There’s enough rich and varied history in the marriage of video gaming and motoring to placate the most discerning fans of either genre in the quest for virtual escapism. And the fourth instalment of Microsoft’s titanic open-world racing franchise, Forza Horizon 4 for xBox One and PC, is an indulgent, grandiose, intense and at times overloaded quest to set new benchmarks in virtual escapism for gameheads and petrolheads alike.
Jaw-dropping visuals, breakneck action and an encyclopaedic deep dive into the varied fringes of car culture geekery in an adventurous and free-roaming format have long been hallmarks propelling the popularity of the Horizon series, an arcade-flavoured spin-off of the more simulation-like Forza Motorsport series, with past Horizon instalments set in Colorado USA, southern Europe and, with more than a bit of geographic license at play, Australia. With number four, set in the United Kingdom, developers aimed to maintain the key ingredients underpinning the series widespread popularity, while piling on extra variety and complexity in all its ‘more is more’ glories.
The anchor point is ability to buy, modify and trade an exhaustive array of real-world vehicles – some 450 cars, trucks, buggies and vans from 100 manufacturers covering close to a hundred years of history – rendered with eye-popping accuracy inside and out. And the opportunity to free drive them however you like or in challenges based around 25 different types of campaigns: racing, time trials, on road, cross country, stunt driving… you name it. And you can choose between venturing offline and solo in an AI-rich microcosm or playing online in a multiplayer format, racing against or co-opting with real players in myriad ways across the expansive landscape.
The more you play and unlock, the more money, rewards and status you earn, the more immersed and varied the motoring universe becomes. And while there’s some general, predetermined sequence of events to unlock the game’s broader features, you’re more or less free to go about your car indulgences whichever way you like.
Its predecessor Forza Horizon 3, a game I’ve personally clocked hundred of hours on, pretty much nailed the template this new version builds upon, be it the actual physical mechanics of how the cars handle to some of trainspotty accuracy in the motoring minutia. And even on initial play though, it’s evident developers have piled on more new features and shaken some old ones up to create some notable improvement and inject even more variety.
The most conspicuous changes are the changing seasons: where the old game had changes in weather, Horizon 4 shifts the entire landscape through a different season every real-world calendar week, which dramatically affects the driving experience – even what cars you drive – within the Forza universe. And where the old Forza universe presented a handful of surprise ‘Forzathon’ challenges in which to earn (often freshly debuted) cars, credit and status one a week, this time out new online events pop up every hour and day, some of which can be completed in co-op with up to 11 other online players. A new Route Creator also allows you to design your own race route to share with others.
First impressions, after a few hours of ‘prologue’ introduction easing – well, blasting – you into the play and four-season groove, are mostly gushing. It looks amazing, utterly gorgeous, even at the regular 30-frames-per-second HDR on my ‘normal’ Xbox One, and rich and moody in all the right places. Concerns that simulated UK won’t be nearly as varied and interesting to thrash a virtual car around in as Horzion 3’s quasi-regional Australia quickly dispel as the transitions from summer through autumn to winter create a more living and unpredictably varied experience as one challenge leads to the next.
The physics governing the cars, which feel a touch heftier, looser and more tuning sensitive, are excellent. And so much of in-game play, from the sat-nav instruction to the ghosted guidelines on the road surface, feels like a familiar facsimile of Horizon 3. In terms of customisable difficultly settings, it’s much the same, and there are ample rewards from even rudimentary challenges to quickly build enough credit and reward to assemble a decent garage with some wickedly fast machinery in one sitting even before spring arrives and game proper – where AI opponents can be substituted by on-line players – commences.
Concerns that the narrower confines of UK roadways would be more boring to drive than previous Horizon landscapes dispels quickly thanks to one minor but important detail: your car simply bursts through most roadside rock walls and hedgerows at speed rather than stopping dead with violent impact (as will happen with big trees, boulders, buildings and structures). Besides, ploughing your way cross country on a path of destruction isn’t merely perversely rewarding, it’s integral to much of the gameplay. After all, indulging in antisocial speeding, street racing and reckless driving – driving a Bugatti Chiron off the side of a cliff, say – in the safety of virtual reality entertainment is really what Horizon is all about.
Some new features appeal more than others: drift-spec suspension and drag tyres should expand playability nicely, though I’ve not tried either at the time of writing, but the newfound obsession with your avatar character’s clothing and his/her ‘emotes’ (gestures, dancing and whatnot) and novelty car horns are needless and superfluous. And some of the narrative and the dialogue that propels one of world’s faintest storylines, too, might be a bit juvenile for some tastes, but thankfully it’s only a small part of the game’s overall focus.
When viewed as a racing game from a gaming perspective, it’s easy to believe that Horizon 4 really is the pinnacle of its genre to date. And if you’ve never played Horizon 3, perhaps the biggest game-changer of the serie's formula, you undoubtedly find the selection of cars to drive – only about half of which are available at first play through – will be impossibly eclectic: from the tiny 1962 Peel 50 to a Unimog; from Ken Block’s 2016 Hoonigan Gymkhana Focus RS to James Bond’s 1977 Lotus Esprit S1; from 2018 McLaren Senna to a 1985 HDT VK Group A or a 1977 Holden Torana A9X. Yes, Aussie muscle is back… without some of the stupid branding stuff-ups in the last game.
The biggest disappointment for the Horizon stalwart car nerds among us, like me, is that there are not many properly fresh cars, or much in the way of new tuning and modification evolution, on show. Yes, Volkswagen is finally on board with the franchise (such as 1963 Beetle and Type 2 De Luxe ‘Kombi’) there’s the odd smattering of newbies (including hard-core racing trucks), but most of the fleet is carryover from the last game if lightly updated with a few MY18 extras.
The whole wheel upgrade menu, for instance, looks exactly the same, and the generic engine swap options lack genuine petrolhead authenticity. Thankfully, Porsche is now a permanent fixture, and includes the famed 1971 917/20 ‘pink pig’ Le Mans racecar.
That said all said, from chasing Barn Finds to camping out in the online Auction House lowballing in-game credits for bargains, there’s still oodles of gearhead geekery in which to explore and indulge that doesn’t demand racing to be first to a chequered flag.
Despite being a bit too much groundhog day with the four-wheeled sheetmetal - let's hope this changes with downloaded updates - the holistic Horizon 4 experience is so immersive, captivating, accessible and downright addictive – one promising an inevitable avalanche of updates continually freshening and enriching content diversity – after a few hours play that I both hope and fear it’ll keep me hook for a few hundred hours more.
Forza Horizon 4 is on sale in Australia for Xbox One and Windows 10 PC on 28 September (Ultimate Edition $139.95) and 2 October (Deluxe Edition $119.95 and Standard Edition $99.95).
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