We knew that Forza Horizon 4 would be coming to E3 2018, of course. After all, a new Forza game arrives without fail every year, and with Turn 10 revealing Forza Motorsport 7 at the last Microsoft E3 briefing, it would be Playground Games' turn this year. And with that came some trepidation. Forza Horizon 3 was a brilliant game and a massive step forward for the series, but could the developers deliver the same level of technical brilliant and innovations once more? After the astonishing reveal and 20 minutes of hands-on time, the signs are all looking good.
Yes, Forza Horizon 4 is a natural evolution of its predecessor, but with a slew of new visual features and gameplay ideas - and from a technical perspective, there's also the mouthwatering possibilities offered up by the fact that the game is the first in the series to have been created with Xbox One X in mind from the start. This is most evident in the announced frame-rate options. Playground's Ralph Fulton proudly announced that the Xbox One X version of the game will feature a 60fps option which is something we hoped for when Horizon 3 was patched for Xbox One X - but the dream is set to become reality. Details are thin on the ground but logic suggests it'll manifest as a lower resolution, high performance mode while the typical 30fps option goes for native 4K instead.
Unfortunately, 60fps wasn't available in the E3 demo - it was locked down to 30 just like prior games. And that's a bit of a shame, as the prospect of a full frame-rate mode has been enough to make our Eurogamer colleagues seriously consider investing in an Xbox One X, just for this title. In Forza Horizon 3, 60fps was a genuine game-changer, but it was an elite experience reserved for those with relatively powerful PCs. Still, even at 30fps, Horizon as a series has always managed to look and feel great in motion and curiously, Horizon 4 manages to feel decidedly more responsive than previous entries. Perhaps input latency has been reduced or maybe the handling has simply been tweaked? It's not entirely clear, but the game felt remarkably responsive for a 30Hz title and that seems to translate into tighter handling.
As you might expect, Forza Horizon 4 supports full native 4K resolution on Xbox One X (with full HD 1080p likely for the standard model) and while we didn't get to experience it, HDR is also featured. Beyond the basics though, perhaps the most significant new visual and gameplay feature added to the mix are the seasons. This is something that Codemasters Evo implemented beautifully in Onrush, which features a similar system, and it's great to see it in Horizon as well. Playground's E3 demo implementation is simply enough - it jumps between seasons at fixed points in the race.
The beginning of Forza Horizon 3 allowed players to sample several different cars and types of terrain with a seamless transition between each. Horizon 4 continues this approach but this time, the season changes along with the vehicle. It's a great way to introduce players to this new feature, and in the demo, it's surprisingly seamless, suggesting that the game is designed to be highly dynamic. While the camera cuts allow for some potential trickery, there is no visible loading interrupting the gameplay. It's quite impressive and a neat technological trick.
The demo begins during Autumn, with crimson trees and a low hanging sun shining across the world. Long shadows are cast while specular highlights on the road surface help to increase the sense of depth. This is combined with the top-notch motion blur and what seems to be an improved materials system, resulting in a more striking presentation. When the game jumps to Winter, tyre tracks are left behind, as the vehicles realistically carve up the snow. This looks great but honestly, it's the indirect lighting that is most striking in this sequence: the mix of realistic snow rendering, beautifully lit particles and great reflection work combine to deliver a sensational presentation.
Following Winter, we're given a look at Spring time in a scene reminiscent of Horizon 3, featuring a rich forest with detailed foliage, realistic puddles and mud along with nice rain particles. Lastly, there's the Summer mode, which is obviously bright and sunny and should be a great showcase for the title's HDR support. All four seasons look excellent and it'll be interesting to see how this ties into the game's progression system. It's unlikely that seasons will change as rapidly as they do in this demo sequence, but it's great to know that the engine is capable of it.
Forza Horizon 4 is really an interesting project then - it may be yet another franchise entry but remarkably, it manages to feel fresh. When I picked up the controller, slid on the headphones and started racing the crowded world around me just disappeared. It's that perfect mix of music, visuals and control. Playground Games really knows what it's doing. And this is just scratching the surface, of course - just some first impressions based on a limited time with the demo and there's still so much more I'm looking forwards to seeing. There were hints of towns in the E3 presentation, but will we see a proper city environment? Might it be possible to race around town in a style similar to Project Gotham Racing? This demo is pretty special then - it emphasizes that this is going to be a stunning game, but we're still left hungry for more.