I am not much of a racing-game guy, unless it a) takes place in the future, b) has dinosaurs driving the cars, or c) has Forza in the title. The Forza series impresses, fundamentally, as a piece of craft. You just know that each of these cars was wheeled IRL into a room full of lasers to be scanned perfectly, their each intoxicating line painstakingly redrawn, the very texture of their leather interiors recreated with the tenderness of a lost lover. The cars roar in breathtaking harmony before each race. And then, good god, the feel: two triggers and a joystick, tied together tighter than a Hideki Kamiya brawler. If you’re an audiophile, you put on Steely Dan to hear money pour out of the speakers—if you’re interested in controllers, play a Forza game and discover just how far haptic feedback can be pushed.
But what really gets me about Forza games is their tone. The Motorsport series is the more stolid simulation, and so it talks to you insouciantly, marveling over “liveries” and “classic muscle” and “legends of autosport” while you presumably swirl a glass of whiskey. The music of last year’s remarkable Motorsport 6 seemed drawn in its entirety from the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials—single, somber piano notes, low-key trip-hop, muted tones for expensive systems. It’s a videogame about unconscionable luxury, and it assures you, constantly, that you belong. Come, it says, learn about the history of automotive excellence. Turn up the difficulty a bit, and we will casually explain suspension systems to you—but not too explainy. You already know this stuff, right? Right. We’re just talking rich-people shit here. We enjoy cars, watches, astronomy. We stand around in our suits at airports. We board those planes first and we read Monocle on them.
The Motorsport series is counterpointed by the Horizon series, which is ostensibly more “arcade,” but also reimagines Motorsports’ rich-guy protagonist as a 22-year-old shithead on vacation. Set in beautiful open worlds where the weather is always perfect even when it’s raining, the Horizon series stars endlessly chipper partygoers throwing some sort of EDM festival for cars. There are, um, some plotholes, but they’re sandpapered over by the game’s dopey exuberance. Everything is “wild”; everything is “incredible.” The Motorsport series is a long stretch of carefully recreated races in carefully recreated cars; Horizon encourages you to drive that immaculate recreation right off a goddamn cliff. Then, it asks you to get in a Ford F-150, weave that back up the climb, and drive that right off a goddamn cliff too. Then you go break boxes in that Ford F-150, then you hop into a Mercedez-Benz and, fuck it, you drive that right off a goddamn cliff as well. There’s probably too much cliff jumping in them, TBH, but you’ll also race a train, a helicopter, some motorboats, the phantoms of your friends (don’t ask), do a lot of drifting, and listen to so much fucking EDM it’ll leave residue in your spinal cord.
The best way to play these games is to meet them on their own turf. Which is to say: express your inner douche. If you are playing Motorsport, you should literally be drinking scotch while doing so. And if you are playing Horizon, you should be playing it extremely loudly while selling molly to college students. I spent the past week or so playing the new Horizon in a sort of fugue state, pummeled by a constant onslaught of gregariousness and stimuli and progression. This year, they have made the inexplicable and horrific aesthetic decision to gate that progress through the titular festival’s “growth.” The power fantasy of being the ruler of a car-festival paradise wasn’t enough—now the the player is an event promoter, too. This is some Entourage-core douchiness I could not have predicted. You are literally sent out on quests for influencers, accruing not just money and experience, but also fans, so deeply has this game internalized the mindset of the pointy-shoed marketing bro. You will hammer into your GPS “I need fans” in a heartbreaking display of thirst. But then, guess what? You go to a fucking Deadmau5 concert. Work hard, play hard, motherfucker!
Anyway, I don’t want to act like this is a problem, because it’s not. It is in fact exactly what I look for in a Forza game, and anyway, this weird progression and the not-super-well-conceived slate of activities are filler for the main event: the gloriously weird races. You have not known hell until you have attempted to drive a one-million-dollar Koenigsegg “hypercar”—which is essentially a flat disc that goes 250 mph—on an “outback ramble” through a swamp and some murky-ass jungle. At one point, apropos of nothing, my car just began spinning across the entirety of a river; I came in fifth place. The game’s insistence on user-created events makes these godless mismatches a fundamental component of the game’s appeal. Motorsport is naught but craft and design; Horizon is naught but craft and design covered in donkey sauce. This wastefulness and glibness makes it the more decadent experience. Event by event, they force-feed you opulence like meat at a Brazilian steakhouse, such that when you’re blasting through the oceanspray as the sun sets in a 1982 Corvette so garishly painted that it looks like a clown came on it, the absurdity barely even registers. You just think, this is the life I have chosen. I am an event promoter. I have many fans. And I am going to drive this thing off of a cliff.