Forza Horizon 4 review: the best arcade racing game of all time?
If there’s a single word that sums up Forza Horizon 4, it’s momentum. There’s a vibe, a beat, an unstoppable, fast-punching rhythm to Playground Games’ fourth open-world game that keeps it moving and keeps you in front of it for relentless hours. Hours of of exploration, racing and gawping at the most beautiful open world ever crafted for four-wheeled carnage.
And this ceaseless momentum carries you through the game on a tidal wave of fun and endorphin overload – splashing you through car after car, race after race as you delight in the best car handling in any semi-arcade racer this side of Project Gotham Racing 2 and the most stunning graphics I’ve seen in a racer.
After what felt like a bit of a repetitive trudge through Australia in FH3, it feels like the team at Playground Games has smoothed out the rough edges and combed out the annoyances of their past efforts and then knocked FH4 so far out of the park it’s come back to earth covered in some of the most wonderfully rendered snow you’ve ever seen.
Whereas previous Horizon games focused on adding so many gameplay elements and story conceits you often ended up a little confused (does anyone have fond memories of having to drive between Horizon Festival sites every couple of races in FH2? Thought not), FH4’s single festival site gives you far more brain space to drink in the world.
The level of sheen applied to the intro race’s season-swapping, eyeball-pleasing driving spectacular doesn’t wear off the second you’re introduced to the regular gameplay like it has in previous games. Instead, the pace doesn’t slacken for a second. Horizon 4’s pre- and post-race menus are quicker and require less hammering of the A button to skip, meaning you get more fun for your gaming time.
Even the car-and-money-winning wheelspins that you earn every couple of minutes are sped up – you can force the slot-machine of goodies to immediately spit out your prize rather than watching the wheels rotate. This is Horizon as you know it, but faster and sleeker. And with less focus on meaningless story.
Imagine doing this to some of the most uplifting Drum n Bass you've ever heard. It's a happy, happy game
So it’s faster, but is the actual driving as slick?
Again, here things feel simpler and all the better for it. There are four types of races: road racing, illegal street scene racing, dirt racing and cross country events. You level up in each category and win more prizes than before.
The racing is standard Horizon carnage – you’re constantly managing slides (remembering to use the Xbox One’s vibrating triggers to judge grip) and trying to maintain momentum (there’s that word again) to fire out of corners and eke out an advantage over the computer-controlled competitors.
The cars feel slightly heavier and more substantial than in FH3, and there’s a sense that the drifting and handling in general has more finesse than ever. You still need to leave your sim desires at the door, but there’s a serious amount of satisfaction to be had working out exactly how much gas you need to carve a perfect arc with your rear bumper inches from a speed-sapping drystone wall. I found the best blend of assists to be normal steering, ABS on, traction and stability both off, using a manual gearbox and a gamepad.
Sounds are generally excellent too – the Focus RS you can start the game with coughs and rasps its way through its turbo lag just like the real car, although it’s a bit of a shame that some of the ballsier V8s in the game sound a little thin.
Map me happy
Yes, even the UK world in the game feels honed to the nth degree with fun and… yes, momentum, in mind. Even the crash barriers on the motorways that tunnel under the acres of moorland are destructible, meaning you can gun it from one side of the huge map to the other with very little to stop you – other than gradients and slippery snow-lashed mountains that really need a 4x4 to traverse.
Shortly after FH4’s reveal back in June, the internet bubbled away with disquiet about the map being only as big as FH3’s interpretation of Oz.
Be that as it may, but for the first time ever not only are there effectively four interpretations of the UK map thanks to seasons, and the sheer detail in the world has increased significantly. Plodding across snow-strewn fields you’ll notice little farmers’ tracks that aren’t listed as roads on the map – but you’ll need to hunt them out and use them for extra traction if you want to make it up the steeper gradients without sliding backwards. Likewise, there are idyllic forest paths and hidden roads that reward a more committed form of exploration rather than looking at the map.
As autumn turns to spring you’ll change from looking slack jawed at the sun dumping light in rays onto a leafy forest floor to staring sideways out of the car as you drift onto icy lakes, and slush down country roads not fully cleared of snow. Then spring comes; the woodlands explode with purple flowers and farms fill with lambs. Before you know it summer hits and you head to the coast to sink up to your axles in soft dry sand that hardens with the seawater as you get closer to the shoreline. If that sounds fun then imagine having the radio tuned to the classics station and the Halo theme tune coming on. Yup, that happens. Oh, and you can change your car’s horn to the Windows XP shutdown sound.
Barbie is here
Even after more than 15 hours pounding around Horizon 4’s gorgeous world you’re still discovering things as the seasons change, as well as unlocking clothing options.
The dress-me-up part of Forza was introduced somewhat incongruously in last year’s far more serious Forza Motorsport 7, but happily it feels at home here with some delightful Scottish outfits, and the option to go full houndstooth. Always go full houndstooth.
Car customisation is far less of a confusing torture than it was in FM7 too. You add upgrade components to a basket, and at the end of a shopping session you’re presented with a clear table showing how your cash will increase or decrease your power and weight.
Playground Games is also promising to release a full course layout customisation tool a short while after launch, which – for the first time in the series – will let you place checkpoints wherever you like and share your races with friends. Sign us up for a figure-of-eight Unimog race over Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat.
Things get sexier at 60(fps)
New seasons, better graphics, improved handling and a more detailed world would alone make Forza Horizon 4 a must buy. However, if you’re an Xbox One X owner you can switch from a 4K resolution running at the series’ usual 30 frames-per-second (fps) to a 1080p at 60fps.
I’m one of those oddballs with a One X and an old 1080p TV, so naturally I’ve flicked the 60fps switch. And it completely, remarkably transforms the game. The sense of speed increases hugely, something that Horizon games have struggled a little with in the past, but also your control inputs have a far more immediate effect, which makes threading through forests a much less painful endeavour.
The smoothness that 60fps brings to Horizon is perhaps the icing on a cake already made up of pure momentum, and makes it tastier and slicker than ever. Does it make Forza Horizon 4 the best arcade racing game ever? You know what, I think it might.
big, beautiful and non-stop fun. The best arcade racer of our time