Forza Horizon 4 Review
We don't need roads, as long as we're together
It's rare that a brand new franchise can succeed on its first attempt, and then manage to continue and deliver great experiences with each iteration. But that's been exactly the case for Playground Games and Forza Horizon. Although a spinoff for the mainline simulation series, this arcade racer has managed to deliver fun and engaging driving time and time again. The original entry introduced fans to the concept of combining music and great racing, the sequel took everything into the open world, and the third chapter further expanded on the successful, albeit familiar, formula. With Forza Horizon 4, change is definitely in the air, as the series shifts to an online focus and introduces new ways to see the same game world.
Taking place in a compact reimagining of Britain, the new open world map is about as large as the previous entries and contains plenty to do. Being situated in UK gives the game a certain northern European feel, that is distinct from southern France in FH2. There are beaches, hills and mountains, and dense forests that are unlike what the previous games showcased. There is a bit of added elevation, from high cliffs to river valleys and creeks. It's a well realized setting that feels extra immersive due to the new changing seasons system.
Trying to innovate in an established genre can be difficult. But time after time, Forza Horizon has attempted to do just that, and the fourth entry introduces the four weather seasons. Changing seasons alters the presentation, with both racing and visuals being affected. In the Summer, the roads are clear, the skies are blue, and the landscape is bright and colorful. Visually, it will remind players of the previous two games, while you'll enjoy some tight racing on dry roads. Switching over to Autumn, the color palette changes to orange and yellow, leaves scatter on the roads and in the forests and harvesting comes to an end. On the roads, rain and floods become commonplace, introducing water hazards that reduce grip.
In Winter, things change significantly once again, as the white colored landscapes glow breathtakingly, roads become difficult to see, some bodies of water freeze and become traversable, and snowplows come out. Trying to race in this season requires cars compatible with winter tires, and players who can maintain grip on icy highways; those who played the Blizzard Mountain DLC in the last game will be familiar with the setting. Finally, in Spring the color palette changes once again to feature vibrant greenery, flowers in bloom, and again plenty of rain. Racing in this season is similar to Autumn. Whatever conditions you may find yourself in, this new dynamic season system is an excellently executed feature that cleverly re-uses the same world and the same racing events in multiple ways.
Players assume the role of a newcomer to the Horizon Festival scene, trying to make their name known and make the cut for the Horizon Roster. You'll have a variety of events to choose from, in order to build up familiarity with this open world and the cars. Like the previous games, your main goals are earning credits and influence (XP). There isn't much of a story this time around – you simply go through the motions of earning enough influence in order to progress.
To get fans acquainted with each weather season, Forza Horizon 4 lets you play through them all during its opening hours. After that, the game is open and you are back to earning influence to progress through the endless wristbands (experience levels). It really feels like the most open-ended Horizon game to date; there is no real big end goal to strive towards, as you're now living the Horizon Life. This means you're not concerned with running the Festival as in last game, nor are you too worried about proving yourself. Each of the racing disciplines have you go through their races, before unceremoniously declaring you a champion. It's all very low-key – you just get a radio message of congratulations, and everyone moves on. That's rather unsatisfying and points to the game's aspirations as a live, online service like an MMO.
The online-focused approach in Forza Horizon 4 is evident everywhere, but thankfully it's well executed across the board. For example, all racers in the game will play in the same season, which changes weekly. That means everyone will be experiencing the same weather and driving conditions which is cool, though some players may find it needlessly restrictive especially for offline play. It also allows the game to host various Season Challenges – special events that only last for a week. These can be existing races or entirely new ones, or unique PR stunts. The Forzathon activities are also live at launch, offering daily and weekly challenges to earn points, which can be redeemed at the shop for exclusive rewards and high-end items like Horizon Edition cars that are otherwise only obtainable through randomized Wheel Spin rewards.
Another big online step is that, this time around, your game world is populated with up to 72 other racers instead of AI Drivatars. If you choose to play entirely offline, you can still do so – jumping in and out of a multiplayer version of the game world is perfectly seamless. But you shouldn't want to, as the new shared world approach is extremely sensible – other players are only cruising the open world when you are (and don't appear in events), and become ghosts if you're too close so there is no risk of collision. You can use pre-made phrases to communicate, or invite them to a convoy / race, with easy to use menus. It definitely makes the world feel connected and alive, but slightly more barren compared to the Drivatars that were everywhere in the previous games. Still, there are few more entertaining moments than hourly (at the top of the hour) Forzathon Live events, which put a big blimp on the map and draws together all players in your session, for a set of three co-operative activities. It's a clever way to get drivers together, as a sort of quick hourly car-meet, and encourage some socializing. With Forzathon, changing seasons, and a shared online world, there is always something new to do every week, every day, and every hour in Forza Horizon 4.
The new focus on multiplayer brings with it the so-called Horizon Life, which is an overarching set of levels that track everything you do, and dish out rewards accordingly. Whether you're racing, tuning, climbing the leaderboards in open world PR stunts, or playing online adventures, there is a separate experience level for each type of activity. The idea is that no matter how you play, you'll gain influence in at least one of these areas, and be able to earn rewards and progress through the overall experience levels. So you could spend all your time painting and drifting, or exploring and racing, and still earn progress rewards. You'll probably need to do a bit of each to be successful, but the game is obviously striving to engage players no matter what they choose to do. There's even a Mixer level, if you're a streamer or a viewer of the game. It's unfortunate the game doesn't specifically state how to contribute in each category – some are less obvious than others.
The staple skills system from the previous games is back, and as you stunt, jump, and drift your way through the game world, you'll earn points. However, the system to spend these points has been revamped – instead of having one large tree that applied to you as a player, there are now individual skills to unlock for each of your cars as Car Masteries. The skill that each car can have vary, so for example Skill Songs can only happen when you're driving certain cars with the perk unlocked. At first, the system seems like a step back – Horizon has always been excellent at letting you use whatever car you wanted for any event, but now you'll need to unlock skills for each new car individually, so it feels a bit like you're forced to use your upgraded cars most often to earn the most skill points. But after some time, it becomes obvious that's a non-issue; you earn skill points fast enough to upgrade all cars you frequently use, and it adds more personality to each ride.
Another aspect of player personalities comes in the form of new avatars. These characters appear in pre and post-race cutscenes, and can be customized with apparel and dance moves. It seems like a harmless cosmetic addition, but it actually has a negative side as the enjoyable Horizon Wheelspins that give out freebies have now been diluted with the avatar customization items. With each spin, as before you can get a car or cash, but now you could also get vanity items. The great news is that the game's financial balance has not suffered – the various revamps to rewards through Horizon Life levels ensure that players should have plenty of free cash and cars to choose from. Still, it is rather annoying to waste 5 spins and get all clothing items plus a silly dance, and quite infuriating to watch the needle barely pass a legendary Horizon Edition car and give you a hat instead.
As such, not all of the changes are welcome. As mentioned, there is no real sense of story or end goals, and the Showcase events, which used to mark milestones, are over and done with in the first few hours. They aren't really memorable or unique either, and it's sad to see this concept fall by the wayside at this point. There is now only one festival site on the map, and that drains the immersive party feel out of the game world. The secondary festival sites are replaced with a few player houses in various locations – which are not cheap, and all they do is offer you the chance to access the same menu as the festival (to buy/sell cars, upgrade them, paint, etc). There is no music or sense of atmosphere at these locations, and their only other function is being a fast-travel point. It can be frustrating to find yourself really far away from the next hourly Forzathon event, and no way to get there on time as the house in that corner of the map is simply not affordable (and not even close to worth it). To add insult to injury, the fast travel anywhere perk, which in previous games was earned via skill point tree, is now locked away in a house priced at 2 million credits. As such, player houses are a half-baked idea that are little more than glorified fast travel points that lack atmosphere and cost way too much.
The fun bucket lists are also gone, and in their place we have four so-called Horizon Stories. These are basically four sets of 10-chapter stunt events, challenging the players to perform certain feats with cool cars. You could be asked to take a few huge jumps for a movie producer, impress with your drift skills, or deliver a supercar on time without taking much damage. Or you could be in some streamer's "top 10 video game cars" countdown video, cringing and wishing with every fiber of your being that she would stop talking. Horizon Stories events may seem familiar in structure to bucket lists, but they lack the variety and functionality of bucket lists (such as blueprints). They also have no replay value (in cash or influence) after you've managed to achieve three star rating on each mission. They are a decent optional activity to get a few rewards out of, but otherwise a step back from the bucket list system.
Still, Forza Horizon 4 offers an unquestionable breadth of activities to undertake. The same racing disciplines return from earlier games – typical road racing, exhilarating dirt racing, bombastic cross country, street racing (night races), and new drag strips. Progressing through them earns you Horizon Life rewards per discipline, and they are all individual events rather than championships. Out in the open world, PR stunts still include drift zones, speed traps, speed zones, and danger signs; these too have their Horizon Life levels and rewards. You can look for bonus boards or locate Barn Finds, but Horizon Promo is gone. All of the race events still allow you to compete with any car you want – and if not, you can create the blueprint of the event – even changing the season, so you don't need to wait for the server to change. There is also now an option to swap your car right at the event (without creating blueprint) or during freeroam, so you can race whatever you'd like. Events remain highly accessible – you'll get credits and influence even without a podium finish, and the event will count as completed. Most events can also be completed as solo (vs AI), co-op, PvP, or vs Rival times. The game offers unparalleled freedom in how you use its structured content.
In all of these events, you'll be driving a great variety of cars – over 400 of them, from almost 100 manufactures. All of the vehicles are meticulously recreated, and look/sound quite wonderful, from the classics to the modern hypercars. The game features more body kits than before; Forzavista lets you appreciate their beauty in up-close detail, and you can mechanically upgrade and customize their performance as before. Of course, there is also the visual customization, with a powerful livery editor and an easy way to share all of your creations with others. The interface for browsing cars has been revamped into a grid, which makes navigation so much quicker and easier, whether at the Autoshow or at player auctions.
It goes without saying, but the arcade racing in Forza Horizon 4 has been nearly perfected at this point. All of the cars handle wonderfully well, balancing accessibility and realism effortlessly. Trying to control a Koenigsegg Regera at night on a twisted wet mountain road is exhilarating, as is perfectly nailing the corner slides with a Subaru in a tight dirt race. Compared to FH3, this newest entry feels like a little work has been done to make the extremely high-end cars more difficult to handle, and overall the game definitely isn’t afraid to take away grip if you take turns too quickly. As mentioned, changing weather seasons will alter the conditions, creating new experiences on the same tracks. Oddly, a good rally car with snow tires handles impeccably well on a Winter highway, but a slower hot hatch on a slightly wet summer road can go sliding at any moment. There are slight tweaks that can be made perhaps, but these are such minor complaints it's barely worth mentioning, in what is otherwise arcade racing perfected.
Once you've got a nice car collection, and you've made your way through a bunch of events, and played with the people in your session, you can head out to online Team Adventures. As with past games, you can choose from Racing, Games, or Anything Goes (mix of the two). Putting two teams of six players against each other, you'll partake in five given activities, in hopes of winning 3. The Adventures have been tweaked, in that there's no more individual score at the end of the 5-round event, but rather you get extra awards if your team lost or won, regardless of how well you do personally. Individual performance evaluations now fall under the new Ranked Adventures, where you first need to qualify and then make your way up the ranks based on skill. You can make your way up the League ranks and earn series rewards, before a monthly reset. The two different Adventure modes are a nice way to separate competitive and casual racing.
The game's presentation is top notch. Although some of the fun festival atmosphere is lacking, we now have the immersion of multiple weather seasons. Seeing the world change between the four different seasons is exciting and fresh, and they get even more fascinating as you get to experience them in combination with the returning dynamic weather and time of day changes. This is a stunning game to look at – on the Xbox One X at 1080p, the lighting systems, the vibrant colors, and the art design are simply impeccable, without even going into the photo mode. This is likely the best looking game on the console this year, despite rare occasional issues with draw distance and visual glitches during loading screens. Also, if you do have an Xbox One X, you can trade away some of the visual fidelity for a new Performance mode. Just as the Quality mode runs at unshakable 30FPS, so does the Performance mode but at 60FPS, and is a great option to have for racing purists. In the audio department, all of the vehicles sound meaty and menacing, while the familiar returning radio stations produce good tunes in a few different genres. The loading times on Xbox One X are a marked improvement over FH3.
Forza Horizon 4 brings the most notable changes to the series since the second entry. The franchise is always seeking for new ways to innovate, and it very much succeeds with its take on the weather seasons. While some of the feel of a music festival is gone because of player housing, the well executed and atmospheric weather systems breathe new life and tons of variety into this digital recreation of Britain. A new shift towards shared online gameplay makes this feel like the most alive and interconnected Forza ever, and you can still play offline if you want to. This freedom of player choice, combined with the excellent car racing, is what elevates the whole experience. Not all of the redesigned mechanics are a complete success, but when you get down to it, the moment to moment gameplay and the quality of the presentation in Forza Horizon 4 is hard to beat.