Forza Horizon 4 review (Xbox One): open-world racing at its best | CAR Magazine

Forza Horizon 4 review (Xbox One): open-world racing at its best

Published: 15 November 2018 Updated: 15 November 2018

 Open-world racing
 Set in UK
 Out now

Now in its fourth incarnation since the original was launched back in 2012, the Forza Horizon racing series has over the years proved itself to be the opposite of movie franchises such as Jaws and Die Hard. It just keeps getting better every time a new version is released. 

The first Forza Horizon hit the virtual car racing scene with a bang, bringing fresh ideas to a stylish open-world racer that signalled a formidable debut album for developer Playground Games. Horizon 2 brought us to the French-Italian border and upped the polish of the original, cementing its place as the best sandbox racing game around.

Read CAR’s guide to the best racing games on PS4 and Xbox One

And yet, somehow, Horizon 3 managed to build on its predecessors, delivering an experience that was so damn near to perfection other video game makers could be forgiven for throwing in the towel there and then. 

Forza Horizon 4, then, has to aim high. Stupidly high, in fact – Playground potentially discovering that their brilliance is in fact their own worst enemy. Things look promising from the outset with the introduction of season changes where the map is playable through winter, spring, summer and autumn – all providing vastly different environments to one another in an attempt to bring extra variety and life to the map. Seasons alternate at the same time each week for every Horizon player.

It’s an ambitious undertaking and one that, for the first few hours at least, appears to hamstring the base Horizon experience of absolute freedom – being able to do what you want, when you want and how you want to do it. 

 | Our guide to the best racing games on PS4 and Xbox One

After the initial drive to the festival (there’s only one festival site this time around) where the player takes in all four seasons in a matter of minutes, you are then left in the summer environment with your first car. What follows is another condensed run through the seasons where the player must earn influence points in order to qualify for the Horizon roster.

It’s a time-consuming process that Horizon novices will probably see as par for the course, whereas returning players, like this reviewer, may view as an overly long – and unnecessary – introduction into a familiar format. The fact that a number of features, such as championships, Forzathon events and 72-player online map sharing (all of which we’ll get onto in a moment) are disabled until you make it to the festival proper, only adds to the sense of a missed opportunity.

Break past this first few hours of gameplay, however, and everything reverts back to its brilliant Horizon best, albeit with a number of new features. 

Revamped progression adds breadth to Horizon 4

One of the biggest departures from the previous Horizon games is the removal of levelling up through multiple festival sites (you no longer start as the boss of Horizon, instead joining as a mere rookie).

Progression is now achieved through individual disciplines that aren’t just restricted to racing. Sure, the bulk of it is driving disciplines such as drifting, off-roading and blasting through speed traps, but those who enjoy painting and tuning are also catered for. 

Carrying out more activities in each discipline gains you influence points and opens up rewards and things to do as you progress through the game. It’s a simple, well-thought out system that encourages players to try out every last bit of what the game has to offer. 

Skill point spending has also been tweaked, with the individual skill trees now attached to each car. Again, it’s a logical evolution from the general skill point system in Horizon 3 that never encouraged players to stick with the same car for a prolonged period of time.

 | Our guide to the best racing games on PS4 and Xbox One

Properties have also been added to Horizon 4 – à la Test Drive Unlimited – and spring up around the map, giving players a base from which they can access their garage (although in-game car changes are now free from the outset) and customise their vehicles. 

Over 450 cars from launch, with more to come

We’re told in the intro to the game that Horizon is focused on providing not just a dream holiday like previous versions, but a dream life. Giving players the chance to drive some of the greatest cars of all time is – obviously – a large part of this. So it’s good to know that the line-up of cars appears to have been chosen by people who really know there stuff.

Want to drive a modern hypercar? There’s Chirons, Sennas and Centenarios to name but a few. Want to slide around in a purpose-built drift car? How does a Formula Drift Mustang take your fancy? Or maybe you just like driving Transit vans with ladders on the roof. You’re covered.

The car list of Forza Horizon 4 is rich, varied and lovingly created with vehicles to suit every preference. And best of all, each and every vehicle drives with its own defined characteristics. A necessity you may think, but one that’s easier said and done with almost 450 cars on offer. 

Playground has moved the driving dynamics game on from Horizon 3, too, giving each vehicle a touch more weight and balance all the while keeping the whole experience on that knife edge that bridges simulation and arcade. 

Customisation is alive and well with freshly introduced drift suspension upgrades, track width offsets and an increase on the number of bodykits. There’s nothing quite like adding a set of rally-spec spotlights to the front of a P1 Subaru Impreza to make it your own. 

Britain at its brilliant best

Playground Studios will proudly tell you of the time and resources that were spent on capturing Britain at its finest. The end result is that each season is fabulously different to the other and capable of profoundly changing the entire nature of the map.

Spring brings wild flowers and colourful woodland to life, summer is suspiciously bright and errr… sunny, Autumn is punctuated by vibrant red and orange leaves carpeting the ground while winter is a proper wonderland of thick snow, ice and plenty of understeer-inducing slush. 

The map responds to the changes brilliantly, too, especially in the details.  Snowmen pop up in winter, sheep appear in summer and the game’s main lake thaws from a playable ice rink to an impassable obstacle in Spring. 

And on the subject of details, a revised take on what players can and can’t smash their cars through is a welcome, if not hyperealistic addition. With such a densely populated map in Horizon 3, it sometimes became frustrating when you’d come crashing to a halt after hitting a skinny, stick like tree. 

In Horizon 4, all but the most solid of objects can now be obliterated with the only consequence being a slight slowdown in your progress. It’s a small change, but one that makes a big difference to gameplay.

Vast online world

Another major change over the previous Horizon is the way that the open world can be shared with 72 other online players, with up to 12 in your immediate area. You can, of course, switch this feature off and have only AI players to share the map with, plus, even in online mode your fellow gamers car’s become ghosts whenever they enter the immediate vicinity, removing the temptation for you to ram one another off the road. 

Forzathon Live adds to the idea of a shared world, with hourly online events allowing up to 12 players at a time to score skill points in various challenges. These include drifting, speed zones and danger zones, with the ultimate goal being to work together and score as many points as possible. If you complete the challenges, everyone is awarded Forzathon points that can be spent on rare items such as cars and clothing.

It’s a neat, slickly designed element to the game that – along with the shared map – allows you to seamlessly dip in to other online elements of the game. Newer players will enjoy how easy it is to join, while more experienced players will no doubt start hoarding points to purchase the next rare car. The lines between online multiplayer and single player campaign have seldom been blurred so successfully in any racing title that’s come before.

Forza Horizon 4: verdict

 Playground Games set the bar high with the previous Horizon titles, yet the fourth instalment is the biggest, bravest leap yet. Get through the first slightly stunted few hours and what awaits is – put simply – one of the greatest racing games to have ever graced our screens. From the dynamic seasons to the mouth-watering car list and near-seamless online integration, Horizon 4 is the real deal.

 | Our guide to the best racing games on PS4 and Xbox One

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine, its sister website and Motorcyle News.