Developer Playground Games excels in creating vibrant, varied landscapes - and Forza Horizon 4 doesn't disappoint. Based on a preview build we recently sampled, Xbox One X offers up two compelling ways to explore it too. For the first time in the Horizon series' history, console users get a choice between 4K resolution at 30 frames per second and a new performance mode that delivers a solid 60fps. It's a long-requested feature, and while a mainstay of the Forza Motorsport games, it's been off limits for the Horizon series on Xbox - until now.
The 60fps mode is significant, especially in terms of its sheer consistency, but running the game at its default 4K30 should be the first port of call in appreciating the sheer quality in the visuals. ForzaTech shines as its global tour finally returns home to Great Britain, and while the push for colour, confetti and fireworks keeps the series' trademark bombast, at its core the terrain is accurately modelled, with photo-realistic takes on each country's landmarks. The game's four seasons also distinguish this move to Britain too. From spring through to winter, materials, foliage, sky-boxes and of course, driving physics change with the conditions. The open world map size is roughly similar to Horizon 3 all told, but the new four-way split helps multiply the possibilities.
It's a bold new direction for the series but the switch from season to season isn't a gradual transition, but rather a hard cut - it fades in and out, planting you in the middle of an idealised version of each. However, it still represents a fundamental challenge from a technological perspective.
"Each individual season touches pretty much each individual asset in the game in some way," creative director Ralph Fulton tells us. "It was a challenge for tooling, pipelines, as well as for rendering, art creation. The challenge was to make it less than a 4x modifier on the cost, because that just wouldn't have worked. It was really a very cross-disciplinary approach to solving all the many problems that come with that."
Previous techniques Playground pioneered return for Horizon 4 too.
"One of the big things we did in Australia [in Horizon 3] was the sky capture technology which kind of pioneered on that project," he continues. "We've continued to use that - we've actually enhanced it. We've built a new rig for this game with a slightly higher level of fidelity. In Forza Horizon 4 we're doing seasons, so we [also] had to capture all four seasons."
Playground has experience with Xbox One X of course, with a small team porting Horizon 3 to the six teraflop system earlier this year, delivering a beautiful native 4K presentation. But this time, the developer has targeted the system more specifically, with a studio-wide focus: Xbox One X is treated as the lead platform, and the options are broadened. There's more to come on this closer to the game's launch - but needless to say, the engine changes are impressive and Playground is getting more from the hardware than simply resolution and frame-rate increases.
The quality mode at 4K remains solid, and that 30fps frame-rate is basically rock solid from the first hour I've played of the preview build. As with the last Horizon title, CPU and GPU resources are carefully managed to avoid bottlenecks, while at the same time maintaining visual consistency. For example, for the most part, foliage renders in seamlessly across the bend of a valley. It's rare you'll catch sight of pop-in, or any sign that the X hardware is struggling to cope with the magnitude of objects being rendered in. Jumping into a high horsepower vehicle allows you to push the streaming technology harder though, making occasional LOD transitions are more apparent on trees. Even so, more so than any Horizon game before it, this is the most fluid, and consistent open world I've seen from the series on an Xbox One machine.
The frame-rate metrics hold up, regardless of mode. Playground Games loves to give a bite-size summary of everything the game can do in its opening 10 minutes - an engine stress-test that Forza Horizon 4 indulges in brilliantly by flashing through each season. It's also a good workout for the new 60fps performance mode, if that's your choice. The pace on some of these cars means that every frame truly matters, and doubling the refresh makes it easier to judge every overtake in the face of oncoming traffic. At a full 60Hz output on Xbox One X, the connection between controller and the on-screen response inevitably feels far tighter.
Of course, there is a trade to be made. The high performance mode runs at a native 1920x1080. It's a fixed resolution that gives X's GPU the headroom to fire on all cylinders, pushing out a new frame every 16.7ms. So yes, it's a double-edged sword; you do lose the crisp, beautiful image of the 4K mode, but what's gained in responsiveness at 60 feels hard to pass up. Going back to 30fps, the difference is immediately noticeable. Also, it would have been wonderful to have been able to swap between quality and performance modes with a simple menu switch, but as things stand, adjusting this particular setting does require restarting the game entirely.
The bottom line though is that Playground Games clearly wanted to do this right. Optimising for 60fps can't have been easy, but according to Ralph Fulton, this was always part of the plan for the fourth game:
"You asked about 60 frames per second [in our last interview on Horizon 3], and at the time I knew we were working on it for Forza Horizon 4," Fulton reveals. "And it's certainly something a subset of our fans have been asking for some time. It's something which became possible with the additional horsepower of the One X. I remember telling you how easily we got Horizon 3 running at 4K. That was a significantly smaller engineering problem than refactoring to get our engine running at 60fps, or the many things that we're doing in an open-world game."
So yes, it works. Putting it through our tools, this isn't just a so-called high-frame rate mode either - it's not an elusive target that's shy of perfection, or simply an unlocked 'hope for the best' offering like so many of the performance modes we've seen. This is the real deal: X locks the frame-rate down consistently to 60, with barely a single drop to report - even the vibrant opening sequence showing each season doesn't cause any major issues. V-sync is engaged on both modes, and while the overall graphics setting changes are something we'll have to look into, they're very close to the 4K mode - pixel counts aside.
There are a few questions that spring from Horizon 4's new-found ability to double its frame-rate. For long-time series fans, it may well be the tipping point for picking up an X, but of course it'd be amazing to revisit older games with the same enhancement in place. However, it seems that the team is focusing just on the latest game for now, and it's unlikely that prior series entries will get the same treatment. This hangs on the fact that Horizon 4 was built from scratch to factor in Xbox One X's capabilities, whereas the X enhancement for its predecessor was added in isolation, after release. No doubt, there will be a heavy strain on CPU resources in effectively doubling the cost of draw-calls, for example, and engineering this for the new game would not have been an insignificant task.
It's great we do have the choice now. There is a sense that Playground Games likes to rise to challenges where it can, and I'd hope that this is just the beginning of the team's efforts. The drop to 1080p at 60fps is something I personally hope can evolve: a dynamic res solution could possibly work here, with an upper bounds of 1440p, for example. It would mean that wherever there's headroom available on the GPU, it could be tapped into for a cleaner image. This may well be the direction The Coalition is heading in with Gears 5, for example. Either way, the excellent performance mode in Forza Horizon 4 sets a precedent for Playground's series. Horizon has always taken pride in being the 30fps alternative to Forza Motorsport, being less of a pure sim experience and more of a celebration of cars on the open road.
The October 2nd release date looms large for Forza Horizon 4 and the outlook right now is it's an improvement in every way. Between the four seasons and two playback options on Xbox One X, there are simply more ways to enjoy the world Playground has created - and of course, if you want to sample the game for yourself, a playable demo is available to download right now for both Xbox One and PC. I highly recommend that you check that one out.