Let’s set the scene.
It’s a crisp autumn day, the sun is shining in the sky and you are thundering down a British country lane at 150 MPH in your customised Bugatti Chiron. A particularly charming looking cottage catches your eye and you decide to stop to take a closer look. You hang a hard left, releasing the accelerator in an attempt to lose some momentum, as you realise you’ve turned too late you apply the handbrake and begin to wrestle against the powerful supercar, going into a deadly spin; with tires screeching, the Bugatti hurtles through the cottage’s garden wall, carves through their vegetable patch, destroys a telegraph pole and finally comes to rest, dented and scratched, on the lawn of neighboring house, four doors down.
Don’t like the sound of that?
Then how about instead of a crisp autumn day, it’s the dead of winter and you are zooming over a frozen lake in a Ford Mustang GT? Or ripping up a beach in a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T in the height of summer?
If any of the above sounds appealing then you’ll most likely enjoy Forza Horizon 4, the latest installment in the open-word, exploration style racing franchise, developed by Playground Games and released for Xbox One and PC this October.
Following 2016’s Forza Horizon 3 and 2017’s Forza Motorsport 7 (Horizon‘s more race-track based cousin), Forza Horizon 4 takes us to the roads of a fictionalised version of Britain and allows the player to free roam a varied and picturesque map which, to be honest, looks a lot nicer than the real thing (I live here, I can say it). Just as in most free roam games, you can travel to story-style events to progress, in this case to take part in races of differing variety, stunt performances and seasonal events; and similar to many games which put a focus on exploring in your own time, this is where Forza really shines.
Exploring a pretty landscape in a cool car is a simple but effective concept and FH4 works as a whole because Playground Games have made this so damn fun to do. It feels good to drive at breakneck speeds through fields and villages. It feels good to destroy private property. It feels good to turn a beautiful car into a crumpled wreck because you couldn’t be bothered driving on an actual road. Now I realise my description may make the driving experience sound rather heavy on the destruction side of things, rather than the smooth and seamless motor simulation that one may be hoping for; this is down to FH4’s unforgiving control system, which makes handling some cars rather challenging at best.
Whereas the buttons the player uses to control their vehicle are minimal, high speeds and levels of acceleration coupled with sensitive steering controls mean that over-steering and spinning out are very common as you get used to each vehicle. Even after hours of playing you will be by no means an expert: to some players this will be a welcome challenge reflective of the complexity of actual driving but to others may prove a repetitive annoyance.
The joy of free roam exploration in FH4 is also due in part to the game’s impressive visuals, with the crisp graphics and attention to detail making every turn, drift and even crash really quite pleasing to watch. With changing seasons adding another level to keep gameplay fresh as well as shaking up the landscape you can always be sure of a pleasant drive, even if you can’t control the car you’re driving.
Now no driving game can be complete without races and despite the emphasis on exploration, FH4 certainly delivers on providing a wide number of road, dirt and cross-country tracks on which to test your skills. Racing against both CPU opponents and online adversaries will definitely provide a challenge; however curiously, the game has no medal system, meaning once you’ve finished the race, no matter what place you’ve come, it is marked only as complete. This odd feature significantly reduces replay value (why return with a customised, souped-up engine and go for gold if there is none?) and takes the edge off the high-speed races, with seemingly very little pushing players to make an effort against the rest.
In addition to the lack of race medals (a factor which really detracts from the overall ‘up and coming driver’ tone that the game strives for) the rest of the game’s story elements are also pretty weak. Now driving games are not known for their excellent story-based narratives, tending to focus more on gameplay than anything else, however aside from the stunt driving segments of the game (which see the player performing outlandish vehicle stunts for a movie being filmed nearby) the other story-based events seem like they are only there to allow you to progress to the next race and nothing more. FH4 takes place during the ‘Horizon Festival’ a fictional driving fiesta, which provides a loose explanation for why there are so many dangerous street races going on in rural England and Scotland, however doesn’t quite try anything fresh in terms of explaining just what all these supercars are doing here.
Overall, Forza Horizon 4 is an interesting and satisfying play. It’s certainly not perfect, but the elements that are lacking from this good-natured driving game are more than made up for by its gorgeous visuals, attention to detail and focus on good ol’ fashioned fun. At the end of the day, there’s just something compelling about driving a beautiful car ridiculously fast with no consequences of the laws broken or damaged caused, and seeing what I can do behind the wheel of a Bugatti, if I’m honest, playing FH4 has made me ever so slightly more cautious on the actual real-world roads; an impressive feat for a video game- and trust me, what I drive is far from a Bugatti.