It's not very often that I'm invited to the launch of a game, but such an invitation dropped into my inbox in the past week and because it was for one of the most anticipated releases of 2012, Forza Horizon; it seemed like a great opportunity. Too great in fact to pass up. So off to London I set; First Class on Virgin Trains from Glasgow Central on a one thousand mile round trip with great anticipation.
Upon arrival, there was a nice sense of anticipation as everyone lined up outside the hotel, waiting for the shuttle bus to arrive to take us to Fabric, the location of the night's festivities. Far from being some kind of sleek, modern shuttle bus, the sight of a clapped out, rickety LDV van more accustomed to ferrying migrant labourers by gang masters greeted us, eliciting nervous laughter among the group, but nothing could prepare us for the driver assigned to us.
Speaking in broken English, for the sake of argument we'll call him Olaf. Not because he was Scandinavian or the like, just that he reminded me of the character in Clerks, except there was no mention of his rock band deliciously entitled, **** You Yankee Blue Jeans unfortunately.
As everyone clambered into the van, the driver asked us "where is it?", and it drew looks of alarm from the assembled group. As his satellite navigation burst into life, alarm turned to laughter as instructions were barked out in a foreign accent that came across like Borat's tank driving uncle. As our driver became increasingly lost and in the midst of London traffic at 7pm on a Thursday night (which is something to be feared even at the best of times), members of our party actually found the venue through the wonders of modern telephone technology which fell upon deaf ears as Olaf continued to take us down one way lanes and closed roads which result in hair-raising reversing manoeuvres. By now the situation had turned from laughter into thin smiles.
Eventually we all abandoned our carriage and set off on foot, and arriving at the venue at long last. Outside were a couple of super cars which feel like a token gesture, albeit a nice one. It's always impressive to see such machinery in the flesh and considering the literal tsunami of traffic experienced previously, it made for a welcome contrast to the usual vehicles we use on a daily basis, adding a dash of exotica to proceedings.
Upon entry to the event proper, it became clear that this wasn't what one assumes happens at a typical launch event. With no PR representative in attendance (or at the very least, not in prominence at any rate) it felt more like a cross between an event geared towards Personal Appearances from artists, and with Last.fm DJ's showing off their latest twelve inches (not in that way, you filthy, mucky lot).
The game itself was represented by four screens (two on each side) per booth around the back of the event, with the main floor set aside for the musical accompaniment that would follow. First up was UK Grime artist Skepta. From the off it felt like he was far from enamoured to be there, prowling back and forth as his DJ behind him wore an expression whose expression veered from boredom and outright tedium as the bass heavy rhythms kicked in and Skepta let his "flow" do its thing. While clearly talented, Skepta seems stuck between the hardcore scene he comes from and the next step to break out of such shackles. His onstage demeanour certainly requires some work as he tried in vain to whip the crowd up to a point of excitement, and only briefly getting people moving their feet. After barely twenty minutes he's off and gone with a general shrug and leaving those who ventured down to the barrier a little bit bewildered.
By now the mixture of free drink and the venue starting to fill up means there are more people crowding around the booths where Forza Horizon is being played out. A mixture of hard stares from those currently playing and those hoping to gain access to the game means most give up before moving back to the main area and indulging in a mixture of bad dancing and the staple of all live events, shouting into each other's ears as they attempt to hear each other speak. With everyone vying for the corners which have seats, the message being put across is mixed to say the least. Is it a launch party, a gig or...? At one point there's more people roaming around with cameras on steady rails than there are folk on the dance floor.
By the time Ms. Dynamite appears on stage people are in dire need of not only a focal point but some entertainment and thankfully she delivers, and then some. Kicking things off with a heavily reworked version of her breakout hit, Dy-Na-Mi-Tee, she is a blur of motion and imploring the crowd to bounce, indulging in call and response during and between songs. Her obvious star power manages to have both men and women shaking their backsides and putting their hands in the air in enjoyment. It's all over far too briefly, and the monotonous Last.fm DJ's resume the legend in their own lunchtime routine of minimal techno.
The final act of the night, DJ Fresh is accompanied by his "hype man" who generally looks to keep the crowd engaged and is exactly how you imagine him to be, all baseball cap down low, copious tattooed arms and asking people to "get their pyramids up" which sounds a bit rude but is apparently a symbol used to indicate wealth. Apparently.
DJ Fresh certainly knows how to play a crowd and just about every tune is perfectly calibrated to move people's feet. With the amassed throng in front of the stage, I took the opportunity to actually play the game proper, the reason why I had travelled thousands of miles in the first place. While good to finally get to grips with the retail release, it was hard to shake the feeling that I could do this in my own front room and without someone shouting at me to "Make some mother****ing noise Fabric!" every three or four minutes.
I certainly found that my own views were shared by others who had swapped looking at the stage to grab the chance to preview the game. "Why wasn't there more emphasis on the game?" asked one couple I spoke to (who I sadly didn't catch their names over the din coming from the main area), clearly feeling like they'd been sold short as to the exact nature of the event. With Forza Horizon being such a departure from the more strict, clinical racing of the Forza series up till now and in turn making it more accessible for those not terribly interested in how high the ride height is, it feels like maybe some of the developers should've been on hand to organise races with others, or to highlight these differences to the more casual observer as even a brief ten minutes with the game displays just how much fun it is, with a real immediacy and user friendly feel to proceedings, making it incredibly welcoming in the process.
Having already played the demo, it was nice to briefly get my hands on the finished product and it felt as responsive and fun as the demo was. Sweeping around a night time urban track in a Mini Cooper, power-sliding around tight corners and passing other racers never got old.
Around about now, if this reads like a glorified gig review, that's pretty much what it is. If Microsoft's intention was to highlight this new direction for the Forza series, they failed. Even the artists seem to forget why they where there with brief mentions towards "Xbox" or "Forza", least they forget who was picking up the tab for their performance of the evening.
As eleven o'clock ticked around, DJ Fresh wraps things up with one final track which sees everyone from debs to plebs (and one absolutely astonishing example of bad dad dancing from the couple in front of me) having it large on the dancefloor.
Sadly the driver who ferried us back to the hotel was far too professional and we arrived within ten minutes of departure from the event. I missed not having the opportunity to say goodbye to Olaf, or actually finding out what his name was, or where he got the inspiration for the song Berzerker.