When you boil it right down, Forza Horizon 4 and the Horizon Festival are both a colossal celebration of racing, music, light and life. By completing races, earning fans and influence, players are rewarded with thrilling new events, gorgeous scenery and stunning, picture-perfect recreations of some of the world’s greatest cars. Since 2012, Turn 10 Studios and Playground Games have been honing in closer and closer to that idea, creating vibrant, fun racing titles to offset their slightly more serious Forza Motorsport series. Forza Horizon 2 and 3 were both brilliant games in their own right: can the streak continue with Forza Horizon 4?
The joy and vibrancy of driving is on full display right from the start. The very first thing all players will experience in Horizon 4 is a wonderful sequence, taking them through the various seasons, racing disciplines and car variety that is in store, capped off with a lengthy drive in the gorgeous McLaren Senna. Right after, however, veteran players will notice a change. Previous Forza Horizon titles would immediately festoon the open world map with dozens of races, challenges and discoverables. Horizon 4 is far more measured. After the thrilling intro, the player selects a simple car and takes part in a simple race. This unlocks a few more races, with a few new cars. When they’ve done enough and gained enough influence, the season shifts and more is revealed. After a few hours, once the player has experienced all four seasons and a sizeable chunk of racing, the real game begins.
This gentle path through the different events and features is a bona-fide stroke of genius. The steady trickle of new events means the player is never paralysed by the volume of options available, and by the time they have progressed through all four seasons and into the “real game”, they are experienced drivers and racers.
The “real game” is the Horizon Life mode, a genuine open-world, multiplayer Forza experience. Each week, a season is chosen by Turn 10, alongside a variety of special, seasonal events with a strong multiplayer focus. These optional races and trials reward the player with a special currency to unlock new clothes, or special cars. Meanwhile, your racing world is infested with dozens of other players, racing and rolling all over the English countryside completing their own events and objectives. They can’t interfere with you: whenever you get close to another human driver, they fade away into a harmless ghost. The feeling of watching a race of eight or ten cars stream past at 200km/h is intoxicating, and feels like it’s what the Horizon Festival has lacked all along. It’s like a piece of the puzzle was put in place that I didn’t even realise was missing, but I simply could not imagine playing Horizon titles without the lunacy of this living world.
The “plot” of all three previous Horizon games boiled down to the player proving they were the best racer amongst a cast of thousands. In reality, it never felt like that. You were beating nameless CPU goons and racing against Drivatars named after your friends rather than actual people. In Horizon 4, for the first time it’s true: there are always races and events firing off from the other players in your shared world, meaning the actions you undertake finally match the story they’ve been trying to tell.
This is exemplified best in the Forzathon Live challenges. 10 minutes before the top of the hour, an alert is sent to all players that a Forzathon Live event is about to start. After arriving at the destination and spinning donuts with dozens of other ghost cars, the event begins. Each live event is three different objectives, one after the other. Most involve driving at high speeds through a certain speed camera, or going off a big jump. Your score is added to the group’s total, and once the target is reached, you race off to the second, and third objective. The events are short, taking no longer than 15 minutes, and you are rewarded with some of the special currency. More importantly, when the event finishes, you’ll be in the same area as thirty or so other players, and can quickly challenge others to races, or to form a convoy and roam the world until the next Forzathon Live ticks over again.
By bringing players together every hour and rewarding them for participating in a quick challenge, Turn 10 have finally hit upon the “live” feeling that the Horizon Festival was supposed to have all along. It creates this ebb and flow that brings players together, before they go off and do their own stuff for another half an hour, before coming back together again to race. It’s a genuine stroke a genius that encourages cooperation and multiplayer madness.
Completing a race or an event earns you influence, which increases your overall influence level, and your level in that particular class of event. Levelling up your overall influence earns you cars, clothes and wheelspins, which give you a randomized reward. Levelling the event class gives you the same, as well as unlocking more events for you to race in. The more you race in a particular class, the longer, more difficult races you can undertake. It’s a smart design decision: rather than overloading the map with forty-odd races of the same type, the game only unfolds them when you show a desire to follow that particular path. It also means that every couple of races, you get something new to find on the map.
Underneath all the new open world mechanics, Forza Horizon 4 is still an incredible racing game. The handling of the cars feels sublime, and despite the nearly 1,000 cars available, they all feel unique, and characteristic of their real life counterparts. I spent the majority of the game driving a v12 Aston Martin for street racing, a Lancia for rallying and a Peel P50 for laughs, and they all felt completely different from one another. If you’re a bit mad and you own a steering wheel, you can get disturbingly lost in the black arts of tuning and make the car sing just the way you want it to. For 99% of the population that don’t play with a wheel, it still feels great with a controller.
There are a few little niggles that I noted in my time with Horizon 4. The open world is spectacularly gorgeous, with the different seasons drastically changing the handling of cars, and the layout of the world itself. However, this cuts both ways: I grew pretty tired of the slippy roads in winter and autumn and in my heart of hearts would have preferred I could select the season. I’ve also got quibbles about the map design itself. Despite being a graphical treat, it left me slightly underwhelmed with its visual variety and its propensity for large hills. It also felt considerably smaller than the Australian map of Horizon 3, though that could be my local bias rearing its head. The soundtrack could use a bit of a boost as well. There’s not an awful lot of tracks across the various stations, and to my ears, not a lot of bangers in that mix. I’d also like to see a bit more variety across Horizon Life as well, but this seems like it will become a Destiny/ World of Warcraft style living game, with Turn 10 making changes each week. That’s it, though – some better music, a few less hills, a bit of sunshine and I’m set.
There have been nine Forza games in the past decade, four of which were Forza Horizon titles. For a racing game series, this is unheard of: its chief competitor, Gran Turismo, has only released seven games in twenty-one years. In that time, Turn 10 Studios have created a great, fantastic feeling driving experience, beautiful world and track designs, an industry-leading livery and design studio and the biggest, most realistic collection of cars ever assembled for a video game. But this has been the same story for years – what makes Forza Horizon 4 different from its predecessors? In terms of large scale, back-of-the-box bullet points, not much. Through careful tweaking and small iterations all over the Horizon Festival, however, Turn 10 have created one of the all-time great driving experiences, with a multiplayer suite that will be the high water mark for multiplayer racing for years to come.