I've sunk a good few hours into both the Forza Horizon 3 demo and the main game itself over recent days and nights. Just short sessions at a time – one or two events, a little exploration, some mucking about with the most disgusting paint jobs I can envision. And I'm having a great time, so far. I don't know if I'll stick with it long enough to enjoy makers Playground Games' promised week-on-week support, with rolling challenges and exclusive cars to win; but the wide-open spaces and spectacular skies of its Australian setting – a neat compression of outback, city, coastline and rainforest environments – are hugely inviting right now. It's right up there amongst the Xbox One's prettiest titles.
What I love the most about the Horizon games is their relaxed attitude to the player actually doing anything. New races and stunts pop up on the map, markers scattered in a manageable fashion, not a Ubisoft super-sprawl; and it's up to you if you want to do them. The game's story, such as it is, won't progress until you clear a set number of these events – but from near enough the very beginning of the game proper, the entirety of Playground's open-world Oz is open for investigation. And simply cruising around these climes with CHVRCHES and M83 on the "radio" is quite the pleasurable time.
I've been playing just a little with my wife sat beside me. She's been to Australia, to the very part of the dauntingly massive country that Horizon 3 is set in. "Does that look like the actual Byron Bay to you?" Sure it does. "And what about this beauty spot marked here, the Twelve Apostles?" Yup, it's just some rocks, really. Her head's in a bathroom brochure – don't grow old, kids – but just a cursory peek above the parapet of its pages confirms to her, and subsequently me, that, yes: this is a recognisably realistic game world. Granted, the narrator keeps calling me "Spanky", but I've brought that on myself.
How the cars behave, smashing through trees, billboards and each other, isn't quite so true to life; and neither is the fact that risk always equals reward. Speed past an oncoming vehicle with just an inch between your wing mirrors and Horizon 3 will chuck a clutch of points at you. Take a leap off the top of a hill, soaring above tropical palms and crashing back onto a dirt road, and not only will your score increase but your expensive wheels will continue rolling as if they've suffered no trauma whatsoever. Naturally, you can adjust the game's settings so that damage becomes more than superficial, and everything becomes that more fraught with relatable danger – but where's the fun in that? I've been in a car crash, for real, with me at the wheel. That's not something I want to repeat as an evening's entertainment.
Besides, sticking to the rules means focusing on the road – and that's a crime when the skies in this game are something else. They're all genuine, captured by Playground using an expensive HDR camera rig, shots taken practically every second of every day across a whole Australian summertime. And at their bluest, their widest, their most enveloping, there's only one thought that scorches into my mind: man, I'd really like to play OutRun 2 right now. And thank goodness I still can.
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That's taking nothing away from the merits of Horizon 3: I think I've made myself quite clear that I like the newer title (and given I generally don't make much time for driving games, that's quite the compliment). But OutRun 2 is one of those few games that always puts me in a happy place – see also The Secret of Monkey Island, The Witcher 3 and, well, probably some other games, but we haven't all day to consider these things. Whether rain or shine outside my window or inside my own head, SEGA's arcade "racer" – you're only ever really against the clock, rather than defined rivals, so inverted commas necessary – never fails: and that's largely because of those classically, artificially beautiful SEGA-blue skies. The game was introduced to arcades in 2003, and enjoyed an awesome conversion to the original Xbox, courtesy of British studio Sumo Digital, the best part of a year later. It's backwards compatible on the 360, which is how I play it – just occasionally, these days, but it never fails to impress.
The back of the box reads, "The beautiful journey returns," and I love that: no leading line about sport, competition or racing. Following the biggest, boldest words is more language evocative of something other than a traditional motorsport sim: "So buckle up and let the love affair begin... again." That's partly in reference to the driver avatar of OutRun 2, at least in its arcade mode, being one half of a courting couple, a skinny-trousered, jauntily-shirted gentleman aiming to impress his date by driving really fast and ever so recklessly across five distinct zones, or "destinations" in the game's lingo. But it's also encapsulating how the player feels, or how I do at least, during each sprint from coastal highway to any one of five goal lines: just totally, hopelessly, in love with the engineering of SEGA's AM2 division filtered through a mighty fine conversion, sitting right here in their hands.
Gameplay from 'OutRun 2' for the Xbox
So, I did play OutRun 2. Just today, in fact, during my lunch break. Needless to say: it's still got it. The immediate pleasure of nailing a power slide around a long bend; the rush of whizzing past trucks and buses at completely illegal speeds, while Egyptian pyramids become snow-capped mountains become harbour cobblestones become tulips-carpeted fields of joy around you: unbeatable. OutRun 2 is pure fantasy driving, even more so than the Mega Drive's future-set (but only just, these days) OutRun 2019. It really is the most beautiful of journeys, one that can be taken in slightly different ways but will only ever last around five minutes each time. Arcade perfection, truly. But if I didn't have an operational (white, rattling a bit but red ring-free) 360, still plugged into my TV (albeit in an HDMI input timeshare scheme with the Xbox One, where the older model so often misses out), I'd have no way to play this terrific game.
While OutRun 2's "redux" console version, OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast came out in, as the title implies, 2006, it was for the outgoing console generation, the first Xbox and the PlayStation 2. It would have made a great launch-period title for the more powerful, 2005-launched 360, which may have led to Xbox One backwards compatibility and a prolonged life on contemporary gaming hardware. But instead, it landed on already out-dated platforms, and its online functionality was shut down in April 2010, when Xbox Live for the original Xbox was discontinued. Which means that OutRun 2 is now unplayable for anyone who only has a modern console, an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. The game, in any one of its guises, hasn't (so far as I can see) ever been made available digitally through PSN or any other online store, nor has it been given the remaster treatment which, oh boy, does it ever deserve.
And isn't that a crime? It really raises the question of what we're doing – as games programmers, writers, producers, critics and fans in general – to not just preserve the history of this fantastic medium, as anyone can keep a bunch of boxes in their loft, but ensure that these games are readily available to play. There's unofficial emulation, of course, which is enough for some – but when I'm talking to someone younger than I am, a school-age family member perhaps, about Horizon 3, and I say: "Hey, if you like that, you'll love OutRun 2," them not having the option to just grab a disc or an above-board download is quite depressing, actually. The past is always sliding away from us; but it seems to me that no medium more than gaming is quite so willing to let the steps it took to get to this point crumble away to dust.
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Compare gaming to music: this year, there have been new versions of old but undeniably influential albums by Michael Jackson, Neil Young, Suicide and Angelo Badalamenti, to name but four of countless reissues, made available both for critical reassessment and absolute-beginner appreciation. Yes, there have been games reissues too – but save for the fantastic M2 SEGA ports for the 3DS (which include Out Run, the first), I'm struggling to think of any that really have significant years between first contact and modern refreshment. There was Rare Replay last year, I guess. In movies, there are operations like the Criterion Collection, a company specialising in restoring productions from across the history of the moving picture and repackaging them for the aficionado crowd. Again, that's something that gaming just doesn't have, not obviously, as this Popmatters article outlines.
Of course, games get the same level of "limited-edition" releases as other mediums – limited to tens of thousands per run, usually, save for those expensive mega-boxes with the statues and all that other needless tat – and there are places specialising in physical versions of otherwise intangible releases, such as the PlayStation formats-focused Limited Run (latest wares include a boxed Thomas Was Alone, nice). But these are exclusive propositions, whereas what I want to see is access for anyone, whether that comes at a cost to the user or not. I mean, this is gaming: of course it would carry an asking price.
In September 2015, Jake Tucker wrote a piece entitled "Are We About to Live Through a 'Lost Age' of Gaming", examining the very concerns I'm expressing here, albeit with a focus on digital games that never exist beyond distant, unseen servers and slowly emptying multiplayer lobbies. "It's important to catalogue the strides forward that are being made in development right now," he writes, "but as the results become harder to archive, we're also seeing more releases than ever before. Hundreds of games are fired out to the public, only to vanish without a trace after just a few months. Unless something is done to counter this saturation and the subsequent disappearing of so much software, 'retro gaming' from this era, in the future, will be impossible."
And doesn't that make OutRun 2 the perfect warning sign? No doubt one of many, too. A great game that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of genre preference or previous experience with a controller in their hands – but a great game that a decreasing number of players out there can easily experience. In the US, a ruling was passed in late 2015 that granted near enough anyone the right to alter defunct games that required a connection to dedicated (and now offline) servers to properly operate, in order to keep them "active", albeit mostly only in museum and library spaces outside of the truly hardcore home enthusiast. Which is great news for, oh I don't know, Paladins, in another eight months or so. (Was that uncalled for? Only you can be the judge.) But it does nothing for games that could always be played offline, but now lack the contemporary hardware support required to play them.
I don't know what the answer here is. A gigantic online streaming service, subscription based, featuring all of a select publisher or developer's games, ready to access whenever you like, titles spanning the ages. Would I stump up the cash for a Netflix-style Nintendo setup that allowed me to play all the old Zeldas and Metroids and Kirbys without paying a premium amount for them individually? PS Plus in practice, but so much more? You bet. And SEGA, hell, a SEGA archive at the press of a button, with everything from OutRun 2 and its 1986 forefather, through the Streets of Rage and Sonic series, to Space Channel 5 and Seaman and Shenmue: that is a bona-fide license to print money.
But like I say, I don't know. Subscription-service portals like the above are just dreams, albeit ones surely shared by many. I'm just happy, for now, that I can play an awesome game from not so much more than a decade ago, a game released in the same year as Finding Nemo and Kill Bill Volume 1, as Boy in da Corner and The Black Album, without any more fuss than digging to the back of my games cupboard and swapping a lead running into the TV. Who knows how any of us will be able to revisit Forza Horizon 3 in another 13 years, or how? Nintendo might well be top dog again by then, with Samsung and Dyson their closest console competitors following the Great PSN Power Out of 2021 and Xbox finally accepting its barely contained TV ambitions and going all out on BBSky Channel 1899.
Forza Horizon 3 is released on September the 27th.