For the longest time, the focus of Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport series has always been on one thing – to be the best simulation racing series on the gaming market.  And while the Gran Turismo franchise has presented quite a bit of challenge in that, Turn 10 Studios managed to stay the course, with Forza Motorsport 4 becoming one of the most highly respected games in the series.  (The licensing deal with the pros at Top Gear certainly didn’t hurt.)

What if that wasn’t enough for Microsoft?  Sure, Turn 10 Studios is probably hard at work on the next evolution of the Forza Motorsport franchise, but the team still thinks something more is needed – something loose and fun.  With that, Turn 10 has teamed up with Playground Games to produce a unique kind of Forza racing experience.  And that, folks, is where Forza Horizon comes in.

Horizon doesn’t take racing objectives on the straight-and-narrow as Motorsport has been doing all these years.  Instead, it takes a different emphasis, one more aimed at simply having fun on the road while, at the same time, packing the kind of racing fundamentals that fans have come to appreciate in the series.  And while it sounds like these two elements are likely to run head-on into one together, Playground has found a way to make them work cohesively.

The game takes place around a fictional “Horizon Festival” within Colorado.  You’ll take part in a number of challenges, using a variety of sporting vehicles that give you the best speeding ability you can find, as you prove to be the best in the racing campaign.  There are a number of racers who want to prove you otherwise, though, so you’ll want to stay on your guard.

Despite a completely new approach, Forza Horizon’s main concentration is on the driving action.  Playground Games worked closely with Turn 10 to give Horizon its own identity when it came to the open-world gameplay it provided, while still keeping the kind of realistic physics and handling to make driving fans appreciate what’s under the hood.

Drivers pop up throughout the racing campaign, and at any time, you’re able to challenge them to an Instant Race, getting behind the wheel to put your motor where your mouth is when it comes to being the best.  You can also switch between daytime and night time racing at the push of a button, so if you prefer seeing the canyons in the bright sunshine, or racing under the cover of darkness, you can get the best of both worlds here.  It’s kind of weird shifting through these perspectives, but being able to control your conditions, however you please, is a neat thing to see in a racing game such as this.

You might think that the open-world approach is unlike Forza, but Playground Games consists of staffers who worked on previous racing efforts like Burnout Paradise and Driver: San Francisco, so they have an understanding of pinpointing an objective anywhere you can find an event in the world and then going through it.  Winning events will obtain you wristbands, along with driving out of control, performing some crazy stunts and maintaining a good sense of speed.  The more you earn, obviously, the more you unlock within the world.

Forza Horizon will feature over 65 variants of terrain throughout the game, from the big city racing streets to the foothills, where plenty of challenging twists and turns await you.  Being able to change up your location, and with various cars to do so, adds to the overall replay value.  For that matter, the game will also feature ample Xbox Live support, so you can challenge others in your racing world, including leaderboard times and direct events.  This means more wrist bands, so don’t be afraid to get out there and show off your driving prowess.

From what we’ve played thus far, Forza Horizon definitely has potential.  Sure, we only played a small chunk of the “Forza Festival” thus far, and there are some things in the visuals that could use light improvement.  Overall, though, it’s easy to spot the same kind of appeal that made Forza Motorsport shine so well, between the fantastic looking cars, the user-friendly car handling and the heated competition that can come around each turn.  The music is a lively bunch of tunes, too, mainly made up of dubstep selections from the likes of Skillrex and company.  While that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, they certainly keep the racing events up-tempo enough.

Yes, Forza Motorsport 5 would be nice to have sooner than later, but seeing as how Turn 10 Studios is putting so much polish on it, Forza Horizon will have to do.  Thankfully, it’s got enough features in its open world, online and off, which should make it a suitable replacement.  Look for it later this year.