After six years spanning three previous installments across two consoles, it's fair to say the Forza Horizon franchise is well established. This concept should sound familiar by now: an open-world driving game you can play solo or online, with a traveling music festival in the background. It's the work of Playground Games, built on the bones of the Forza game engine developed by Turn 10 for the even longer-running Forza Motorsport series. So far, the Horizon festival has visited Colorado, the Mediterranean, and Australia. And in Forza Horizon 4, it's Britain's turn.
If the developers at Playground were lazy, they could have just dusted off the last game and built a new map for it, replacing down under with the land soon to be known as Brexitopia. But the past two years have involved more than just building a new map. There's new online functionality with up to 72 players in a session. In addition to dynamic weather and days that turn into nights, now there are seasonal transitions, each of which brings new challenges for you to complete. There is a complete and welcome absence of loot boxes or microtransactions—something that will no doubt come as welcome news. And we even get a guest appearance from at least one other blockbuster game franchise.
For a game that gives you an almost-dizzying array of stuff to do, Horizon 4 starts off relatively uncomplicated. As with previous installments, your introduction to the world is your drive to the festival hub. This time, it takes place in four stages, each showing off a different season to good effect. Up next, it's a case of designing your avatar, picking your first ride, and getting down to the task of winning credits and building a reputation.
The first few hours are spent in the prologue. This runs you through your first four seasons, unlocking more areas of the map as you progress then all of the game's online features once you reach Autumn. After that point, everyone's games will be in sync with regards to day/night and seasons, which change every Thursday at 14:30 UTC.
How you progress is entirely up to you. There are road races, dirt races, cross-country races, "illegal" street races, and drag races. Too conventional? In that case, try one of the showcase events, which might ask you to race against a hovercraft or train. (These replace the Bucketlist challenges in Horizon 3.) Or, perhaps you'd prefer to do a little stunt driving for a movie, helping out a director who sounds a lot like an illegal cloning experiment involving Sean Bean and Timothy Dalton.
If that's not enough, there are plenty of other ways to keep busy. Games of tag or zombie in disused quarries? Check. Abandoned cars hiding in barns waiting to be found? Check. You can even start businesses, like renting out supercars, to earn a little extra on the side. Even just driving around will help your stats: you'll gain influence by setting fast times through speed cameras, discovering new roads, or just hooning around, chaining together lurid slides and jumps the way we used to in Project Gotham Racing.
Discussing the online aspects of a game like Horizon 4 pre-launch is always tricky, since it's too early for any real communities to have formed. I can say that if you're like our misanthropic Lee Hutchinson and never want to interact with an actual human player, you won't have to.
When driving around in free roam, your world will be populated with up to 72 other players. Unless you specifically choose to engage with them, though, you can ignore their presence. Horizon 4's Autoghost feature stays on by default unless you join together to form a convoy or to take part in a race or challenge (either PvP or co-op). Every hour, on the hour, there's a #Forzathon Live event; if you choose to join it, you and up to 11 other human players work together to beat some objectives (like scoring a certain number of points drifting). If you're successful, you get points to spend at a special (in-game) Forzathon shop.
After several days of pre-release gameplay I can say this: there's so much to do it never quite feels like a grind, and the game is rather generous when it comes to rewarding you. As you might expect, the rewards increase with difficulty. Completing a three-race series against average opponents might net you one prize—a car, some credits, maybe a new addition for your avatar's wardrobe. Completing the same series against more skilled foes can net you three times that.
This new release is not flawless though. The load times are long, and on a few occasions the game appeared to just hang on one of those transitions. The music—once a notable high point of the franchise—does little for me other than Timeless, the classical radio station. (Proof that I am finally middle-aged, I suppose.) While the scenery might be beautiful, even at 1080p there have been times when my standard Xbox noticeably struggled to reach 30fps. And then there are the issues that my colleague Sam Machkovech ran into with the Windows 10 version, described in the sidebar.
Despite those caveats, I found myself enjoying Horizon 4 more than I was expecting, particularly since my racing game tastes are definitely lean towards the simulation end of the spectrum these days. As open-world driving games go, this one may well be the best on the market.
- Britain looks fantastic, no matter the season.
- More than enough to keep you busy for weeks.
- 450+ cars and they all look great.
- Strong online focus doesn't compromise solo play.
- Quite possibly the most accessible high-end racing game
- Long load times.
- Some frame rate drops with the Xbox One version.
- Windows 10 and Universal Windows Platform problems.
- Maybe I'm getting old but the music does little for me.
Verdict: Buy it.
Sam Machkovech contributed to this review.
Listing image by Microsoft