When we reviewed Forza Horizon 3, we were extremely impressed, but there were three main areas that left clear room for improvement. These were the crashes, the track design, and the amount of busywork that artificially filled up the game to prolong its lifespan. Now that we’ve had some hands-on time with Forza Horizon 4, we’re at least provisionally able to confirm that two of these things do indeed appear to have been addressed. It’s impossible to tell for certain until we’ve played the whole of the finished game, of course, but initial impressions look very promising indeed. So let’s look at each one in turn.
This is the biggie. Track design in Forza Horizon 3 was always just a little bit bland. Sure, the scenery was spectacular, and you got up to some really high speeds, but there was just something a touch unsatisfying about all the gentle corners that saw you holding accelerate and gently arcing through turns. Well, no more. There are more hairpins, and steep crests with turns on the dropaway, threatening to spin you round as you leave the ground off-camber. And there’s a far greater density of gates in the off-road races. Sure, gates aren’t sexy, everyone knows that. But in a game where you can literally straight-line it through the trackside walls like they’re made of plastic tape, you need something to reign you in. More gates means more driving, and in Forza Horizon 4, the placement of turns is very clever indeed, testing your driving ability and requiring far greater concentration.
Of course, there are still high-speed, point-to-point races and, thanks to the returning Blueprint mode, you’ll be able to customise events to your liking. And when the in-game seasons change each week of real world time, even tracks you’ve grown accustomed to will present new challenges. What was a pleasant drive on dry tarmac in summer will be treacherous in autumn or winter. And winter also brings a new type of racetrack - frozen lakes. Yep, there’s far more going on with the environment in Forza Horizon 4, and the game should be far better for it.
The crash damage
This is the one that’s the least improved. Let’s be fair, though - we’re talking about fully licensed cars being presented in glorious 4K on Xbox One X. Licensed cars are very, very rarely smashed to smithereens in racing games because the manufacturers simply won’t allow their prized automobiles to be depicted looking like they’ve just been consigned to a scrapyard.
Predictably, then, the crashes are still not as destructive as the likes of Burnout Paradise HD. But even so, there is some proper pranging to be seen. The bodywork dents up when you hit something reasonably solid, generally making enough of a mess of your car’s beautiful paint job to make fans of the marque cry oily tears. Windscreens crack, obscuring your view in the excellent helmet cam, and spoiling the look of the machine in replays. It’s also possible to at least lose your fender if you hit something hard enough, and to flip your car if you crash at the right angle.
For those who find crashing distasteful, damage can be turned off. More serious racers can choose to have it affect their handling, or there is a middle setting to allow cosmetic-only damage, which is how the game was set up for us to play. And that’s fine - it’s supposed to be fun, after all. Realistic damage would let you smash through a stone wall once, and then your car would be ruined. Instead, Horizon 4 lets you smash through fences, traffic signs, street lamps, shrubs, bushes, cornfields and hedgerows. The only movable objects that really slow you down are hay bales - we’d advise avoiding those if you possibly can.
Finally, unlike F1 2018, crashes are given time to play out, and you can always hit the rewind button if you fancy another shot at taking the corner properly.
Obviously the start of the game looks amazing when you first fire it up, but it’s also the place you do the most busywork as you get to learn the systems. And it was the start of the game we were allowed to play at the preview event, so it’s hard to tell exactly whether the sense of busywork has been fixed completely. Signs so far point to a much greater variety of interesting things to do in this always-online, open world. There are illegal street races to win, a movie stuntman side story to enjoy, some excellent off-road dirt racing to be had, as well as special events with showcase moments, like when you race alongside a group of stunt bikers through a forest. You can’t ride bikes yourself, in case you were wondering, it’s just another ‘thing’ to race, like the blimp, boats and aircraft of the last game.
Horizon 3 also had ‘showcase events’ which packed this kind of spectacle into just a handful of special races, but there appear to be many more events with that level of gloss in the new game. The presentation somehow feels even slicker than last time, wherever you look, with excellent, more natural voice acting on the radio, and track deformation in snow and mud. It all makes for much less of a divide between the deluxe showcases and normality. In Forza Horizon 4, it would appear that ‘amazing’ is the new ‘normal’.
That’s not empty hyperbole. We’re seriously looking at - potentially - not only the best Forza Horizon game, but also the best open-world racer in years, putting The Crew 2 to shame. The British countryside makes for an excellent playground, and cutting a corner some 10cm too much and sending pieces of dry stone wall scattering across the track as the pack bustles around you looks and feels as riotous as it sounds. It’s playing very well - watch out for the review soon.
Forza Horizon 4 is coming to Xbox One and PC on October 2.