Forza Horizon 4 may just be so good that it needs to fall under a new rating system of ‘idiotic grins per minute’. The opening alone, which takes you through Forza’s beautiful changing of the seasons, forced me to quite unknowingly smile like a buffoon a number of times despite my default malaise of British apathy, and the game continued to force this cheery outpouring from me for hours upon hours. So, it’s good. Unless you don’t like smiling. Horizon 4 is fuelled by the same anarchic arcade racing streak as previous entries in the series, but its new additions ensure it remains firmly at the head of the pack.
I haven’t worked out if the PG RACER license plate in the opening is developer Playground’s nod to themselves, a nod to the history of Xbox racers, or both, but Forza Horizon is arguably the closest thing we now have to the iconic Project Gotham Racing series. Horizon’s Skill Multiplier system functions in incredibly similar manner to Project Gotham Racing’s Kudos, and both series are renowned for their semi-serious arcade handling that puts you in enough control that you feel utterly empowered, while keeping everything just the right side of manageable. I’m going to pretend it’s a shout-out to Project Gotham, because I can, and because it serves to remember that this is a genre that Microsoft have had sewn up for years.
After previously experiencing the US, Continental Europe and Australia, this time out the Forza Horizon Festival is rolling its brand of open-world racing to Great Britain, along with the headline arrival of dynamically changing yearly seasons, and their expected weather patterns. They’ve even managed to time the release well, as most Brits would normally argue till they’re blue in the face that the only weather you should be seeing is dreary grey drizzle. After 2018’s seemingly never-ending summery weather, Playground have got it at least partially right.
So if you’re from the UK, Horizon 4 might finally offer the kind of vicarious destructive racing you’ve longed for your whole life. As a proud Northerner, the fact that the second campaign race is the Ambleside Sprint had a lump forming in my throat, though the fact I couldn’t hop out for an egg custard from the Apple Pie Shop diminished some of my enthusiasm. It’s clear though that apart from a few major landmarks and a somewhat faithful feeling version of Edinburgh, the landscape is built with the flavour of the British Isles rather than too many direct lifts, and you’ll shift between Cumbria and the Cotswolds with almost disconcerting swiftness. Perhaps this is how Australians felt last time out?
It does of course look absolutely stunning and if you’re playing on Xbox One X, or a powerful enough PC, you’re in for an absolute eye kicking. Xbox One X owners get the choice between a 30fps mode with 4K and HDR visuals or a 60fps 1080p performance mode for the more serious racer, but this feels like one of the few times that the eye candy is worth it. The car models aren’t quite of the calibre of the Motorsport entries, but there’s rather a lot more going on in Horizon so you can let them off.
Progression is mildly different than in previous years, with some events having been split into the physical seasons, and you may well find that you actually have to wait for the next season to draw in before you can advance. This is in part due to the fact that some areas are inaccessible during the winter while others will open up. Every player will experience the seasons in the same way and at the same time, with a weekly shift to the next one coming through the shared game world every Thursday. There’s still an absolutely huge number of things to be doing in the meantime – you’re not going to be bored at any point, and there’s even a mini story mode – and ultimately you’re going to be racing from map point to race meet up in exactly the way you did in previous outings, no matter what time of year it is.
If anything, it forces you to seek out something different to do rather than just focus single-mindedly on the main run of races, though whether anyone has actually played any of the Horizon games purely for the racing is an interesting question. As ever, there’s almost too many events to fathom, and as you progress deeper into each of the different types of race you’ll find that winning simply means the appearance of even more to tackle.
Forza Horizon 4 does at least partially delay its real piece de resistance, which is that if you’re connected to the internet, you’re going to be connected with other players for all kinds of online open-world shenanigans. Fortunately, and perhaps with the awareness of the type of outcry that it could cause, you don’t have to partake in this at all, and you can continue to race amongst the safety of your friends’ Drivatars from the beginning to the distant end, if that’s more your bag.
While it’s difficult to say how it’s going to all pan out in the long term with servers full of real players, the long-suffering fans of games like Need For Speed Rivals will be thankful that an always online mode is not just being foisted on them, while those that love the community feel of the Forza games will undoubtedly enjoy being able to hop into live races at the drop of a hat, join in on Forzathon challenges or take part in co-op Adventures. You can jump into these at any point – assuming you can find an ongoing session that matches up – and focus on either pure racing, games like Flag Rush or Survival, or a mixture of the two. It’s here that Forza Horizon’s anarchic spirit takes over, with abrupt moments of racing carnage in amongst your open world.
If you’ve played anything with other people you probably know what to expect, though the chaotic racing that facing off against real opponents brings is probably much more at home in Horizon than in other racers. Thankfully when you’re not in an event you can’t smash into each other, though in some ways that creates a disconnection from everything that Horizon 4 is trying to achieve. Playground Games will be hoping that the ongoing content and challenges that lie in wait through the shared open world will be tempting enough to bring everyone together though.
If we’re going to have a whinge, the Horizon Festival is pretty full on, and its playful, vibrant outlook isn’t going to be for everyone. It seems as though there’s somebody talking in your ear nearly every moment, and while that’s not really the case, particularly when you’re just meandering around the British countryside, the main themed races continue the ridiculous over-the-top thread that the earlier games have set in place. If you haven’t been won over by previous Forza Horizon games it’s unlikely that this one is going to change your mind, especially when you’re trying to outpace a train or are bouncing off a huge hovercraft.
After Forza 7’s community fumble, Playground Games and Turn 10 seem almost at pains to lavish returning players with all sorts of riches, and if you’re both a VIP member and someone who’s sunk time into previous Forza Motorsport and Horizon games, you’re going to receive a veritable treasure trove of cars, money and items to customise both your car and your avatar. Just as in Forza Motorsport 7, this now appears at every given opportunity. It’s nice to feel wanted of course, and the bonuses are dressed up as being a thank you for sticking with them, but ultimately it ends up feeling a little self-serving. Though thank you Playground for the extra cars. (We want this to happen again next time don’t we?)
If we’re talking generosity, it’s worth noting that as a Microsoft first-party title, Forza Horizon 4 will launch for their Xbox Game Pass service on the same day it becomes available to everybody else. If I’m honest I don’t quite understand the economics that support Game Pass as it’s ludicrously good value, but if you’re an Xbox One owner whose somehow held off from subscribing till this point, Forza Horizon 4 makes it something you simply can’t ignore.
The only true downside that Forza Horizon 4 suffers from is a sense of familiarity, and for all that the new setting, weather patterns and online options bring to the table, this is, at its heart, just the next step for the open world racer, rather than a giant leap. The already nigh-on perfect handling model is made even more engaging by the changing of the seasons, and the roster of vehicles jumps to 450, an extra hundred over its predecessor. Of course, when it’s iterating on what was previously the best open world racer in the world, it’s no surprise that Horizon 4 easily, and unequivocally, takes up that mantle.
Beautiful, British and bold, Forza Horizon 4 sets a new benchmark for open-world arcade racing.
Version Tested: Xbox One X – also available on PC