There’s been plenty of surprising, if not outright breathtaking announcements so far at E3 this year – yes, I’m talking about Keane – but for me, nothing quite dropped my jaw like than the sudden announcement of the LEGO Speedway Champions expansion for Forza Horizon 4.
I was a massive fan of the Hot Wheels expansion that Playground Games made for Forza Horizon 3, and was crossing my fingers all year that a similarly silly add-on would arrive for the latest entry in the incredible open-world racing franchise.
I managed to get some hands-on time with the game at the Xbox Showcase, and I left that demo extremely satisfied and hungry for more Lego racing action. Much like the Hot Wheels expansion from Forza Horizon 3, Lego Speedway Champions does an incredible job of taking plastic toys and building blocks and rendering them in stunning, photo-realistic quality.
The satisfaction of driving my car through a Lego tree and seeing the pieces fly apart and skid across my windshield never got old. You can tell that the team had a lot of fun building the environments and assets for the expansion, as my race-ways were littered with everything from Lego pirate ships to glowing Lego ghosts and everything in-between.
Playground had to work very closely with the Lego team to get everything in the expansion properly approved, adhering to their strict but understandable rules. “Some things were really, really mandated [by LEGO],” Torben Ellert, Senior Designer at Playground Games told us. “For example, the scale, where 1×1 is always the same size. So once you decide on the size of a minifig, everything else must scale to that.”
He continued, “The rule is that nothing can be what LEGO would call an illegal build. Obviously it’s a digital space, so you can put anything together and it won’t fall apart, but they were very intent on making sure that everything you see in the game is something that could be built with LEGO pieces.”
Still, there were some problems that even the Lego team didn’t have an easy solution for and that, when faced with a roadblock like this, forced Playground Games to come up with a Lego-like solution to the problem.
“There was one particular example of something that we did that was an honest collaboration, and you can see it if you look at the artwork for the game, and you can see that the wheel on the Senna is angled very slightly. If you built a Lego car or a Lego Speed Champions car, you’d know that the wheels clutch into place and they don’t turn.
“But because there is an actual handling model running underneath this game, which requires that wheels can go up and down and camber and turn, we needed a part that could do that. So we discussed this with Lego and the solution we decided on was to do what Lego would do if they needed to do this, which was to design a new part that would be able to do it!
“Essentially what it meant was that we, together with Lego, developed a new wheel arch part which would have space for tyres to turn.”
Even with all of that, though, everything that makes Forza Horizon 4 so incredible is still right here, all the way down to the changing seasons. That’s also forced the level design team to think a little out of the box to get it all to slot together nicely.
“I know that our level design team built a vast amount of it from scratch,” Torben said, “and it’s things that you don’t expect! We had to build trees in a way that our tree management software, which is called SpeedTree, could understand so that it could then be used to put trees into our world. As you know, we have seasons in this game – spring, summer, autumn, winter – and so the trees change. In winter, the top parts of the trees, the top bricks turn white and snow is drizzled over the top of it.”
Lego Speedway Champions is the perfect blend of child-like absurdity and astute attention to detail that makes the Horizon series so strong. I only got to play the expansion for a few minutes, absolutely embarrassing myself as I went off road and smashed through the blocky scenery, but I can’t wait to dive into the rest once it’s come out this week on the 13th June.