Offshoots aren’t meant to surpass their source material. They’re meant to be unusual curios that take an existing concept in twist it in ways the mainline series never could. When the original Forza Horizon casually rolled up onto the scene in 2012, no one really expected it to attract the fan base that it did, but eight years on and four games in, and this breakaway road trip has become one of Microsoft’s most popular and enduring franchises. Sure, the Forza Motorsport series is still the go-to place for purists who want an experience so realistic they can taste the tang of petrol in the air, but with Forza Horizon 4, developer Playground Games continues to riff on a truly accessible and inclusive racing wonderland.
Unlike Forza Motorsport – which has long battled Gran Turismo and the likes of Project CARS for the title of best racing simulator – the Forza Horizon series happily trades realism for unabashed fun, and buckets of it, too. There are no tracks to unlock or licences to complete. Just a great big open world full of races to win, cars to buy and challenges to complete. It’s a simple concept, but that’s what’s makes Forza Horizon 4 so easy to pick up and so difficult to put down. Leaving the warmer climes of the US, Italy and Australia for the more unpredictable climates of the United Kingdom might seem an odd choice, but this new setting makes for an incredibly diverse place to drive thanks to some welcome new features.
You start out with a single car, and – in true Horizon fashion – a marker that tasks you with putting your foot down and making it to the main site of the festival. Throughout this five-ish-hour-long tutorial you’ll get a taste of Forza Horizon 4’s arcade-like and very forgiving physics, its varied race types (ranging from bombastic off-road trails to Need For Speed-aping street races) and some of its bigger new additions – such as changing seasons and their own unique weather patterns. These seven-day seasons really do transform this virtual Britain, such as how winter snow tests your handling with sheets of ice on the roads, while spring showers will force you to contend with water-slick turns and chicanes.
Eventually, the seasons reset to their normal cycle, alternating between one another every week (in real time), creating a real sense of dynamic challenge when tackling races and sprints in certain conditions. This might seem like an odd timing decision, but Forza Horizon 4 isn’t meant to hold your attention for a single week. This is a game that will consume your free time for months and months, thanks mainly to the sheer amount of content at your fingertips. The rolling 'Forzathons' and their timed challenges prove that the series is committed to introducing the tropes of a ‘games as a service’ model without actually being one.
One of the elements that helps make Forza Horizon 4 so rewarding is the sheer joy of driving from one destination to another. Unlocking new sites across this truncated take on the British Isles does create fast travel points, but you’ll barely ever use them. Such is the fun of chaining together a combo of high speed manoeuvres and stunts to earn skill points, boards to smash for XP, jumps to hit a full speed and countless challenges. And with every new week come new live events and weekly challenges that tie into the changing weather patterns and the way they completely transform the look and feel of the environment you’re exploring.
And that’s before you even reach a race. Much like previous games, there’s an incredible amount of variety found in both the main campaign – which sees you gradually opening more festival sites and upgrading them to unlock new races and the various side missions littered across the land. From driving hypercars at incredible speeds down the motorway to showcase races that see you racing the most ridiculous of opponents, there's plenty on offer. If you’ve played any of the previous games, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, well, you’re in for a real treat. And it's a feast for the eyes, too. It looks stunning and runs smooth as butter on a regular Xbox One, but upgrade to an Xbox One S or and One X and support for HDR makes those evening autumn drives through the streets of Edinburgh look positively gorgeous.
Four games in and Playground Games continues to offer a veritable – ahem – playground that caters for both solo players and those with fewer antisocial tendencies. While you can play Forza Horizon 4 in the same way as previous entries – with other players represented by AI-controlled ‘Drivatars’ that react based on their owners’ behaviours – you can now play in a more connected world. Now, you don’t have to manually shift into an online mode since you’re, by default, playing in a shared environment with other players on a server (in a vaguely similar fashion to The Crew). There’s complete parity between both offline and online states, so should you be kicked from an online session you’ll seamlessly transition into an offline setup with no loss of progress. It works the other way, with full support for the forgiving Rewind feature in online races.
The accommodating nature of Forza Horizon 4 might put off Forza purists, but this spin-off does more than just use the name of the original franchise. The tuning options and drift features introduced in Forza Motorsport 7 are here, so there’s the ability to adjust the handling of your vehicle should you want to tweak it for a drag race or a challenging street showdown. If there’s one downside to Forza Horizon 4, then it’s the introduction of one two many currencies and in-game points. Juggling these does urge you to take part in rolling Forzathon challenges and grind for rare cars, but it can be a little overwhelming if you’re trying to do everything.
Racing games can too often trade a sense of character and personality in the pursuit of realism and motorsport recreation – some might even cast that aspersion at the Forza Motorsport games themselves – but Forza Horizon 4 has no such trouble. It’s undoubtedly the best racing experience on Xbox One, and is full of challenges, races and stunts that are constantly rewarding you for your sheer love of racing. With its changing seasons and dynamic weather, Forza Horizon 4 feels new and fresh every week. Whether you’re a seasoned car snob or a virtual learner driver, this Xbox Game Pass ready deserves a place in your gaming garage.