The last Forza Horizon game I played at length was the first, so hopping into Forza Horizon 4 felt a bit like getting out of prison after a 20-year stint and being amazed at how different everything is. You’re telling me the roads are no longer fenced in by unbreakable walls, so I can actually explore? And once-generic AI opponents are now futuristic “Drivatars,” based on real players and sporting indecipherable internet handles like “Spamfish”?
That’s all old news to anyone who’s been following the series, obviously, but some of the best aspects of Forza Horizon 4 are old news. Playground Games still excels at delivering a massive, diverse roster of cars that feel true to life, or at least sufficiently varied from one another to fool me. The driving is excellent and scales well to every skill level. When it comes to the core components of a racing game, Playground clearly has everything down to a science. If I don’t spend most of this reviewing praising the thrills of speeding down the motorway in a hypercar or hooning around corners in a rally car, that’s only because there’s not much compelling to be said about continued competence.
And the studio still knows how to get surprising amounts of visual fidelity out of a console. Though I encountered some crashes and a few bugs—including a strange recurring hitch, where the game would slow to a crawl for a second or two before speeding up the action to catch up, though oddly without actually dropping the frame rate—this is still a technically impressive game to my eye when running on Xbox One X.
So what’s actually changed? Well, now the game world is populated with other human drivers, though that’s not quite revolutionary for the genre. I gather there are expanded multiplayer features as well, like the new Team Adventure, which pits two teams against one another across a playlist of events. It’s all good fun, though nothing spectacular. If you like to compete or cooperate online, you can do that here in myriad ways, and everything I tested worked smoothly in a prelaunch environment.
Then there’s the new locale for our fictional Horizon racing festival. This time, the festivities have moved to Great Britain, though you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up for some stunning rendition of the island in miniature. Now, I’ve binged Escape to the Country on Netflix, so I’ve at least heard of the Cotswolds and the Lake District, but even I found the map a little heavy on obscure locales and generic countryside. I understand wanting to build something that’s less cliched than a theme park of pasted together tourist attractions, but virtual representations of real places are most compelling when they tap into the familiar. At the risk of slipping into the stereotype of obnoxious American tourist, where are the Cliffs of Dover? Where’s Loch Ness? Where’s literally any city that’s not Edinburgh? Really, I should be able to look up and see Big Ben from anywhere on the map. I’m joking, but not entirely.
Yes, the map works well enough for races and exploration, and it’s got some lovely views. Thatched roofs and rolling hillsides abound. Despite my repeated online petitions, this is probably as close as we’re going to get to a Thomas Kinkade video game. At best, though, it’s a decent Britain, not a great one.
The other banner addition, of course, is the introduction of seasons to the game’s map, offering four different versions of the same area to explore as you play, each with their own quirks to master. In fact, I’d love to tell you more about how seasons mix up Forza Horizon 4, but I can’t. Because the system operates on a weekly basis, nearly all of my playthrough has been on just one season: autumn. I am, however, now an expert on autumn. There are leaves on the ground, and it rains quite a bit, and the in-game menu says the temperature is usually in the mid 40s to mid 50s. Brisk.
Technically, I did get to experience all four seasons while playing, though in a less than ideal manner. When you start the game, you do theoretically get to control how quickly you progress through your first year. As you complete events, you “qualify” for the next season of Horizon and can advance the calendar by visiting Horizon HQ. What the game didn’t tell me, however, is that buying a house will also force a change of season without asking. Because I dedicated my early hours to exploring the map and doing side content—including buying up houses so I could access the useful perks they sometimes grant—I more or less skipped through all the seasons without having any time to really enjoy them.
By the time I beat this introductory section of the game and got to the live servers—where you can interact with other players and the seasons stick to their rigorous schedule of changing once a week—I had only done a handful of actual races. While certain multiplayer events and the Showcase races do force a temporary change to a particular season, that’s hardly the same as driving around and getting a feel for the world itself. So I’m a bit in the dark there, sadly.
And I will tell you from experience that it’s quite frustrating to be locked into a single season for days on end. Beyond the fact that I could use a change of scenery, I know there’s at least one collectible hidden on the islands in the middle of the map’s large lake. Since they’re only accessible in winter, when the lake freezes, I’ll have to wait literal weeks of real time to get it. (Playground is resetting to summer for launch, so winter won’t, in fact, be up next.)
Is it neat, on some level, that everyone will experience the exact same seasons at the exact same time? Sure, I guess so. But I can’t help but feel that’s just a talking point to sell a system that’s really there to guarantee you have to keep logging in week after week, lest you miss out on something. I love the idea of seasons, both as a way to deliver new content and as a way to keep the game world feeling fresh. I just hate that there’s no parallel system to let me explore the other, currently inactive seasons offline at my own pace.
This is a current that runs deep in Forza Horizon 4, the dual sense that you’ll need to keep coming back and continue playing at different times to get the most out of the game, and that you’re never fully in control of all aspects of your experience. You’ll need to be playing at the top of the hour if you want to participate in the #Forzathon co-op events that spawn around the map. You’ll earn most cosmetic items and, in practice, most of the best cars through random drops by unlocking Wheelspins. (These are effectively loot boxes by another name that cycle through possible prizes like a slot machine. The ESA would like to remind you that loot boxes are not like gambling.) While the game hands them out liberally and there’s no option to pay real money for more, it’s still an incentive to play for an indeterminate amount of time if you want to unlock everything, or even if you just want to unlock that one thing you haven’t yet been lucky enough to get.
Plus, if you haven’t shelled out for the VIP Pass—included in the Ultimate Edition, which I received for review—credit rewards for winning each race will be close to halved, making it slower to buy specific cars or save up for houses. The game never struck me as a grind, but without those VIP rewards, I’m not sure if I’d feel the same.
Or, to explore another example at length, let’s take the fast travel system. When you start out, you can only fast travel to specific locations: Horizon HQ, and any houses you’ve bought. Buying one property in particular will grant you the ability to fast travel to any road on the map. Even still, though, it’ll cost you a not-insignificant 10,000 credits each and every time. If you want to lower the fee, you can do so by smashing through the 50 fast travel boards hidden around the map, each one lowering the cost by 200 credits.
Find them all, and it’s free, but you’ll have a hell of a time doing so without help. I’ve driven every road on the map—the game directly tracks this—and completed every event available to me. I’m still missing eight boards. But that’s okay, because you can also buy a map that reveals where all the boards are hidden—but only using real money. I will not spend that money. I will wait for someone to upload a map online free of charge, but I am so tempted to shell out the cash simply because hunting down the remaining eight unassisted would be the height of tedium. The funnel towards monetization, indirect though it may be, is effective.
You could come up with a solid design justification for any of these individual decisions. Taken all together, however, they make for an experience that’s worlds removed from the first game in the series. It’s also much less free than it seems at first glance. Yes, there are many different ways to fill its dozens of gauges, some refreshing and unconventional. It’s theoretically possible to rank up most of the way through the game simply by streaming on Mixer, uploading popular paint jobs, or designing custom rule sets for races. (A full race creator is in the works, as well.) But whatever you like to do, the game encourages you to do lots of it, regularly, week after week after week, not simply by making a compelling experience with ample diversions but by withholding aspects of the game until the decreed date and time.
There’s nothing wrong with appointment gaming, but simply locking players out of some content for most of the month isn’t enough. The thing you’re waiting for has to be special and different. So far, the content Forza Horizon 4 locks behind its seasons and inside its (not) loot boxes are just more of what you’ve already got, simply made less available to you. Exploring the different versions of the map will be neat, but I suspect that’s not enough to keep me coming back once I’ve cycled through.
The word “horizon” conjures many images. Sunrise, the future, a ribbon of highway disappearing into infinity. Those are probably the ones Playground had in mind when it named the series. But as I write this, the word calls up a different thought: an event horizon, the boundary in space where the gravitational pull of a black hole becomes so strong that not even light can escape. Maybe the modern game industry—its budgets, its audiences, its stakes—has grown so massive that it has now a kind of event horizon of its own. Increasingly, it feels as if the pull of live services and player retention and supplementary revenue will continue to strengthen, and all games, even very good ones, will soon be irrecoverably smeared across an invisible frontier.
Forza Horizon 4, for what it’s worth, probably warrants the label of “very good game.” But the new physics has decided it must also be your hobby, and there it fares considerably worse.
|Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Playground Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 10.02.2018|
Forza Horizon 4 delivers another standout racing experience with plenty of cars, races, and charm, but the way the game implements its much touted seasons feels unnecessarily restrictive and takes away from what would otherwise be a neat addition.
|The Good||Playground hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to make a good racing game.|
|The Bad||Having to wait a full week for the next season—and its locked-off content—to arrive.|
|The Ugly||Being forced to listen to a Geordie accent at length.|
|Forza Horizon 4 is available on Xbox One and PC. Review was conducted on Xbox One X. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|