For anyone who enjoys racing games, the Forza franchise is likely well-known by now. The games in the series have received accolades for years, though they were limited to Xbox consoles until just recently. 2005's Forza Motorsport was designed as a simulation racer to compete with Sony's Gran Turismo series, but the franchise has since branched off to satisfy two different types of gamers.
The Forza Motorsport games are for those looking for the serious stuff, and casual gamers can enjoy the open-world racing concept with the Forza Horizon titles. The Horizon games retain options for some simulation-level controls should you desire them, but they also have some absurd courses and more levity than the mainline games. Forza Horizon 4 launched recently, and it brings a number of improvements to an already-excellent series.
Take four on the Horizon concept is currently ranked as the highest-rated Xbox One exclusive on Metacritic, beating its predecessor and previous title-holder Forza Horizon 3 in the ratings. Sales and reception of the Horizon games resulted in Microsoft buying the developer, Playground Games, earlier this year. The dev team seems to know what it's doing. In many ways, Horizon 4 its predecessor's footsteps, but the changes it brings are welcome and generally improve the game without adding compromises.
If you've played a Horizon game before, you'll know how this latest entry works. If you haven't, here's how it goes: there's an open world. You're in a car. You can drive around, gather collectibles, do an enormous variety of races, or just explore. There are drag races, point-to-point runs, lap courses, drifting and jumping distance challenges, stunt challenges, off-road racing, and more.
This time around, Playground Games has set up shop in an idealized version of the United Kingdom, drawing on the rich motoring culture there to form the open world for Horizon 4. All the event types take place in that open world, and they can be completed with almost any class of vehicle you desire, giving you a wide variety of racing options. There are even a few special races where you're doing things like racing giant hovercraft down the side of a mountain and through a river, or driving a Warthog from Halo past lasers and enemy ships.
Along with all that variety, Forza Horizon 4 is far more approachable than something like Assetto Corsa, Project Cars 2, or iRacing. Those other titles are all excellent games, but they're targeted at die-hard racers looking for a more serious simulation than the Horizon series generally offers. Forza Horizon 4 can be as shallow a racer as it comes if you desire, or it can head towards some limited depth. It doesn't demand the same level of practice, training, and patience that a game like iRacing does. To some people, that accessibility is likely a good thing, but for others it means they should probably skip this one.
Horizon 4 is great for my household because of its welcoming nature, though. There is literally no way my wife would invest more than two minutes in a game before she expects fun to happen, for example, and if a title has a learning curve steeper than that it's getting turned off. Forza Horizon 4 lets you decide exactly how steep that learning curve needs to be with a huge number of difficulty options, and that really improves its accessibility and fun quotient. I'd love to see the developers add a split-screen option on the PC, though I expect they're limited by the hardware on the original Xbox One in that regard.
The customization doesn't end at difficulty settings, either. If the dizzying array of default activities isn't enough, you can create your own events, races, and challenges with the Horizon Blueprint for the enjoyment of you and your friends. Initially you had to choose between pre-made races and then edit the details of those courses like weather and car classes, but the latest patch added in a route creator, and it's quite well implemented. You drive the route you want and place checkpoints where you desire and when you're done you've got a course just as you want it. Whether it's a standard circuit, an off-road course, or a drag race, you design it exactly how you want. With a maximum custom race length of 60 in-world kilometers, you have quite a bit of freedom to make your race however you please, too.
Given the incredible amount of content in the game already, I haven't used Horizon Blueprint much yet. With Horizon 4's diversity of terrain, though, the tool opens up an almost limitless amount of content. Personally, I'd be after a destruction-derby-style race where I can make people go back and forth over jumps, smashing into each other over and over. I also lack friends on Xbox Live, so that limits the attraction of this feature for those lonely Xbox people like me.
The online mode is now a constant background for the gameplay experience, whether with friends or otherwise. In the past Horizon games, you had to select whether to join either an offline or online instance. Offline, you'd play against the AI, which Microsoft calls "Drivatars." If you were online, then you could mess around with your friends or jump into races with real people. In Horizon 4, real human players are just driving around as ghosts. You can message them, create groups, race them, or even just ignore them. It's a much better system than in past games, and it will likely encourage people to play online more often. Once you're grouped with somebody, collision turns on and the fun begins.
Some people have complained about Horizon 4's difficulty being unfair and cheaty, but I haven't noticed this during my time with it. Complaints of being passed on straight roads seems to be the gist of it, but I've found the difficulty to be reasonable and fair. Perhaps those early complaints were patched over, or maybe those giant engines I put in the cars are just paying off by letting me be the one to do the passing.
The Bucket List, a collection of mission-based races with specific parameters from prior games, has disappeared in Horizon 4 in favor of story-driven events like the Stuntman missions. Similar to the Bucket List's missions, the Stuntman outings give you a specific vehicle and an objective to complete. The difference lies in the fact they're now mostly stunt-based (shocker), so think big jumps, fire, etc. If the game left it at that, Stuntman missions would be fine, but now you must listen to a nonsense plot explained over extensive and unskippable dialogue.
The voice acting and dialogue-based plot of the Horizon series has always been my biggest issue with this series. Those interjections are long-winded and annoying, and they detract from a really excellent game. (I think the same thing about Half-Life 2. Come at me, bro.) I don't really need to listen to random characters argue about whether I'm a good enough driver for this mission, I just want to drive my car through the dang thing. I'd like to see a drastic reduction in the amount of "plot" and dialogue in these games going forward, or at least a way to skip it.
Sadly, I can't blast away that stilted bluster with my own music. OneDrive music streaming support is gone from this edition, as Microsoft has largely abandoned streamable media services over the last year. Microsoft often makes me wonder what the heck they're doing, and this is one of those situations.
Past the boundless choice of activities, the next thing you'll notice about this game is the graphics quality. The critical consensus is that the game has top-notch pixels, and I think that's accurate. Whether you're playing on an Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X, or a PC, eye candy abounds. The cars look amazing. Water reflections look almost real. The world design is gorgeous and diverse. It's a joy to just drive around and see what the romanticized British countryside has to offer. There isn't another racing game on the market that's as nice to look at as Horizon 4, in my opinion, and this one even includes snow. I live in Calgary, and I'm already sick of snow!
With the Xbox One or Xbox One S, you get a Vsync-ed 30 FPS at 1920x1080. The S throws in HDR support. On the Xbox One X, you can choose between 30 FPS at 4K or 1920x1080 at 60fps, both with HDR if your display can handle it. On PC, you get to run at whatever your hardware can handle, including support for 4K resolution and HDR output. On my GTX 1060 6 GB, I set the game to dynamically maintain 60 FPS at 1920x1080. My settings are usually somewhere between the "high" and "ultra" presets. Forza games aren't hard to run, and Horizon 4 only punishes hardware if you ask it to.
Not all of the visuals are perfect, of course. Some of the foliage can look a little goofy at low speeds, but it's not too big of an issue. If you're driving slow enough to see leaves to begin with, you're playing the game wrong. Forza Horizon 4 really is a looker, and it makes me wish for a 4K screen and a graphics card strong enough to power it. Time to re-up that "Get SSK a new graphics card" GoFundMe.