Playgrounds’ latest deftly balances all of its new features with the same excellent gameplay.
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about a number of different game design philosophies. Open worlds and the dominant “checklist” design which entails clearing icons on a large map; iteration and building upon time-worn concepts even if some games feel like needless clones; so on and so forth. While comparing the open world design of something like, say, The Crew 2 to the Forza Horizon series, the amount of activities, scale and grinding in both games is differentiated in terms of immersion and world-building.
Upon looking at games that are merely “clones” or sequels that seemingly change very little, it’s easy to forget how the formula is actually being improved. However you may feel about both topics, enjoyable gameplay is still king. It’s not about just creating a big mass of land and populating it with activities for players to complete, racing – either metaphorically or literally – from one end of the map to the other as some numbers go up. It’s not about “recycling” or reusing what works. It’s about more than that, more than the sum of a game’s design parts.
"For all intents and purposes, Forza Horizon 4 is the very best the series has ever been despite being fundamentally similar to its predecessors in many ways."
Every time Playground Games releases a new Forza Horizon, that “more than the sum of its parts” aspect has always had me contemplating the design. Forza Horizon, for all intents and purposes, began as a way to take the ultra-realistic simulation racing of Forza Motorsport out into the open world. But while Forza Motorsport has continued its tradition of competitive, high-stakes, painstakingly immersive racing, Forza Horizon has grown into so much more. The vibe and theme has taken on a life, an energy of its own, and if you thought Forza Horizon 4 would be a sobering wake-up call, an end to the proverbial dream, well it’s not.
Forza Horizon 4 has everything that any racing fan could want, be it pure arcade racing stretching across Showcase events and stunt driving or competitive racing across country-sides and tightly packed cities. The big sprawling mass of activities has been re-imagined and catalogued into various disciplines while constantly feeding into one’s overall progression and reward pool. It’s brought the shared world experience into this beautifully crafted world and let players embrace the chaos and adventure it entails. For all intents and purposes, Forza Horizon 4 is the very best the series has ever been despite being fundamentally similar to its predecessors in many ways.
You’re not the festival boss from previous Horizon games this time around. Instead, you play as a rookie working their way up to the Horizon Roster. To accomplish this, you must race through all four seasons, starting with Summer, garnering Influence, unlocking Showcases and completing them to prove your worth. If you’re familiar with the Horizon series, then you know how this works. Various races begin opening up after the snazzy opening Showcase, from street races and rally racing to cross-country drives and city sprints.
Story missions may also pop up, offering their own objectives like racking up a huge number of skill points by wrecking the environment or hitting big jumps. Aside from that, you have Speed Traps (goals that must be hit at specific speeds), Speed Zones which require maintaining an average speed along a small route, fast travel and Influence boards that can be smashed and so on. There are classic cars that can be discovered and refurbished in Barn Finds (with Drone Mode returning to help you locate them).
"Even when you’re navigating the open world and partaking in races against exotic super cars, the overall handling and visibility will be affected significantly by snowfall."
Everything you do, whether it’s skill combos or simply competing in races, will net you Credits and Influence. The former is currency for buying new cars and upgrades while the latter helps you progress to the next season and showcase (besides serving as a leveling mechanic). It all works very much like Forza Horizon 3. However, right away, all these familiar activities feel different thanks to Seasons. The Summer is fairly straight-forward, full of delightful weather conditions as you careen past quaint towns or any of the lush plains and forests throughout Britain. Spring, Autumn, and Winter mix things up by throwing weather conditions like rain and snowfall, affecting how certain terrain is approached. While many races will be your typical competitive cruise against Drivatars, others will see roads soaked with rainfall and puddles, the latter capable of spinning vehicles out of control if hit incorrectly.
Forza Horizon 4 doesn’t just throw different weather conditions and climates at before calling it a day. Different Seasons open up different events before unlocking their own respective Showcases like racing a train across a Wintery landscape en route to Edinburgh. Even when you’re navigating the open world and partaking in races against exotic super cars, the overall handling and visibility will be affected significantly by snowfall. Then there are the Seasonal Championships, which we’ll get into later.
In terms of cars, there are over 450 vehicles painstakingly created for your pleasure. Manufacturers include like the likes of Audi, BMW, Bugatti, Chevrolet, Infiniti, Jaguar, Ford, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Subaru and so on. Even the novelty vehicles like Halo’s Warthog are available. Once again, the sheer variety begets the amount of racing events to partake in. The EB110 Super Sport 1992 Bugatti may be your go to for simply tearing across terrain in Summer or participating in after-hours streets races.
Meanwhile, the #14 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing GRC Fiesta 2017 Ford and #199 WRX STI VT15R Rally Car 2016 Subaru might satisfy your rally needs, the former more for its sliding and the latter for its stability and speed (depending on how you tune them of course). There’s the Q60 Concept 2015 Infiniti which was good for…something. Then there are special Forza Edition vehicles like the Class10 Race Car Forza Edition 2015 Alumi Craft which provide specific bonuses like Destruction Skill Boost.
"You may think this increases the grind significantly but as a whole, Forza Horizon 4 doles out Skill Points on a very frequent basis."
Some cars require tighter tuning jobs than others but rest assured that there’s plenty to do. Tire pressure ratio can be tuned to increase max speed and responsiveness at the cost of grip; gears can be adjusted to offer higher acceleration or more top speed, the requirements varying depending on gear; and much more. That’s not even taking into account the options for changing components, reducing weight, increasing top speed and handling, swapping entire engines out or simply opting for preset body-kits. Suffice it to say that if you want a vehicle to perform a certain way, Forza Horizon 4 has the tools and they’ll all be familiar to fans of the series. Couple this with settings that let you adjust the difficulty of Drivatars and various assists, and the sky’s the limit on how deeply you want to customize the overall racing experience.
In terms of Skills, Forza Horizon 4 has gone for a different approach from its predecessor. Whereas Forza Horizon 3 offered an overarching set of Skills that could be unlocked as more Skill Points were earned (with Instant Rewards, Skills and Festival Boss each conferring different benefits), each car in Forza Horizon 4 now has its own Skill Tree. So all the traditional bonuses like an increased skill multiplier limit, faster skill multiplier gain, increased near miss skill scores and so on are on a per car basis. It’s also possible to unlock Wheelspins and instant Influence.
You may think this increases the grind significantly but as a whole, Forza Horizon 4 doles out Skill Points on a very frequent basis. You can also choose to save certain Skill Points earned from vehicles and spend them on others. So if you enter rally races with a Subaru car but fancy the Bugatti more, then devote all Skill Points to the latter if you so choose. Each car has its own rarity level which somewhat determines the size of its skill tree so you might cruise through some vehicles just for their Wheelspins and Influence. In a rather interesting twist, certain houses can unlock different skills as well – your first home actually enables Drone Mode, for instance. Others can provide benefits like 10 free Super Wheelspins among other things. Super Wheelspins, by the way, confer three random prizes in a Wheelspin instead of one.
"Forzathon Live Events leverage the shared world aspect of the game, providing different events for groups of real players to contribute towards."
Overall, the progression in Forza Horizon 4 just feels so much better than previous games (and that’s including Forza Motorsport). The amount of Credit and Influence earned from races, even when playing at Average Drivatar difficulty with most assists turned on, is very fair. And thanks to Horizon Life, there are set goals and rewards for competing in every activity. Do you want to collect cars? You can level up your collection category in the process, gaining further benefits.
Fancy Stunt Driving? Focus on that. Want to grind out Rivals, facing ghost Drivatars in a fighting game-like gauntlet of successive challengers? It’s all here. This organization of activities along with clear goals for what they unlock is great because it lets you plan out certain play sessions accordingly. The rewards from leveling up in different activities includes guaranteed vehicles, cosmetics, Credits, and Wheelspins, offering more incentive to partake in a little bit of everything.
But wait, there’s more. After making it to the Horizon Roster, you gain access to Forzathon Live Events and Seasonal Championships along with more Story missions and a few more Showcases (including the incredible Halo Showcase). Forzathon Live Events leverage the shared world aspect of the game, providing different events for groups of real players to contribute towards. These include relatively simple activities like stunt jumps, speed zones and speed traps, the cumulative total helping to advance forward. Though relatively simple in nature, the sheer chaos of seeing numerous vehicles careening across the landscape to reach a goal or simply rushing back and forth through a speed trap is fun. We’ll have to wait and see just how intricate these Live Events can be but for now, they suit the core purpose and offer decent rewards.
The Seasonal Championships contribute an almost end-game like activity in their own right. Each Seasonal Championship has different objectives, rewards and activities across various conditions, times of day and events. For example, the Skyfall Seasonal Championship may require an Aston Martin DB5 1964 James Bond Edition in the Edinburgh City Sprint, a nice little jaunt through the city during the morning, before transitioning to a street race called The Highland Charge at night during the rain as one careens through the countryside. Completing the various objectives for a Seasonal Championship – like placing first against Expert Drivatars – can net rewards like Super Wheelspins. Depending on the Season, new daily and weekly challenges will open up, pushing you to perform tasks like an Ultimate Pass against an opponent and so on.
"Playground Games has honed its racing craft wonderfully over the years and it shows."
Completing the hourly Forzathon Live Events, or daily and weekly seasonal challenges will net you Forza Points. These can be redeemed in the Forza Shop for Wheelspins, Super Wheelspins, vehicles, cosmetics, horns and so on. The shop changes every few days, offering different rewards as new events open up. This further rewards you for completing different tasks and mixes up the gameplay provided by the Seasonal conditions.
All this while I’ve been going on about the various features of Forza Horizon 4, what they do and what you should expect. How does it all coalesce together though? As it turns out, very, very well. The environmental design provides enough variety in its obstacles and courses, especially across different seasons, to make even repeat races feel fun.
Though I’m a bit partial to the soundtrack from Forza Horizon 3, Forza Horizon 4 delivers an eclectic variety of tunes with Odesza, The Killers, M83, Foo Fighters and even Kazuma Junnoichi (whose song you’ll probably know quite well). All of it along with the authentic vehicle sounds, especially when crunching against the dirt and snow, adds up to a superb aural experience. Even the DJs like Horizon Pulse’s Amy Simpson, British Horizon Festival manager Keira and film director Mike Steele come across as real, believable people in their voice acting and dialogue.
Above all else, the responsiveness of Forza Horizon 4‘s controls is simply fantastic. Regardless of which vehicle or event, the controls always feel spot on. That feeling of speed in the EB110 Super Sport 1992 Bugatti as it careened through ominously lit tunnels and dark forests is unmatched. Hitting a massive puddle or slamming the brakes before a sharp turn feels weighty, carrying the right amount of feedback. Playground Games has honed its racing craft wonderfully over the years and it shows.
"For all the fundamentals it embodies from its predecessors, both in open world design and racing mechanics, there is just so much to appreciate about Forza Horizon 4."
There are several things I haven’t mentioned like Team Adventure which lets you seamlessly embark on play sessions with other players, working cooperatively or facing off competitively in game modes like King of the Hill and Infected. Or the new Route Creator which arrives several weeks after launch that lets you finally design your own bona fide racing routes. Or the utterly amazing visuals which capture the atmosphere and tone of each season as wonderfully as it does their climate. Or the businesses you can run to earn additional revenue. Or that feeling of discovering a new Beauty Spot and just emerging from your car to take in the beautiful sights around you. But that’s a testament to just how much Forza Horizon 4 crams into one stellar package.
You could nitpick certain things if you really want to, like the loss of a combined skills screen that provides all benefits at once. Player housing is simply meant for customizing one’s Drivatar and serving as a garage for maintaining vehicles (and you can’t even enter and explore it in first person). You can’t just fast travel wherever you’d like for free without breaking all the assorted boards, thus making for a lot of back and forth between some destinations. And sure, maybe the Wheelspin loot pool has been diluted by the addition of Drivatar cosmetics, emotes and horns.
None of this takes away from the fact that this is a stellar open world title, a crown jewel among Microsoft’s exclusives and one of the best racing games ever made. For all the fundamentals it embodies from its predecessors, both in open world design and racing mechanics, there is just so much to appreciate about Forza Horizon 4.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Britain offers another memorable setting with its own unique atmosphere. Seasons significantly alter the ebb and flow of races. Horizon Life is a great way to properly keep track of activities while earning significant rewards. Shared world aspect, though simplistic, is great fun and feeds into the end-game quite well. Seasonal Championships offer a nice meta-game to pursue with interesting challenges and racing conditions. Gorgeous visuals and soundtrack underline the stellar presentation. Racing mechanics still feel incredibly solid and fun with enough in-depth tuning and customization to cater to any player.
Player housing could have used some more interactivity. Unlocking free fast travel may feel like a slog. Drivatar cosmetics may annoy some.
Even without Seasons and shared world aspects, the design and overall quality of Forza Horizon 4 can't be ignored. Fundamentally similar to its predecessors but still incredibly well crafted, Playground Games' latest is another amazing journey.