The opening moments of Forza Horizon 4 made me feel emotions I didn’t think a racing game was capable of making me feel.
It was the same swelling of emotion I get when watching the epic moments in a superhero movie or seeing my favorite band play my favorite song live in concert. It was that butterflies feeling, the fluttering in the chest, that weird moment when you catch your lip possibly quivering at a press event for a video game.
Opening with a sweeping shot of an idyllic summertime English countryside as the narrator, Rebecca, describes an almost utopian society where the Horizon festival never ends and everyone drives a cool car and no one needs a real job. Then a stampede of beautifully rendered cars bursts into view, and we’re off to the races, zooming through a small snippet of all four seasons before experiencing them for ourselves during a brief tutorial. I’m very rarely floored by games anymore, let alone racing games, but the pure beauty and adrenaline of Forza Horizon 4’s wild opening moments blew me away.
While the rest of the time I spent with Forza Horizon 4 didn’t quite manage to induce the sort of joyful temporary insanity I felt during the first five minutes or so, what it did do was create an enthralling open-world experience that happens to include one of the best racing games I’ve ever played.
I feel like Playground Games has been quietly moving the benchmark when it comes to creating evocative visuals and open-world map design over the last 8 years or so that it’s been working on Forza Horizon, and I don’t know if they get enough credit. The first thing that brings Forza Horizon 4 to life is the game’s version of Great Britain and how beautiful and diverse its landscape is. In essence, the map is a mixtape of the island’s best features, with rolling fields of yellow flowers, placid lakes, quiet villages, and hearty industrial towns. Whether you’re driving on pavement, cobblestone, dirt, mud, or gravel, the textures are astounding.
I asked creative director Ralph Fulton at the event whether it was easier to design an open-world map based on Playground’s home country or harder, being so close to the source material.
“It was the latter,” Fulton said. “There were definitely some advantages to being in Britain. We could decide to go out and do reference photography or videos on that day and just go do it and comeback, whereas obviously Australia [for Forza Horizon 3] required great costs and months of planning to send people out there.
“But the thing we didn’t foresee,” Fulton explained, “was, because everybody lives there and the majority grew up in Britain, our level of intimacy of the subject matter was so much higher than it was with Australia or France or Colorado. I think that tripped us up a little bit. We had to get used to the fact that we weren’t making a one-to-one map of our country but a representation. We’ve taken liberties with previous maps; Australians gave us hell for some parts in Forza Horizon 3 because things were not where they are in real life. What’s interesting, psychologically, is that, when it came to doing the same thing with Britain, we were like the Australians. People were like, ‘Well, you can’t do that. That doesn’t go there.’ So we had to overcome that a little bit to make our final design.”
The results make it clear that the team at Playground was able to figure out the right balance between authenticity and functionality. Not once in my hour-plus with the game so far did I feel like the map was stopping me from going somewhere I wanted to go or experiencing something I wanted to experience. Even the map’s massive lake, generally the bane of all cars in driving games, felt like an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.
The Forza Horizon games, probably more than any other racing series, are known for fostering accessibility without diminishing the achievements of more skilled drivers, and Forza Horizon 4 manages to keep this tradition going through both balanced gameplay and clever visual language. There are plenty of different difficulty levels (and consequent better rewards) for each race to keep players of all levels interested, as well as the kind of minute technical modifications you can make with your cars, all the way to tire pressure, that gearheads will enjoy. Or, if you’re just a casual racing game player like myself, you can jump into a race and have a blast while smashing through fences and cobblestone walls.
Part of this is in how the game tells you what is and isn’t destructible. This was actually a focus of Forza Horizon 4’s development after getting feedback from some fans of Forza Horizon 3 saying that it was too hard to distinguish between what was destructible and what wasn’t.
“We spent a lot of time as we built this world thinking about visual language,” Fulton said, “and really trying to be as clear as possible that, when you’re driving at 200 miles per hour, it’s not a lottery whether something stops you. For example, tree language is all about trunk width, which is kind of a bizarre phrase to use in an interview, but there you go. Making sure there’s a range of trunk width on one side that lets you know it’s smashable, and then there’s a gap, and beyond that there’s all the big chunky trees with thick trunks that you know will stop you.”
The game’s most revolutionary addition—that is, making all four seasons playable—was only touched on during the opening of the demo. But even without the fact that the map will completely change depending on what season you’re currently in, Forza Horizon 4 feels like something special so far.
We’ll know for sure when Forza Horizon 4 launches on October 2nd for Xbox One and PC.