Ambitious might be the only word capable of summarizing Forza Horizon 4 with any sort of justice.
Developer Playground Games had an almost impossible task: improve upon the well-received Forza Horizon 3, which earned a 91 at Metacritic in 2016. The experience in Australia was the sort of game that left players wondering how the next release could match, let alone surpass, a high mark of the series.
All Playground Games did was promise a laundry list of new features highlighted by a shared world with seasonal changes, improved social features and rewards, and so much more while delivering a customizable experience for all audiences.
And all Forza Horizon 4 does is deliver, one-upping its predecessor at every turn and leaving us with the same questions all over again.
Forza Horizon 4 does everything—and does everything well.
There are drips of the expected Forza simulation experience, regardless of whether a player takes to a street race in the tight twists and turns of a UK city or hits a dirt track, slamming through walls and puddles, ripping off drifts on the beach or hopping hills in the vast countryside.
That's the catch: Horizon 4 is whatever a player wants it to be. The strict simulation racing of other Forza games is here if a player wants to turn off all assists. But it's predominantly about the shared world, varying seasons and innovative events that shake up the usual formula.
Every player around the globe experiences the seasons together in lobbies capable of holding north of 70 users. These four seasonal switches have a marked impact on how tracks and the world itself handles, which adds another layer atop the already impressive Forza depth that can go into pre-race preparation.
Forza wouldn't be where it is as a series without its stringent attention to details, which applies to the world itself as well. Race in the fall season and slick leaves will send a ride skittering across the pavement. Hit a puddle in an off-road track and lose all speed, dousing the camera in water. Outside of icy patches, watch out for giant snow plows on the roads when cruising through winter.
Speaking of gameplay changes based on seasonal developments, certain areas of the map open up more in say, the winter, as players can drive across frozen bodies of water.
It's hard not to grin while racing through a track, especially when the game gets versatile. Sometimes off-road vehicles are ripping onto a strict track the player is following. Other times the player is in the off-road vehicle, sliding on snow and barreling through low stone walls.
Special events that feel like Hollywood set pieces are what players work toward qualifying for at the beginning of each season, and funnily enough, the brief story mode missions of sorts puts the driver into the seat as a stunt double in actual Hollywood set pieces.
This edition of Forza can feel a little conflicting. Following the GPS path on the road through the open world is a good time and offers point rewards for near-misses and clean driving. But it's an open world—going off road in any sort of vehicle is an option and getting a "great wreckage" sign for taking out a wall while off-roading and receiving the same skill points is fun, too.
Accidentally wrecking off-road and destroying the environment while trying to get back on the track while the game praises the player is at times an exercise in hilarity. It's all baked together under the umbrella of letting players do what they want in an open space but can feel odd at times. Players can parry a near miss into a bit of wreckage to keep a skill chain going and keep reaping the benefits all the same.
Overall, the variety of gameplay is refreshing. Should a player choose to roll the sleeves up and get oil on their hands, they're looking at the typical Forza experience of tuning a car and playing with the levers on the assists systems. Now added to the mix is attempting to pick the right vehicles and alignments through tuning for each event—that tank of a Land Rover that bullies others into submissions on the dirt races through the countryside will get smoked in a street race.
Forza Horizon 4 already had a good gameplay base cemented. The player is constantly rewarded, and while the races always offer some sort of edge-of-seat adrenaline rush, it's strictly based in reality and never gets wild with power-ups like turbo boosts—and it looks jaw dropping while offering its own take on a reality-arcade hybrid.
Graphics and Presentation
Forza has always stood out in this department, with Horizon 4 taking the genre another step in the right direction.
Playground Games has one of the best-looking console games on the market, 4K or otherwise, and the PC adaptation can match the visual prowess while upping the frames incredibly on the right rig.
Remember when weather effects were the big addition to racing games? Fun times.
It's stunning to see the seasons unfurl in front of this gargantuan list of vehicles. The winter is aptly frigid with darker tones, giving off dangerous vibes. Spring is muddy, and the air seems thick. Summer is perhaps the game at its most vibrant, with jets ripping through the air and leaving trails of colored smoke behind, hot air balloons peppering the sky.
It's jarring to switch from one season to the next and see not only how it impacts the immediate environment and how it handles, but also the far-reaching consequences as things like lakes off in the distance freeze or melt and trees change color far off on the hills.
As always with racing games, the immersion gets severed in an almost irreparable fashion if what rests beyond the track doesn't work. No worries here—the backgrounds during events themselves are populated and expansive based on the setting.
The little things add up, which is true both in looks and sound. Car lovers, as always with Forza, won't have any beef in the audio department. Cars roar, tires crunch over gravel, collisions will make the player wince and the combo of audio and vibration offers ample performance feedback. On the immersion side, the radio host even pops in between songs to contextualize the world, namely through updates about a player's progress.
And the songs playing over the radio dim down so players can hear them from the festival's speakers every time they pass through the finish line. As with its predecessor, the game offers various radio stations and a huge list of fitting music that only adds to the experience, never detracts.
The world itself isn't exactly brimming with life while a player makes his or her way across the more than 530 discoverable roads. Which isn't to say it doesn't catch the eye with its beauty—it does—but there aren't pedestrians or ample wildlife, and the few cars players do come across aren't nearly as detailed as the player's or online drivers. This isn't the end of the world, but classics like Burnout Paradise made this a forgivable offense by drowning the player with side activities such as stunts, hidden paths and more.
As an aside, the world will feel droves more populated once players start buying the game and more than 70 players in a lobby will fix many of these slight complaints, and those worried can rest easy—there won't be any online complaining because every player is in ghost mode, so players will just pass through one another in the shared world.
Where to start?
Horizon 4 is a beast of a game with plenty to do, and it's hard to imagine players can simply blow through the content.
The shared world is a varied blast to cruise through, as players discover things along the way and see changes in every season and some events.
There isn't a story mode in this game per se; it's more about the customizable experience through a barrage of events.
We'll let a list of map filters do the talking:
- Season events
- Season PR stunt challenges
- Road racing series
- Dirt racing series
- Cross-country series
- Street scene
- The drag strip
- Showcase events
- Playground games
- Speed traps
- Speed zones
- Danger signs
- Drift zones
- Bonus boards
- Barn finds
- Stories and businesses
- Festival site
- Player houses
- Beauty spots
The stunt challenges are the closest players will get to a big story mode. Players will meet some interesting characters who will introduce them to different types of events in the open world, but it's forgettable cookie-cutter stuff—this is about the cars, how and where you can use them and especially the open-world aspect with friends.
Some of the listed events are exactly what they sound like. Some, like speed traps and danger signs, ask a player to get risky in the shared world. Beauty spots are for those who love to pull back with the camera or the excellent drone mode and soak in not only the surroundings but also the immense details put into each car, including interiors.
Players can earn or purchase houses that sometimes unlock goodies along with them but otherwise act as fast-travel spots. Other features unlock items—notably the ability to unlock cars for free by stumbling upon barn finds.
Progression is the main topic, though. If Destiny were a car game, this would be it. There are more than 450 cars to unlock and hundreds upon hundreds of unlockable loot items players can use to customize their avatar, ranging from clothing to dances and beyond—all of these are in a colored-tier rarity system just like the loot in the Destiny series. There is a fun crossover opportunity here, too—Halo's Warthog made an appearance in the last game, and there is already a Sea of Thieves horn available for purchase.
There is a feedback loop of casino-like reward spins that can feel odd. On one hand, it seems generous enough with CR and car rewards...but it's hard to feel enthused about filler items like "pink abstract flats" a player's avatar can wear, too. The sheer number of items can make it feel padded, though it doesn't feel predatory by any means. The game is constantly dishing out reward points and spins of the wheels for simply driving a car around.
Cars themselves progress through usage as well. Each sports its own skill tree. A McLaren 720S, for example, has 13 unlockable skills ranging from slingshotting point bonuses to extra point rewards for clean racing.
The progression and customization don't stop there. Outside of surface-level looks customization and tuning, players have access to the oft-requested route builder, which is exactly what it sounds like. These Blueprint events created by other users and housed in a central hub called the Creative Hub will allow players to vote on the best of the month and let the developers pick some of their favorite player-created courses as well.
This plays into the experience throughout the map regardless of season. When loading up an event, players can choose default, play a route created by a community member or even map out their own route on the fly.
Head-to-head competition is here as well, of course. Other than rolling up to someone in the shared world and challenging them, players can partake in the Team Adventure online series that lasts a month and offers different tiered rewards for what rank a player ends at by the time it ends.
Cooperation also comes in the form of the auction house, which lets players use CR to bid or buy cars outright from other players. Throwing unwanted cars on the market at a reasonable price is a nice way to bulk up a player's own CR base.
The car list itself boasts a number north of 400 with pretty much everything fans could want, but don't expect to see Mitsubishi, Toyota or Lexus due to licensing issues. But like everything else, what's here is superb enough to make whatever might be missing entirely forgotten.
Horizon 4 is a smorgasbord of racing greatness grounded in reality and awash with the latest reward systems seen in other games boasting one back-of-the-box new feature that flips the whole formula on its head.
The game is a joy to play with something different and refreshing always available. Digging into the guts of a car after making a selection and hitting one of the many events while continually improving (the game prompts the removal of assists as a player improves) is a nice capper on an already stellar reward system.
A continued sense of progression through seemingly endless unlocks is only trumped by the seasonal changes which are dramatic both visually and in impact on gameplay. This is a digestible experience, too, with the majority of events feeling short and snappy. It's easy to fall into the just-one-more-race loop, especially while trying to knock out weekly challenges or climb the Team Adventure leaderboards with friends.
This shared experience is a genre-defining one and reaches for new heights while managing to stay grounded with an impressive suite of online features, from cooperation to competitive to a brimming marketplace for the collectors out there.
Playground Games studios painted an idea of what racing games should be off on the horizon and chased after it in an ambitious, all-inclusive manner sure to appeal to any and all levels of racing fans. But again, while enjoying the experience, it's understandable if players wonder how in the world it will get better than this.
Forza Horizon 4 releases Oct. 2 on Xbox One and Xbox Game Pass.