It’s not just the silly victory dances and weekly challenges; this is the first massively multiplayer racing game where winning doesn’t really matter – it’s the taking part that counts. Lee Henaghan takes Forza Horizon 4 for a spin.
Platformers, shoot-em-ups and racers: the holy trinity. Since the earliest days of interactive entertainment, these three genres have formed the backbone and bedrock of video games.
In the 70s and 80s, developers were restricted to such simple concepts due to hardware limitations, but as technology advanced and the industry expanded exponentially, the basic tenets of jump, kill and win have endured. If every game from chess to Call of Duty can be reduced to overcoming a defined set of parameters to achieve victory, it’s easy to see why the fundamentals have stood the test of time.
Racing isn’t just video games boiled down to their purest form, it’s arguably the first competitive game humans ever developed: get from here to there faster than everyone else. Driving games have always been about beating your rivals and reaching the finish line first, but Forza Horizon 4 takes the bold step of making victory a secondary objective. It’s not about the destination – it’s the journey.
Having spent the past five days fully immersed in FH4, I can safely say that it is easily one of the best driving games I’ve ever played – but it didn’t take me long to realise that you don’t actually need to win races to enjoy it. It’s an experience that rewards experimentation and exploration more than speed and driving proficiency.
It’s difficult to explain exactly how the game’s progression system works. You accumulate credits (FH4’s in-game currency) and influence (XP) after every race, which seem to be doled out on an almost arbitrary basis, loosely based on event length and level. Often, coming fourth in one race will earn you more than winning another.
First place comes with a bonus – but not significant enough for it to really matter. In any case, credits and influence are awarded for pretty much everything you do, from discovering new areas to hitting speed traps or pulling an epic skid. Frequently you’ll earn more skill points driving from one challenge to another than you do in the race itself.
This subversion of the traditional racing game format has been a feature of previous Horizon titles. However, developers Playground have doubled down on it here – illustrated by the fact that in theory, you could reach the festival finale without entering a single race, let alone winning one. Credits and influence can be earned by designing and sharing car paint jobs with the community, or perfecting a tuning loadout downloaded by thousands of other players.
This draws maybe inevitable comparisons to another game where winning is secondary to “the experience”. This year’s pop-culture phenomenon Fortnite is built around a 1 vs 99 structure where everyday players can go weeks or months without ever winning a match. Some gamers have sunk hundreds of hours into it without ever tasting the thrill of victory.
So what is it that keeps an audience of millions invested despite the continuous cycle of failure? In short, it’s the feeling that even when you don’t finish first, you’re still making progress. Incremental improvements such as new avatar clothing and unlockable victory dances are doled out simply for ticking off a rotating raft of challenges – a winning formula for Fortnite which Forza has followed.
Like Epic’s battle royale behemoth, FH4 also features a list of daily, weekly and seasonal objectives, rewarded with in-game currency which can be exchanged for shiny new gear.
Each time you level up (on average, about every 20 minutes), you’re treated to the dopamine-heavy delivery system of a literal roulette wheel. It spins, clicks and slows before finally landing on anything from a multi million-dollar supercar to a dab dance emote or pair of gold sequin hotpants. It’s a Skinner box alright, but a bloody effective one.
Crucially, while Fortnite is free-to-play but crammed full of microtransactions, FH4 never asks you to spend hard cash to access in-game items. You can buy different versions of the game (the Ultimate Edition VIP pass doubles your credits for every race, further reducing the importance of winning) but backlash from previous Forza games means there are thankfully no loot boxes in sight.
All these finely balanced progression mechanics would be pointless without the foundations of a solid game to build upon. It helps that Forza Horizon 4 is a bona fide masterpiece which more than justifies the drip-fed delivery system.
First and foremost, it looks absolutely incredible. I can’t remember playing a more graphically impressive game on any system. On Xbox One X or a high-end PC, everything is rendered at native 4K, with HDR lighting effects that almost surpass photorealism. There’s a reason the game rewards you for pulling over at dozens of beauty spots: at 300kmh, life moves pretty fast.
The game’s tutorial features a rapid tour of the four seasons only after experiencing each one in full detail do you appreciate how significantly it affects every element of the environment. Corners which were flat-out drifters in summer suddenly become tricky and precarious in winter. That previously inaccessible island in the middle of the lake is a short ice slide away when it’s frozen solid.
In short, the open world – already bigger than any previous Horizon game – has been fully remodelled for each season. It’s four maps in one, not just snow on roofs or golden leaves on trees but a completely different driving surface depending on the time of year. The server-side seasonal shift will occur for every player at the same time every week – underpinning what’s set to be the most social Forza Horizon experience ever.
Like all Microsoft first party games, FH4 will be available for free to all subscribers to Xbox’s Netflix-style Game Pass service, which means there will be an inevitable surge of players when the floodgates open at launch. If Sea of Thieves is anything to go by, this could lead to some short-term frustrations as the system struggles to cope with the surge, but as things settle down, it seems perfectly suited to the Horizon Festival structure.
The entire concept of the game is built around drivers from around the world competing against each other to be crowned Horizon Festival champion. Opening this up to real-life players (as opposed to AI opponents) has the potential to make FH4 a genuine step forward in massively multiplayer online racing games. It could potentially do for racers what World of Warcraft did for RPGs.
The new Horizon Life feature blurs the lines between solo campaign and multiplayer. If you’re playing online, every non-traffic car you see will be another real life driver, following the same route to the festival finale. In the pre-release version of the game I’ve been playing, servers have been populated by 20-30 players with no noticeable lag. In theory, this should reach up to 72 cars at launch.
The option to join clubs and teams with your friends; the hourly Forzathon Live events, urging every player on the server to race towards a massive blimp on the horizon to compete in challenges where everyone’s score accumulates towards a shared target; the ability to create bespoke point-to-point online adventures – this is a game that could really come into its own post-launch, as long as the structure holds out to support it.
After previous Horizon games set in exotic locations such as the Mediterranean and the Australian outback, FH4’s British backdrop is the perfect setting for a triumphant homecoming for UK developers Playground Games. It’s not an authentic 1:1 recreation of the country by any means, but as a condensed version of the British Isles it offers plenty of highlights, from quaint English villages to stunning Lake District vistas and the wilds of the Scottish Highlands conveniently right around the corner from Edinburgh’s inner city.
If you prefer your racers to be accurate, lifelike simulations rather than fun-focused sandboxes you might be disappointed, but when it comes to all round entertainment it’s hard to think of another driving game that’s ever done it better.
A review copy of the game was supplied by Microsoft NZ. Forza Horizon 4 is released on October 2 for Xbox One and PC.