, but lets face it – this isn’t made to compete with Mario Kart or Blur, it’s a little bit more realistic than that, and all other games of this category have proper cameras. The AI in both games is pretty decent, but I think Horizon is a little less predictable and on the lower difficulties, they tend to make more mistakes, which adds a human quality to them. One thing I hate about Most Wanted’s AI, is that it feels like everyone is against you, especially the cops. They rarely go after the other racers as hard as they do on you and that sort of bias makes the game a little frustrating at times.

Speaking of frustration, when you crash in Horizon, it’s no big deal – you just get back on the road and continue, or if you have it enabled, rewind time and don’t make the same mistake twice. However, when you crash particularly bad in Most Wanted, it tries to imitate the immaturity of something like Burnout, where it changes to a cinematic slow motion camera that would make anyone into car crash porn drool. I hate this because it seems juvenile and pointless and doesn’t let me see what else is going on in the race. This is something that no racing game should have, except the Burnout series, as those games are all about juvenile destruction as opposed to skilled racing.

The races themselves are well designed in Horizon, although they start to look a little samey towards the end. The same appears to be true of Most Wanted, but annoyingly the courses in Most Wanted and not as well designed as Horizon. It’s too easy to go off track and for an open world racer, it really doesn’t allow you the freedom you might expect. Though the freedom argument is true for both, it hurts even more so in Most Wanted due to bad course design. I rarely went off course in Horizon, but it happened all too often in Most Wanted.

Even though both are arcade racers, they both have real cars in them, so I expect a little bit of realism. I have no complaints with Horizon in this regard, but in Most Wanted, I find it stupid that a Ford Crown Vic can keep up with a Lamborghini. I realize logic doesn’t always have to be in a video game, but come on, this is really pushing it!

Cars can be upgraded in both games, although Horizon allows for a lot more customizations than Most Wanted’s relatively simple system. On top of that, Horizon’s cars can be painted any way you like and have custom designs applied to them, and you can change the rims to be as tasteful or distasteful as you like. The point is, you make the car yours and not just another car on the road. Custom designs can be made by yourself, or purchased from a marketplace, highlighting Horizon’s community aspect. The exterior models in both games look great, but I think Horizon edges out a little more because they look a little more realistic. Obviously Horizon wins when it comes to interiors as Most Wanted does not have an in car view.

On the subject of graphics and presentation both games look equally great. My only complaint about Most Wanted is glare from the sun is too excessive and the reflection hinders my ability to drive. In Horizon, your car can only be visually damaged, if you have it turned on. When your car does become damaged, it isn’t s detailed as Most Wanted, where cars crumple more and bits fly off. In Horizon, there is less crumpling and you mostly get paint scratches. Damage also affects performance in Most Wanted, but not in Horizon. As stated before, the open world looks good, but Most Wanted looks slightly better. Horizon has a day/night cycle, but Most Wanted has a rain/no rain cycle, which also affects handling. If Horizon had weather effects, it would win out easily in this comparison, especially if it affected performance. As a side note, the next thing I wanted from the Forza team as I was writing this review was a rally game and it appears my wish has been granted – there will be a rally expansion pack for Horizon coming out soon, if it isn’t out already.

Continuing the discussion on presentation – both games sound great, although I would argue Horizon’s car sounds are much better. If you don’t believe me, drive in any tunnel, especially in a car with a V8 or bigger and try to tell me you didn’t experience any frisson. Most Wanted’s engine sounds are not as detailed as Horizon’s but they’re good enough. Horizon also has better tire sounds, but I think Most Wanted has better crash sounds. Both games feature a great soundtrack as well. Horizon has 3 radio stations with DJ’s and the music selection is pretty good with maybe only 2 or 3 songs I didn’t like. Most Wanted does not have radio stations, but a playlist instead. Again, the music selection is pretty good with only 2 or 3 songs I didn’t like. For the most part, the music appeals to most tastes and if you’d prefer, can be turned off completely. When it comes to sound, both games are pretty equal.

In conclusion, I think Horizon is the best Need for Speed game ever made… It reminds of some of the better Need for Speed titles such as Hot Pursuit (not the one by Criterion), Road Challenge and Underground, in terms of gameplay, car physics and selection and when it comes down to it – a focus on racing. I wished the roads didn’t become repetitive after a while and whilst I’m looking for things to complain about, the load times could be better, although they aren’t nearly as bad as Forza 4. I should mention load times in Most Wanted for me are irrelevant as I played it on PC and had no issue with load times, but I think it’s unfair to compare the two on load times because they’re on different platforms. I was pleasantly surprised at how good Horizon is, considering this is Forza’s first jump into a world that is largely dominated by the Need for Speed series. Horizon focuses on exciting races and great driving physics, as well as appealing to all kinds of car lovers and gamers – a great recipe for success. 9/10.

In terms of final quality Most Wanted feels like a big step down from what I expect from the Need for Speed series. The concept of the game isn’t really something new, it’s something that the Need for Speed series has been doing for a while, and quite well, up until this point. Most Wanted has everything it needs to be a great Need for Speed game, but ends up being only a decent Need for Speed game as it falls short on technicalities. Less aggressive and unrealistic AI, and a focus on the player as a driver would turn this least wanted Need for Speed game into a true Need for Speed classic. 7/10.

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