Another sumptuous, endlessly entertaining automotive playground, but its shift into 'shared-world' online gaming is only a partial success.
When you hit rank 40 in Forza Horizon 4, a series of events unlocks which is hosted by a vapid streamer character and framed as a countdown of the 10 greatest cars in video games. What it actually is is a tribute, by the developers at Playground Games, to their inspirations: the freewheeling worlds of Test Drive and Smuggler's Run and the sun-drenched zest of the Sega arcade classics OutRun, Daytona and Crazy Taxi. It's a gesture that could only have been more gracious if it had tipped its hat to the original car-culture collect-'em-up, Gran Turismo. The most sincere of the tributes, though, honours Project Gotham Racing by taking us back to the streets of Edinburgh for the first time since PGR2, and illustrating how that series' Kudos score, which rewarded stylish driving, inspired Forza Horizon's own skill point system.
Six years and four games in, Forza Horizon would not be out of place on such a list itself. Playground's open-world racing games have outstripped their parent franchise, Forza Motorsport, in both sales and reputation, and wowed players and critics (myself included) with their beauty, technical polish, accessibility, authenticity and sheer fun. From the very first game, they have defined open-world racing and embodied the joy of the open road with a formula that was all but perfected by the third outing. Forza Horizon can now undoubtedly count itself one of the racing game greats. So where next?
In literal terms, home to Britain, where Playground Games is based. I wrote about the map in my initial impressions last week; at this point in this remarkably consistent series you can take it as read that it will be a gorgeous, elegantly romanticised pocket grand tour of the British mainland, big but not too big, balancing brickyard playpens with open moorland, city streets with sweeping coast roads, rollercoaster dirt tracks in the hills with crowded flatland freeways. There will be secrets and spectacle and thrilling, hard-charging circuit and point-to-point layouts to be found everywhere, both on- and off-road. Of course there will. (It helps that it makes Britain so beautiful; these days, I'll take any reason to feel good about living here that I can get.)
You can equally take it as read that there will be an eclectic and knowing car list, comprehensive yet curated, embracing absurd hypercars, cult curios and nostalgic fan favourites with a bit of local flavour thrown in (including, in this instance, a white-van-man Transit, a black cab and more than one Austin-Healey). It would, naturally, be insulting to assume that the car handling will be anything other than a characterful blend of grip and slide, carefully tuned to the varied demands of the map, realistic enough to convince but unrealistic enough that driving a sports car across a field or through a dry stone wall will make you smile instead of wince. Of course it will be. (That said - I am I the only one still struggling to get to grips with the drifting?)
It's all routinely excellent, but is there anything left that can surprise us? There is one major novelty this year: seasons, which transform the look, feel and driving conditions of the entire map across summer, autumn, winter and spring. (This at a time most other racing games, Forza Motorsport included, are still struggling to consistently include dynamic time of day and weather conditions.) It's a remarkable feat of production - Playground is, frankly, just showing off now. The visual rework of the map is quite breathtaking, down to the humid moods of the lighting and the varying thickness of the sheep's fleece. It doesn't transform the driving experience quite as much as you might think - there's less grip on icy winter roads, or across muddy springtime fields, but that's about it in real terms. It does, however, keep the game as a whole feeling fresh as the seasons cycle.
There are more subtle but more fundamentally significant changes going on here, however, which seasons both underpin and distract from. Not that you would know it based on its overlong and distinctly unadventurous prologue, but Forza Horizon 4 is edging, almost surreptitiously, into a new era for the series. These games have always been online, but this is the first one that is really an online game.
You could characterise it as a careful but deliberate shifting of weight from one foot to another; a similar, if less dramatic, shift to that made by Gran Turismo with last year's GT Sport. The default state of the previous games was to populate your map with 'Drivatar' AIs, based on your friends' profiles. Forza Horizon 4's default is to connect you with what it calls a 'Horizon Life' session, populating your map with dozens of other live players. The previous games' focus was on a sprawling offline career mode including many themed championships. In Forza Horizon 4, the career's purely offline component is stripped back and starkly lacking in curation - it's not much more than a steadily unlocking track list - while the most interesting and challenging events are time-limited championships that are delivered in weekly updates, on Thursdays, along with a change of season for all players. One of these structural shifts is much more successful than the other.
I'm referring to the weekly seasons, which are where the heart of the game now lies. Just seeing the transformation of the map would be enough of a temptation to log in, but what has really drawn me to the seasonal events is the hand of the game designers, which is so discreet as to be invisible elsewhere. The game's map, car list and suite of activities are so big and busy that it's nice to be guided around them, so I appreciated the stricter restrictions on car class and power in the seasonal championships, and the goals set that had me reaching into the difficulty settings to challenge myself further. The seasonal content is more defined and purposeful, and harder, and it's better for it.
Alongside the championships, every week you also get a fresh list of Forzathon challenges, which comes with its own currency and store stocking exclusive cars and collectables. There are simple daily challenges as well as a highly involved weekly challenge that tasks you with undertaking a number of feats in a certain car or type of car. The weekly challenges are great at encouraging you to explore the possibilities of the game, but they can be grindy. In the current summer season, you need to take a retro hot hatch (an early Golf GTI, say), mod it to within an inch of its life so it can hit speeds well beyond the capability of its chassis, and scream pell-mell up and down the one section of motorway on the map, heart in your mouth, until you've banked points from no less than 25 Ultimate Speed skills. This is Forza Horizon at its most inventive and frustrating simultaneously. (It doesn't help that the game doesn't always reliably record your feats.)
To indulge in industry jargon for a second: Forza Horizon 4's season changes are a textbook example of how to pivot to games-as-a-service and encourage players to keep logging in week after week. Some players might question whether that's what they really wanted, but I've found the weekly seasonal updates the most focused and exciting part of this game's huge and very open-ended superstructure for racing fun.
As a persistent online game, however - as a live online playground for all those players you see driving around your map - Forza Horizon feels unrefined and underdeveloped. That might sound surprising from a developer that is rapidly becoming known for its flawless execution, but if you played the first Forza Horizon, you might remember its chaotic, disorganised and rather aimless competitive multiplayer mode. That's what Forza Horizon 4's stab at social, 'shared-world' racing reminded me of.
The tech, the systems and the props are there. Now that the game has a healthy population (VIP players have had access since Friday), it's not uncommon to find more than 60 players in your session. There's a smart quick chat system on the d-pad, with loads of phrases to use and unlock. It's a pleasure just to see other players around, to drool over their rides and their paint jobs, to laugh at their custom horn sounds and their terrible dress sense. (Clothes for your character are yet another unlockable.) But there isn't much to do together. Or rather: there isn't clear enough direction and good enough incentive to do it.
The most common rallying point for session players is Forzathon Live, which brings players together from across the map for a co-op challenge, not unlike the live events from games like Destiny or Guild Wars 2. These are worth doing for the Forzathon Points, but they are not, in themselves, any fun at all, consisting as they do of driving backwards and forwards grinding out speed traps or drift zones until a collective total has been reached. What a missed opportunity. It's also possible to invite other players in your session to an ad hoc competitive or co-op race on any layout, or to challenge them to impromptu head-to-heads, just as you could with Drivatars in previous games. But very few players are engaging with either of these systems, probably because there is no particular reason to.
It will take another iteration or two for Playground to get the infrastructure for a shared-world racing game to match the vision, it seems. There's every reason to believe that it will manage - certainly if you look at how competitive multiplayer has evolved from that initial shambles to the now rock-solid 'team adventure' playlist format, which with Forza Horizon 4 gets a welcome ranked variant for the first time. And it's reassuring, in a way, that Forza Horizon 4 is less sure-footed than its predecessor, because it means that Playground are challenging themselves and the series is moving forward into uncharted territory. Unless it wants to end up a fond memory someone else's tribute, the last thing a racing game should do is stand still.