There are many different tactics that video games use to introduce players to the game’s basic functions. Some are closely integrated into the story, others are clearly outside the “normal” experience of the game. Mass Effect 2’s tutorial is yelled to Commander Shepard over the intercom system as a high-pressure situation unfolds immediately upon opening the game – it’s very integrated into the gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle tutorial does take place during a real battle, but it breaks the normal flow of battle and there is a lot of reading involved (not to mention a big flashing “TUTORIAL” in the upper left corner). Ghost Trick for iOS has an even slower and more text-heavy tutorial that is actually quite irritating for a mobile title.
Forza Horizon for the XBox 360 is an open-world racing game, and it may have the best tutorial that I’ve ever seen in a game. In fact, if you’re not paying attention, you might not even notice it’s a tutorial – and that’s a great compliment. Read on and I’ll break it down to show you the magic of a non-tutorial tutorial.
Reaching the Horizon Festival
Here’s the story of this game: you’re taking part in a fictional festival of music and cars called the “Horizon Festival”. When the single player game starts, after a quick pump-up cinematic video (note: this is the right place to have it, unlike the common practice of putting intro videos before the title screen), an in-game cutscene plays where the radio DJ is talking about a rival driver. And immediately, the player is transitioned into a racing situation.
This is a great way to get the gamer a taste of what’s to come. It’s perfectly integrated into the story and cinematic, and immediately I get to drive a sweet car. The setup is the player is chasing the Horizon Festival reigning champion on his way to the festival. The game doesn’t let you catch up to him (I assume anyway), but it makes sure to keep it close, which is a great touch for first-time players. It’s a perfect way to get gamers off on the right foot with Forza Horizon.
After this race finishes, another similar race comes out of a cutscene, but this time with a less exotic car and a bunch of other racers on the road. Another great step, getting players a bit more acclimated to the game, and introducing a more reasonable car that you’ll have in your garage.
This is another race that’s a little rigged to get the player’s adrenaline racing. The player is racing for open spots in the festival for competitors, and I’m pretty sure the race always finishes with only 3 of 10 spots remaining. It’s another great way to make new players feel like they’ve accomplished something and start them off feeling like they are really a part of this whole festival scene.
Your first race (and first menu)
Upon arriving to the Horizon Festival, you get to meet the very lovely “CEO of Horizon”, Alice Hart, who directs you to your first race. So this gets the player introduced to a couple of the game’s main characters, and starts the process of getting used to moving around the map. The first race is a short drive away, and this is where the first menu screen comes in. It’s impressive that up to this point, the game has shown you four cinematic sequences and put you into two separate racing situations without ever bringing up a menu.
Racing a plane, because that makes sense
After your first race, Alice directs you to a “Showcase” event – a special type of game mode where you take on crazy challenges. This one is a “Mustang vs Mustang” race where your Ford Mustang takes on a P-51 Mustang aircraft.
Yes, this is a little ridiculous, but it’s another great way to kick off this game. I mean, you’re in a glorious muscle car racing an airplane along a mountain road. It’s another situation where I’m not sure the game is being entirely fair…I have a feeling it’s kinda like the rubberbanding AI in NBA Jam, where the game does whatever it has to do to make sure it’s a close race at the end. In any case beating an airplane in a race by 0.1 seconds will definitely make an impression on gamers.
Returning home to a hero’s welcome…or something like that
And finally, after your airplane battle is over, the game teaches the player about the “popularity” system where you’re rewarded for your driving showmanship. Like good tutorials should, this just adds another small layer of complexity at just the right time. If anybody remembers the “kudos” system in the Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer, it’s pretty similar here (I hear Project Gotham Racing had a similar feature although I never got a chance to play those games, sadly).
More visually appealing though, the game also shows off its dynamic day/night cycle on the trip back home. The drive starts off at sunset and quickly turns into night, which is pretty sexy in itself. But even better, as the Horizon Festival’s center approaches, the player sees fireworks going off in the distance, and starts to hear the roar of the crowd partying the night away (they are probably cheering for the rock concert they are undoubtedly watching, but I’ll assume they are cheering for me instead).
It’s not on the same scale as the riding home scene in Red Dead Redemption, but it did remind me of that a little bit. It’s a cool way to wrap up the game’s tutorial section.
The tutorial for Forza Horizon does an amazing job of seamlessly working its way into the opening moments of the game. And equally impressive, it really focuses on keeping the energy level up for the player. The whole idea of a big festival like this is built around being high-energy, and the opening hour or so of the game fits perfectly into that vibe. This is how tutorials were meant to be – developers take note!
What do you think? What other games are out there with really good (or really bad) tutorials? Let’s talk about it in the comments!