Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PC
The moment I knew I loved Forza Horizon 4 was when I discovered the classical radio station. Most racing games are accompanied by either screaming guitars or thumping bass for obvious, adrenaline-generating reasons. But Forza Horizon 4’s seasonal British festival calls often calls for a more refined mood-piece. For example, when drifting up the track of a snowbound highland mountain, Debussy’s Clair de Lune is a perfect accompaniment to that particular scene, and when chasing down the Flying Scotsman in one of Horizon’s stunning showcase races, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King encapsulates the magnificent absurdity of the situation.
Variety has always been the bergamot in Forza Horizon’s Earl Grey, and for the series’ fourth outing, developer Playground Games is determined to offer more choice and freedom than ever. This Horizon combines its new, quintessentially British map with dramatically changing seasons to produce the most varied racing environment the series has witnessed yet. What results is another spellbinding sandbox racer by Playground Games, albeit one that somewhat torpedoes its own ambition of becoming a persistent multiplayer experience.
Even if we temporarily ignore the racing, simply driving around Horizon’s truncated map of Britain is a joy. Playground Games has taken a selection of the country’s most attractive areas and elegantly stitched them together. You start out at the Festival centre, located a stone’s throw from the quaint Cumbrian village of Ambleside. Head east and you’ll soon find yourself in rural Oxfordshire, complete with rolling fields of yellow oilseed rape. Drive north, on the other hand and you’ll travel along the shore of Derwentwater, before arriving at the iconic Glenfinnan viaduct.
The Jewel in the map’s crown, however, is a stunning recreation of Edinburgh city centre. Forza Horizon 4 meticulously renders the city’s primary thoroughfare, Princes St, alongside North Bridge and the Royal Mile leading up to Edinburgh Castle. Outside of this specific area, greater liberties have been taken with the city’s layout, excising substantial chunks of both the old town and Leith. Even so, it makes for an incredible centrepiece in Forza Horizon 4’s beautiful world.
It isn’t just the landscape of Britain that Forza Horizon 4 so artfully recreates; the country’s infamously changeable climate is simulated too. Indeed, these 'Seasons' are arguably Horizon’s most significant new feature. The festival kicks off in the height of summer, where the sky is vivid blue and filled with hot-air balloons, which I don’t recall being a major feature of British summertime, but anyway. As you progress, you’ll see Autumn, Winter, and Spring pass by, each bringing with it a strikingly different look and some mechanical differences to driving. Autumn and Spring, for example, mean extra mud and water on the roads, while Winter coats the land in an unusually thick blanket of snow and ice.
Frankly, the differences to the driving are far less radical than the visual changes – at least on the game’s regular difficulty. Horizon maintains its arcade leanings established in previous games, enabling a full racing line and substantive driving aides as standard, although simulation aficionados should find more challenge on the harder difficulty levels.
For its first 5-10 hours, Horizon remains structurally similar to its predecessors. You drive around the map gradually working your way up the various racing tiers, which here include road races, off-road races, cross-country sprints, and night-time street drives. Some of these will be straightforward dashes to a finish line via Britain’s winding road-network, while others take the form of lapped races around tracks that naturally emerge from the map design. Completing each race results in a clutch of rewards thrown your way, including various kinds of experience points, in-game credits, and the chance to win a variety of prizes from the Horizon 'Wheel of Fortune', which is a devilishly delightful bit of Skinner-box stimulation.
Most of these races are thoroughly entertaining, each one carefully crafted from the map’s twisting network of roads and undulating terrain. Amongst these are more unique events for you to undertake. These range from story-based mission-chains, such as working as a stunt driver for a film being shot locally, to the 'Showcase' races that offer spectacular racing challenges. These include racing a gigantic “Behemoth” Hovercraft across a swathe of Scottish Highland, and a sprint against the Flying Scotsman that takes you from the Glenfinnan viaduct to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.
Once you’ve toured through the four seasons and completed spring, however, Forza Horizon 4 shifts gear. At this point, you’re entered into the 'Horizon Program', a format that blends your single-player sandbox with a shifting tide of one-off multiplayer events. The program is framed around the game’s seasons, each of which lasts a (real-life) week, bringing new events, daily challenges, weekly challenges, and so forth.
It’s an attempt by Playground to adapt Forza Horizon into a Destiny-style persistent game, aiming to give players a reason to return on a regular basis. Considered content-wise, the Horizon Program certainly offers plenty for its price tag. In fact, it’s arguably even stronger than what comes before it. Whereas in the showcase you can partake in most races using any car you want, the seasonal events are both stricter in class and more challenging in structure.
As a multiplayer game, however. Horizon struggles to offer much reason to actually race against other players. You can see nearly everything the game has to offer by racing purely against 'Drivatars' – AI controlled incarnations of other players. Meanwhile, the multiplayer-centric events, such as Forzathon live, focus heavily on the "skills” element of racing, wherein the game rewards you points for doing cool stuff, such as drifting and avoiding collisions (which is less of a skill and more a necessary requirement to simply earn your driver’s license, but hey). But this focus on driving in a specific way kinda takes the fun out of the racing itself.
I have a couple of more general issues with Horizon too. You can change your car at any point in the game, but purchasing a new one, or indeed any other item, requires you to return either to the Festival centre or one of the properties that you can purchase dotted around the map. For a game that otherwise flows so well, having to backtrack whenever you want to look at new cars is a frustrating interruption.
In addition, I found both the replay mode and the photo mode a little disappointing. The former lacks what I suppose you’d call a “racing camera” that tracks your car from a variety of different angles and comes standard with most racing games. Meanwhile, I found it hard to move the camera into the desired positions with the photo mode. Lastly, on its default settings, the HUD is incredibly intrusive. I recommend turning off the skills notification, which flashes up whenever you do something cool i.e. constantly.
Ultimately, though, Forza Horizon 4 maintains the series’ reputation as the most entertaining open-world racer, and by some margin. Its multiplayer sandbox may be a trifle undercooked, but whether you play alone, with a friend, or with random internet folk, the variety and creativity of Horizon’s genuinely great Britain never ceases to astonish.
September 18 2020 | 18:30