Version tested Xbox 360
Forza Horizon was the driving game released into the wild, its cars cast off into the fun and fury of the untamed open road. It makes sense that its first substantial add-on takes to the wilderness, then - although the Rally Expansion Pack initially feels tame.
This is a standalone add-on, and one that sits within its own menu tucked away from the open-ended sprawl of Horizon's main Colorado map. There's no sense of discovery here; instead, it's simply a succession of off-road time trial events, there to be unlocked until you've hit the points cap and reached the Rally final.
So what's Forza Horizon without that dizzying sense of liberty, that free-wheeling taste of adventure that marked the main game out? It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it's a well-crafted and enjoyable driving experience, even when torn away from the element that helped make it all so exciting originally.
Playground Games' vision of Colorado is still the star here, and while the studio has eliminated the exploration, it's discovered some new and exciting areas within the dead zones of Horizon's map. Fresh roads have been carved across the craggy canvas of the landscape, and there are some great runs through autumnal woodland and across sand-yellow canyons.
It's a nice reminder that, away from the free-form element of Horizon proper, Playground knows how to create a track or two. These are often exquisite courses, crafted out of off-camber corners, stomach-turning dips and 90-degree turns bordered by savage ditches. It's also a reminder, should you need one, of part of Playground's heritage working on Codemasters' Dirt series.
There's a similarity to Dirt in the feather-fingered handling, as well as in the art of making off-road racing exciting yet accessible. Horizon Rally's point-to-point runs tend towards long open stretches headed off by mild, weaving corners, making this an ideal entry point to the sometimes cruel world of rally gaming - though that's not to say that what's here doesn't put up a formidable challenge.
It's not a dedicated off-road game, though, so of course there's not the variety of road surface nor the attention to detail seen in a game such as Dirt 3. Colorado's a beautiful backdrop with a full day and night cycle - which is put to good use in some heart-stopping stages lit only by the bright bank of lights on your car bonnet - but it's predominantly gravel, dust and tarmac that you're running through.
To Playground's credit, it's very tangible gravel, dust and tarmac that you're running through. The sense of connection between road and rubber that's so important to the discipline - and that's sadly absent in some other off-road games - is nailed brilliantly here, and it's a small marvel that Horizon's so comfortable delivering such a diversity of driving experiences.
This isn't a slight package, and there's enough here to convince you that you're playing a dedicated off-roader rather than a generous bolt-on. The stages, although they do have a tendency to repeat themselves, are long, engaging and plentiful - there are some 20 of them spread over seven rallies - and they're all available in Rivals mode for online leaderboard competition.
The car selection's perhaps a little less generous, and disappointingly there are only a couple of new entries, the rest being variations on existing models. Still, the selection is at least brimming with pedigree, and furthermore it's possible to kit out all of Horizon's existing cars with the new rally upgrades to make them worthy of off-road driving. So yes, it is feasible to soften up the suspension and swap in some short gears on a Lamborghini Aventador and take it to the Rockies - though you're likely to spend half the time peeling yourself off of Horizon's beautiful scenery.
As an addition to Forza's ever-expanding arsenal, then, the Rally pack is a success - one that brings Microsoft's series another step closer to the comprehensiveness of Gran Turismo. It's more than a gap filled, and it's more than a reminder of how thrilling off-road racing can be. This is a full-blooded add-on, and the kind of meaty expansion that Forza 4 sadly never enjoyed. It's not, however, quite the measure of the main dish, and it's something of a shame that the off-road sections couldn't be better integrated into Horizon's existing world rather than being bluntly torn away from it.
8 / 10