The fourth instalment of the globetrotting Horizon Festival is the series’ most ambitious effort yet. Lee Henaghan took the open world racer for a test drive ahead of its October 2 release.
When the first Forza Horizon was released in 2012, it was seen as a light-hearted spinoff looking to capitalise on the popularity of Microsoft’s flagship racing franchise, Forza Motorsport.
If Forza is a serious simulation designed to authentically replicate real-world vehicles and racetracks, Horizon is unashamedly aimed at the arcade end of the market – less concerned with realism and more focused on fun, freedom and fast cars.
In the six years and three games that followed, the plucky upstart has shifted through the gears to pull away from its distinguished forebearer, both critically and commercially. After receiving unanimously gushing reviews, Forza Horizon 3 went on to sell almost three times as many copies as the most recent entry in the Forza Motorsport series. Not bad for a spinoff.
With Horizon firmly established as the world’s premier racing franchise, developers Playground Games faced a dilemma familiar to any studio sitting on a blockbuster series – stick with a winning formula and serve up more of the same, or take a gamble and shake things up?
After spending over an hour putting a pre-release build of Forza Horizon 4 through its paces at a recent preview event in Sydney, it seems Playground have managed to do a bit of both. The core structure and gameplay remain faithful to the tried and trusted template, but the addition of some bold new features result in something that looks and feels radically different to previous games in the series.
‘Tis the seasons
The most notable new feature, and the game’s unique selling point, is undoubtedly the introduction of a dynamic seasons system. Not only does the shift from spring to summer and autumn to winter dramatically change how the game looks, it also fundamentally alters the landscape, opening up previously inaccessible areas depending on the time of year.
Rivers and lakes which run deep in spring dry up in the heat of summer – revealing hills and sand dunes – before freezing over during winter, transforming a bumpy, dusty rally track into a slippery ice rink.
Seasons in the game will rotate on a fixed basis, changing at a set time every week for every player. However, when starting a new game, you’re given a sneak preview of what to expect with a suitably epic intro/tutorial which smash cuts between an entire year in the space of four races, culminating in a summertime dash to the Horizon Festival start line in the game’s cover car – the McLaren Senna.
The open world – already the biggest ever created for a Horizon game – had to be completely remodelled four times over to accurately reflect the seasonal shifts. Playground Games art director Ben Penrose describes the development process as one of the most demanding experiences of his career.
“The scale of the game is incredible. The sheer size is much grander than anything we’ve produced before. Then there’s the ambition around the big set pieces in the game where we always try to raise the bar,” he said.
“There’s also added pressure now we’re set on our home turf. There’s been a level of scrutiny we’ve held ourselves to that’s just happened naturally – you want to get it right.”
As a UK-based studio primarily comprised of British developers, Penrose said the introduction of seasons to Forza Horizon 4 was intrinsically linked to the decision to set the game in the UK. “We couldn’t do Britain without seasons. And we couldn’t do seasons without Britain”.
After the success of previous Horizon games set in far-flung exotic locations such as the USA, Australia and the Mediterranean, a few eyebrows were raised at the decision to bring the biggest game of the series to the comparatively tame surroundings of England, Scotland and Wales.
However, condensing the UK into an open world playground – thankfully free of traffic jams – makes for a surprisingly exhilarating experience. One minute you’re speeding through a quaint, sleepy English village; the next you’re winding your way through hairpin bends in the Scottish Highlands.
The diversity of the British landscape and emphasis on exploration is a direct response to criticism of the previous Horizon game, where the vast expanses of the Australian outback were seen by some as lacking the peaks and troughs needed in an open world racing game.
“We looked at places that had the right visuals that would fit with a Horizon game, lots of beautiful landscapes and vistas but also parts of the UK that offered the right driving experiences. Places that felt fresh, that people hadn’t experienced before,” Penrose said.
“The Scottish Highlands are a good example of that. We got a lot of criticism on Horizon 3 where people felt it was too flat, so that mountainous region just felt like an obvious way to address that feedback”.
Sharing is caring
Whereas previous games featured ‘drivatars’ – AI opponents based on your online friends’ driving styles and performances – every vehicle you encounter in Horizon 4 will be driven by a real world, real time player. Offline play will still be available, but to get the full experience, you’ll need to get connected.
This represents a bold step forward for the series and depending on how effectively it’s implemented, has the potential to be a genuine game changer. The idea of a fully integrated shared world blurs the lines between campaign and multiplayer and in theory, at least, fits the concept of the Horizon Festival perfectly.
We’ll need to wait until launch to find out if Microsoft’s servers are capable of handling the inevitable bandwidth surge when the floodgates open, but what about the other problem with massively online multiplayer games? The hordes of griefers intent on spoiling the fun for everyone?
Penrose is confident Playground have the right systems in place to ensure everyone plays nice.
“We feel playing with real people just enhances the experience. People behave in a certain way and race in a certain way that you just can’t recreate with AI,” he said.
“Saying that, we’re well aware there are a whole bunch of ways people can ruin things for other players online. In racing games that usually manifests itself in certain ways, you get people ramming you off the road and generally being a nuisance.
“Autoghost is the key way we’ve mitigated this kind of thing. Basically, you won’t have any physical collisions with any other player unless they’re in your convoy party. So you’re never going to get rammed or roadblocked unless it’s your friend doing it. And if that’s the case, maybe you need some new friends”.
Festival fan service
Despite these innovative new features, there’s no mistaking that this is still very much a Horizon game. Everything you’d expect is present and correct, from the hidden vehicle barn finds to the drone exploration and eclectic in-game radio stations.
The core structure is almost identical to previous games in the series: you start off as an entry-level competitor in the Horizon Festival, earning experience and “influence” to unlock new races, new challenges and increasingly powerful cars as you work towards the ultimate showdown at the festival finale.
New features such as buyable player houses and new narrative elements like Hollywood stuntman challenges add some novelty, but by and large, this is Horizon by the numbers, albeit with some impressive bells and whistles.
The list of available vehicles is as extensive as ever, with 450 cars from more than 100 manufacturers available at launch, with a further 42 added by drip-fed DLC over the coming months.
Graphics are nothing short of jaw-dropping – this is the first Horizon game to be rendered in native 4K on Xbox One X and the step up from standard 1080 HD makes a huge difference, particularly if you have an HDR monitor. Subtle lighting effects with sunshine breaking through tree canopies and dust particles floating in the breeze take full advantage of the jump in resolution.
Forza Horizon 4, however, could prove to be an ace up Microsoft’s sleeve; a genuine AAA driving title that raises the bar for racing games – something that the PS4 doesn’t really have right now.
Forza Horizon 4 is released for Xbox and Windows 10 on October 2. The demo is available for both systems now.
Lee Henaghan travelled to Sydney courtesy of Microsoft NZ.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.