by Kevin Boyle, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 11th October, 2018
After 14 years we have yet to see a bad Forza game. Ever since the original Forza Motorsport launched for the Xbox the series stayed one of the rare video game franchises that always managed to impress critics and gamers alike. Sure, there were a couple of entries in the main series (looking at you Forza Motorsport 5 and 7) which failed to meet universal praise but its younger and wilder cousin Horizon never disappointed. And with its latest iteration, Forza Horizon managed to touch the imaginative ceiling of open-world racing games, at least for this generation of consoles.
Forza Horizon 4 manages to impress since the very beginning. You are put behind the wheel of the mighty McLaren Senna and during the game's short intro scene you will experience the title's biggest new addition - the change of seasons. From the wet and golden-colored fall roads filled with falling leaves, through the chilling and snow-filled winter, through the muddy and lush green roads of early spring, to the mighty summer energized with invigorating beams of sunlight, Forza Horizon 4 shows the big guns right away. And then the game gets into second gear during its prologue, which lasts for a good number of hours trying to lull you into thinking you're playing just another solid open-world racer. You will be greeted, asked to pick your character and then a couple of racing events will become unlocked.
This slow and drowsy start might turn some players off because the game serves you with a number of races, one after another while there's just one story event available (albeit the most exciting one which puts you in boots of fearless stunt driver) and with online features disabled. During the first hours of the game, you will think that Forza Horizon 4 could've been a better game but keep playing and you will soon uncover its true nature. You see, after you gain enough experience to swoosh through the game's four seasons, you will be greeted with a slot in the Festival's rooster and a massive unlock of a ton of features.
Suddenly, you will be greeted with always online nature of the game, putting you just a couple of seconds and a couple of button presses away from starting your own online adventure filled with various activities. You will be surrounded by 11 other drivers who are constantly roaming across the map, just calling you to challenge them in a duel, or make them a part of your convoy and hit the road. The seasonal Forzathon shop offers a couple of cool cars and special seasonal challenges that earn you currency which can be spent in the game's shop (and no, there isn't a single microtransaction option in this one). Seasonal championships give you valuable rewards for beating them on higher difficulty levels, and every single race can be played either solo, online against other players or in co-op mode where other players join your team while you try to beat opposing team made out of Drivatars. The nice thing is that the game offers a solo mode for those who want to play alone.
And that's just the start of the biggest open world racing adventure ever. Once you finish prologue not only will you be able to play one of the game's many online modes, you will also receive a huge number of new racing events along with lots of barn find alerts and dozens of speed traps, speed zones, drift zones, and jump spots. The game will suddenly overwhelm you with content you will need a couple of hours just to realize what the hell is happening. And after that, you won't be able to leave Forza Horizon 4's huge map of Britain because the game is just so damn good. This time instead of multiple Festival events there's just one located on the southwest part of the map. The addition of houses is here to enable quick travel points and after you buy a couple of houses you will be able to reach any point of the map in just a few minutes. But you'll use quick travel rarely because the experience of driving cars across beautiful areas of virtual Britain is astonishing.
The driving is awesome and easy to learn. Everyone who played previous Forza games will feel right at home. While being the arcadey cousin of Motorsport titles, Horizon games won't go full-on arcade by completely disregarding brakes and making cars to magically stick to the road at all times. Even with all driving assistances turned on you will have to be careful not to hit into an incoming wall, or too aggressively attack the next turn. Putting it simply, the driving model is arcade one but amazingly designed making each of the more than 450 cars available in the game a joy to drive. Oh yes, the car roster is humongous and it will satisfy even the most demanding racing fans.
From street racing models such as Mazda RX-7 to hypercar beasts embodied in Ferrari LaFerrari or Koenigsegg One:1, the game is filled with amazing vehicles. You can choose between dozens of groups and almost one hundred different manufacturers. There are street racing cars, classic racers, classic hot hatches like the first Golf GTI, offroad and extreme offroad beasts, supercars, extreme hypercars, street illegal models made for the racetrack, lots of different rally cars, you name it. The beauty of Forza Horizon is that you are able to play it exactly how you want it. Most races don't put limits on car classes, or specific models. You can play the game by driving vintage cars, you can ride your way to victory in Rally monsters, or ride a hypercar from the beginning. Maybe you want to recreate your favorite car from NFS Most Wanter? That's okay because most cars can be upgraded with a huge number of parts, creating a beastly racer out of the Mazda MX-5 by swapping its engine, embalming it in aftermarket body kit, putting some racing tires, swapping the drivetrain to AWD, and completely changing its braking system. And the game is pretty generous when it comes to money prizes so you will be able to get your favorites, after a while because there is a monstrous amount of events that award various cash prizes.
Opponent AI is using Drivatar technology and it is a hit or miss most of the time. While AI opponents aren't as bad as they are in the last Motorsport title, they are subpar compared to some other games. They will fight for their position and will notice you this time around (unlike in Motorsport 7 where they behave like driving hot laps without other racers present on track), and they can make occasional mistakes. But on the last two highest difficulty levels it is noticeable they cheat. You will see offroad or humble streetcars being faster than a Pagani Zonda or Bugatti Veyron, with opponents taking turns at impossible speeds and reaching otherworldly acceleration. Luckily, Expert difficulty level provides plenty of challenge without needing to equip AI drivers with inhuman skill or super powerful cars and if you want an even greater challenge we advise you to simply jump into competitive multiplayer instead racing against AIs who cheat their way to victory. And there are the good old Wheelspins which give solid prizes and the addition of Super Wheelspins that award three prizes per pull. We received more than 50 cars among them around five Forza edition models that come with upgrades and boost to various skills. They also award various clothing pieces and different horn sounds (which can be unlocked exclusively through Wheelspins and Forzathon shop, no microtransactions here either) and getting a horn sound and two awfully looking clothing pieces from a Super Wheelspin can be infuriating. Luckily, it seems that cash and car prizes are much more frequent in both regular and Super Wheelspins. And if you don't like the car you got as a prize, sell it at an auction and raise funds to get one you really want. In addition to multiplayer races (there is always someone willing to drive some co-op or PvP races with or against you), a huge number of events, four different story events each made out of ten chapters, and various free roam activities, getting a couple of millions of credits is manageable even without the VIP pass that comes with double awards. And the game awards players with some cool cars for leveling their character and for reaching higher levels in four championships as well as for completing story events with the maximum number of stars. Your garage will soon get pretty big and most players won't even be able to try out all cars they will get as prizes.
There are four types of events - road racing, street racing, rally tracks, and cross-country series and each ends with a massive race spanning across the map after you reach certain level in that event type. In total there are 100 exhibition events and you'll need about 30 or more hours to beat all races. Then you have four different story campaigns, each lasting about two hours. There are also lots of barn finds spotting the map along with a huge number of free-roaming activities in the form of jumps, speed cameras, and speed and drift zones. Each season lasts for a week and during each, you have access to limited seasonal championships that come with attractive rewards, and there are always dozens of other players roaming the map which can be challenged in one on one duels, or recruited for PvP and co-op races. And there are also Live Forzathon events that take place every hour and award all participants with Forzathon points to spend in the seasonal shop. Complete half a dozen of those and you will be able to buy one of the two exclusive cars that are offered each week in the game's shop. In other words, the game is teaming with content and to experience it all you will need at least 60 hours. After you beat all races you can play them again by either picking some blueprint made by other player (a special set of rules for each race like number of turns, types of cars allowed, limited car classes, etc.) or creating a new blueprint on your own, giving each track a superb replay value. And after that, you will be able to play multiplayer races until the next Horizon game comes out.
While track and street races (the latter ones taking place exclusively during the night) are cool to drive and can be pretty exciting, we put rally and especially cross-country events on the pedestal. They take place across the map and show the sheer beauty of the game. You'll race across fields, mountain ranges, quarries, abandoned train stations, beaches, forests, and all across the map and instead of keeping the wheels of your vehicle on the road during rally and cross-country events the game will show all its beauty and all its quality of track design. Offroad racing is the best part of Forza Horizon 4 and it is a shame that many cross-country events feature a limited choice of vehicles. Luckily, after you beat them you will be able to enter again with any vehicle you want. Really, we already have a strong track racing experience in Forza Motorsport 7 (the game got much better after its rocky launch) so the addition of numerous cool offroad events in Forza Horizon 4 is a great way to experience something completely different. This game is a combination of Dirt and Gran Turismo, and WRC, and Forza Motorsport, and On Rush, and Gravel and that's its strongest selling point. In Forza Horizon 4 you can experience all types of four-wheel racing, and they are all top-notch.
You gain levels by completing events and gaining followers. Each event gives you certain number of new followers and each new level comes with different prizes. You can get Whellspins and Super Wheelspins, cash, cars, quick chat and clothing items. You gain levels for each racing event type (track, street, rally, and cross country) and they also come with cash, cars, and other prizes. Finally, each story event also grants special cars in case you reach level 10 (meaning you complete all ten events with three star rating). And skills points are back, but instead of unlocking skills for all cars now you unlock skills for each car individually. This makes earning skills points much easier and faster but it limits you when picking carts to use in free roam because you can unlock every skills for just a handful of cars, even after dozens of hours of gameplay. This makes legendary and Forza Edition even more valuable because the more exclusive the car is the more unlockable skills it has. So it is best to take some legendary rally car and use it for free roam because they are great on all types of terrain and once fully upgraded can accomplish crazy skills chains that grant hundreds of thousands of skill points.
Now, the map is huge and it represents all parts of Britain. You have sandy beaches and green fields of the south, lots of small settlements dotting the map, green forests made of both deciduous and evergreen trees, huge grasslands of wondrously lilac flowers, fields of golden wheat, lush green mountains of Scotland and the city of Edinburgh filling the north part of the map that is perfectly recreated in Forza Horizon 4. The only thing that's missing are cliffs of Dover. Graphics are amazing, with huge distances on which you can see detailed trees and houses, perfectly rendered car models which get covered with mud, sand, snow, grass and other stuff while being driven cross country and then get beautiful and clean again after you run them through the nearest stream. The lighting doesn't have that golden color that gave Forza Horizon 3 a marvelous and strikingly saturated look that made everything prettier and more colorful, but it does recreate colors of Britain pretty well and excellently changes the look of the game through the four seasons.
And yes, the seasons really give the game four distinctive looks. Summers are dry, with dirt particles or roads, fields filled with lush golden wheat, strong sunshine, and dryer riverbeds. Fall is colored orange, with lots of leaves and puddles on roads, frequent rain, and barren fields. Winter is beautiful, with ice covering most roads, giving them that dreamy reflective look that looks otherworldly beautiful, lots of snow across the map making cross-country races completely different experience than during other seasons, and beautiful snowfalls that look like from some fairytale. Finally, Spring is lush and green as it could be, the country is soaked and muddy, rivers are high and forests are greener than ever. While the game's servers change seasons every week, you can create your own lobby and pick any season you want. If you want to play cross-country races pick Winter if you desire some rally driving go with spring while the summer is best for road races.
And the game runs fantastic. On regular Xbox, Forza Horizon 4 is locked to 30fps but it looks stunning. On the Xbox One X, there are two graphics modes; the first one locks the game to 30fps and renders it in native 4K resolution while giving it level of detail compared to the PC version ramped up to Ultra quality. The 1080p mode runs at silky smooth 60 frames per second while sacrificing a tiny amount of details. And on a PC the game can be run at 60 fps on a machine equipped with a GTX 1060 (6GB of RAM version), a solid quad-core CPU (Newer Core i5 or Ryzen 5 1500) and 12 GB of RAM. Do note that the game asks for more than 8 gigs of RAM for Ultra and Extreme quality presets because streaming of high-quality assets at speeds of more than 300 Km per hours is extremely demanding and needs lots of memory to load those assets into.
Now let's talk about the game's shortcomings. There aren't lots of them but some can affect the experience in a negative way. The main problem with the game at the moment is the fact that textures, foliage, and other types of scenery can load right in front of you, greatly affecting immersion. Also, sometimes when the game loads the next part of the map you can experience a half-second stutter but that's not really noticeable unless you drive some beast at 200 miles per hour. Then we have the AI, which can really be aggravating to race against at times. The game's servers also can simply stop working, with the game notifying you that your online sessions abruptly ended and then it can take an hour or so before online functions return.
Forza Horizon 4 is a huge game filled with stuff to do, filled with cars to drive, filled with pretty sceneries to admire at, filled with other players to play with or against, filled with various race tracks, filled with four different seasons each changing the game drastically, filled with barn finds that will take hours to locate them all, filled with more than 500 roads, filled with hundreds of hours of supreme digital entertainment no other open-world (or any other type) racer managed to offer. This game is the apex of open-world racing on this generation of consoles and it will take a new technology that will be installed in the PS5 and the next Xbox to beat this monster of a game. Sure, the game has its share of shortcomings but they all disappear once you get behind the wheel of a Lambo Centenario and start racing from morning to sunset forgetting to eat, sleep, and cutting all social ties for a couple of weeks before returning to the real world and leaving Forza Horizon 4 before the next seasons arrives and with it new events you can participate in.