Sometimes I feel like racing is beside the point in Forza Horizon 4. Often I'd rather just drive to the top of Arthur's Seat and gaze down over Edinburgh, admiring the incredible scenery stretching out before me from the seat of my Porsche Spyder.
It's the side of Forza Horizon that tends to get lost amid the hovercraft race and blaring calls to take part in #forzathon, the timed group events that periodically pop up in its shared world. Forza Horizon 4 pushes you harder than ever to the dozens upon dozens of events dotting its map, seemingly terrified that you will become bored and exit out at any moment. But the moments I'm happiest are when I turn off the radio and just take off.
Such moments are what have pushed Playground Games' spinoff above the flagship series in my mind. Whereas classic Forza remains a straightforward collection of tracks for racing purists, Horizon is a large open world dedicated to the pure joy of driving. It's once again one of the generation's most beautiful games, fully realizing the capabilities of the Xbox One with its glorious rendition of the UK, surpassing even the high water mark set by the incredible Forza Horizon 3. Having had the privilege of taking my own road trip through Scotland, I found myself smiling nostalgically as I rode the familiar streets of Edinburgh, through to the lochs beyond, and past the famous viaducts, admiring the stunning sunsets and environmental effects along the way. It's a bit generous to call what it presents as "the UK," as it doesn't so much as include Liverpool or Manchester, let alone London, but what is there represents the peak of what this generation's technology has to offer.
The lovely scenery is further augmented by the addition of seasons, each of which brings a different look and feel to the country. Spring is full of big, satisfying mud puddles to splash through, while winter covers the countryside with an achingly beautiful layer of powder. The opening hours of Forza Horizon 4 are devoted to going through the seasons one at a time and showing them off in their full glory, and it might be my favorite part of the whole game. The structured approach of having the seasons turn as you reach certain milestones works well in the early going.
Once Forza Horizon 4 opens into the world proper though, the seasons solidify into a weekly rotation centered around online events. Every season has its own unique races to discover, which is Forza Horizon's way of pushing you to periodically check back to see what's new. It's an interesting idea, but to tell you the truth, I'm on the fence about whether I like it or not. Much as I like the winter, five days seems like too much for one season. The only respite are the custom blueprints that return from Forza Horizon 3, which allow you to set the time of day and season as you please.
This is all part of Forza Horizon's continued desire to be an Online Platform, with all that entails. A large emphasis is put on driving around with your friends, teaming up with them to race against strangers, and generally interacting in a shared world. Drivatars—A.I. drivers pulled from your friends list—are still around to be challenged, but you are no longer actively seeking to collect them. Likewise, there's tons of solo content to be enjoyed, but Forza Horizon 4's long-term appeal is very much built around PvP and co-op. Absent certain solo events, most every race in Forza Horizon 4 can be tackled with friends or against online competition.
The driving continues to favor accessibility over realism, which is once again exemplified by a handy rewind function designed to help new players who take corners a little too quickly. It's not exactly Mario Kart, but neither is it what you would call a hardcore sim like Project Cars. It remains somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
The events themselves run the gamut from cross-country to nighttime street races, which helps to keep the action varied and interesting. Forza Horizon 4 also drops the Bucket List events from the previous game and introduces a handful of structured story challenges centered around being a stunt driver, among other conceits. Aside from being appropriate to the setting, it serves to centralize the solo challenges so that you're not driving around looking for them, and it adds just a smidge of narrative to boot.
The practical effect of all this is that there are races constantly being added to your map. As you finish one race and level up in that category—you're always leveling up in something in this game—you get a whole bunch more events of the same type, which are piled on top of seasonal and live events. I'm not going to sit here and claim that more content is a bad thing, but I will say that I suffered from option paralysis more than once in Forza Horizon 4.
When you're not racing, or simply driving around enjoying the spring puddles or the autumn leaves, you're typically collecting cars. Forza Horizon 4 has an almost overwhelming number of cars, from little pocket dirt racers, to sleek hypercars, to luxury SUVs. Most of the brands you would expect are represented, from Ferrari to Audi to Dodge, and it's fun to pick through all the variants, downloading custom livery for them and taking them for a test drive.
Unlike most, I'm not that concerned about building out my collection. My typical approach to racers like Forza Horizon is to find a vehicle that I like and make it "my car." In Forza Horizon 4, that would be the aforementioned Porsche Spyder, which feels like being strapped to a heatseeking missile while whipping through the countryside at 200 miles per hour.
Of course, as I mentioned, Forza Horizon 4 sports an array of different race types, and a Porsche isn't the greatest option for a dirt track. In such instances I flip over to my beloved Mazda, or one of the other half-dozen other cars that periodically pop into my garage as if by magic. Forza Horizon 4 is always giving you more cars, whether as in-game rewards through Wheelspins, or by discovering them out in the countryside. If you buy the special VIP Pass—one of Forza Horizon 4's several DLC options—they will be delivered to you at a constant rate over the course of several weeks.
Cars aren't the only thing you're collecting, either. In an effort to really drive home its online component, Forza Horizon 4 introduces unlockable clothing for your avatar, which is earned through Wheelspins, leveling up, and through completing certain challenges. Obviously, spending a lot of time behind the wheel makes it hard to see your hard-earned outfits, so Forza Horizon 4 goes out of its way to show your avatar celebrating after a win, admiring the scenery in the various Beauty Spots, and interacting with characters ahead of races. To make the houses more than just vanity versions of the existing Horizon Festivals, Forza Horizon 4 offers unique buffs and rewards for investing in them, such as special Wheelspins. There are even cheesy dance emotes if you win. It's fun, but also perhaps a bit contrived in a game like this.
I like character customization myself—it's the way I express myself in an online world—but I can understand why the broader community might find them superfluous. They serve to take the focus off the cars, which are the true stars of the show, omitting opportunities to introduce much-desired elements like vehicle interior customization. I wouldn't exactly call the introduction of these elements a miscalculation, but neither would I call them essential.
But even if some of the newer elements don't quite work, Forza Horizon 4 is an undeniably strong showcase for the power of the Xbox One X. I've written in the past that graphics no longer matter in the way they used to, but it must be stressed that Forza Horizon 4 is really, really beautiful. From its amazing use of HDR to the cars themselves, all of which feature accurate and detailed interiors, Forza Horizon 4 makes a strong argument for being the most technically accomplished game of the generation.
In that regard, Forza Horizon 4 very much measures up to the high standard set by its predecessors. Summer, winter, spring, or fall, the country is always there waiting to be enjoyed from behind the wheel of your Lamborghini, or, you know, your 2016 Honda Civic (hey, I'm not gonna judge, even if I'm a Subaru gal myself). And more than anything, the simple pleasure of driving through its beautifully realized open world is what will keep Forza Horizon on top for the foreseeable future.
You can debate the merits of some of this version's additions, but the same strong core that has pushed Forza Horizon to the top of the driving sim heap remains firmly in place here. It's an incredibly impressive graphical production that puts even its beautiful predecessor to shame, and it's a true pleasure when out on the road. Forza Horizon 4 is one of a handful of showcase games that truly ought to sell you on an Xbox One X and a 4K TV.
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