Playground Games’ Forza Horizon has, in a few short years, become one of Xbox’s very best franchises. The arcade racer is almost the antithesis to the stuffy, simulation-focused racer that shares its name; a celebration of racing without necessarily sticking to the rules – and it’s better for it.
After giving us a run through the rocky, dusty terrain of Colorado, the bright streets of the Mediterranean and Australia’s chaotic outback, the Horizon Festival has moved to the UK. Forza Horizon has always been as much about its location as it has about its cars and here, we have a condensed version of Scotland that lets us race through the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh’s winding streets. It’s a little less exotic and less immediately intriguing a location than the last game, but there are little nuances to the locale that make it just as fun to drive around.
There’s more that’s changed beyond the location. Instead of being the head honcho that runs the festival, you’re once again a lowly rookie trying to make a name in the racing scene and who wants to get his hands on one of those coveted invitations to participate in the festival. To do that, you’ll have to show off your driving skills, taking part in myriad races to earn enough influence to gain entry to each successive season of races – taking you from autumn and back through an in-game year of break-neck driving. It’s as thin a narrative as you’d expect from a racing game, and one that scarcely makes sense because instead of the Festival packing up after it has wowed the crowds, the event stays locked for a year – and beyond.
It’s all done to take advantage of the new weather systems that have evolved since Forza Horizon 3’s dynamic implementation of the idea. Now, the weather is based on the season. In Autumn, browned leaves litter the ground, trailing behind you in swirling little vortices of air as you speed away as an example. You’ll compete in races from the primary disciplines – road races, that have a stricter path; muddy, drifting dirt racing; unsanctioned street racing; and cross country rallies that have you bouncing all over the terrain in an off-road vehicle. As you do so, you’ll not only level up in those disciplines, unlocking even more races, but also earn experience points, in-game currency and the necessary influence to make it through to the next season. As you drive you’ll also accrue skill points that you’ll use to unlock perks on a per-car basis, which do things like modify your skill multipliers and influence.
And because it’s an open world game, there’s plenty of other stuff for you to do to keep yourself occupied as you’re driving from race to race. There are speed traps, danger zones that have you ramping off mountains, boards to smash through and more, presenting an almost overwhelming amount of stuff to do. Most of it’s fun too, especially the returning showcase events that pit your skills against improbable opponents in unlikely scenarios. Ever wanted to race a pick-up truck against a massive hovercraft? Perhaps take on a train with a little buggy? Forza Horizon 4 has you covered. Another highlight for me, as somebody who likes a bit of narrative injection, is the inclusion of Horizon stories. They’re smaller mission-based campaigns, the first of which sees you invited to be a stunt driver in a movie. It usually means driving very fast cars at breakneck speeds, doing terribly dangerous stuff – but it offers some of the game’s most thrilling, white-knuckle driving.
Once you do make it through to the next season, everything changes. Autumn turns to Winter, and the little puddles of Autumnal puddles of rain and lakes freeze over, the landscape blanketing over with frost, ice and snow. Naturally, this changes how courses feel and drive, though it can be mitigated by driving vehicles made for the Brumal conditions. You’ll move on naturally, through to Spring – which introduces greener, but significantly wetter conditions. Summer, meanwhile is a much more pleasant, though seeing as how Forza Horizon 4 is set in the UK, is still prone to the occasional downpour. Interestingly, it does mean that the courses you drive change depending on the season you do them in, effectively giving you four different versions of each track. It doesn’t completely overhaul each stage, but it adds just enough of a difference to make driving through courses in different seasons appealing.
Once you’ve done a year’s worth of driving and transitioned through all four seasons and attained enough influence to be invited to the Horizon Festival, everything changes, opening even more content up and resulting in the game becoming a live one. Forza’s AI and cloud-driven Drivatars on the road are replaced with real players in a shared world environment. In-game seasons and time of day become globally synchronised, with seasons changing once a week. New seasonal events and championships become available, while frenetic Forzathon live events have racers scrambling to take part in varying mass displays of driving prowess.
Still, Forza Horizon 4 does suffer from the usual, typical open-world problems that Horizon has never really been able to shake off. Tracks share much of the same design, the initially sparse open world does eventually become overwhelming and there’s often a long drive between events that’s hardly helped by a poor fast-travel system. It’s a minor complaint given how much fun it is to just drive around though.
The thing about Forza Horizon 4 that makes it such a compelling game – even for somebody like me who usually gives racing games a wide berth – is that it’s a game about choice. I prefer my racing games to eschew the technical and simulation elements in favour of pure arcade racing – and with Horizon I can do that. While there are options to tinker with cars, upgrade them and pore over the minutiae of drive trains and tyre pressure, I’m able to just hop inside a virtual car, go for a drive and have a lot of fun – with ABS and driving lines on. My wife, who grew up on a steady diet of Gran Turismo prefers everything the other way around, and she could do that.
Even better is that we could play the game together, doing most of the available content co-operatively (with PC and Xbox One cross play, no less). I’m also not big on dirt racing, and I could largely skip those events while still being able to progress through the campaign. Even though the driving is mostly grounded in reality, Horizon has become a racing series that’s what you want it to be. For petrolheads, there are cars to collect, settings to tweak and courses to master – while players like me can just drive very expensive cars very irresponsibly and have a roaring good time doing it.
Last Updated: September 25, 2018