By Anthony L. Cuaycong
WHEN Microsoft sought to expand the reach of its acclaimed Forza series shortly after the turn of the decade, it chose to tap another developer for the purpose. Early in the millennium, it formed Turn 10 Studios precisely to build a franchise that would not just rival, but better, the competition on any gaming platform. And, having seen the immensely positive results, it didn’t want its creative arm to be distracted from continuing to improve Forza Motorsport; after all, it was one thing to get to the top, and quite another to stay there.
Fortunately, Playground Games was around to serve Microsoft’s needs. Having just been formed and populated by experienced minds behind companies known for racing simulations, it looked for an inaugural project that would serve to announce its arrival in the industry. And, as things turned out, it proved to be an ideal complement to Turn 10, building on the latter’s successes while treading new ground, and, at the same time, providing fresh ideas that would catapult Forza Motorsport to even greater heights.
Enter Forza Horizon, a spinoff series that used Forza Motorsport’s intrinsic pull of accurate renditions of popular beasts on wheels, but with the end-view of enhancing the driving experience. In this regard, landmarks and environments were as much stars as the vehicles players used to get there. As directed by Microsoft, Playground’s objective was clear: It wanted to reach out to a certain segment of the gaming populace that gave as much importance to the familiarity and accessibility of roads as to the ownership and customization of metal marvels.
Significantly, the progeny would become the more commercially successful series in due time. Forza Horizon 3, released in late 2016, managed to sell close to three million copies after half a year, indicating better reception for open-world racing vis-a-vis circuit-style skirmishes. That said, Playground fed off Turn 10’s progressions, and vice versa. Microsoft hit upon a perfect working arrangement that continually resulted in wins all around. Continuous improvement was spurred, leading to Forza Motorsport 7’s status as the best of the series to date.
Until, that is, the arrival of Forza Horizon 4 late last month. All that those new to the series have to understand is this: It’s the best in any platform.And all that those already familiar with the series need to know is this: It’s the finest by far. As with its predecessors, it has as its backdrop the Horizon Festival, a street-racing spectacle patterned after Coachella-like music celebrations, but in Great Britain. It offers a map of English and Scottish expanse that dwarfs those hitherto presented for Colorado, France, Italy, and reimagined Australia. And, off the bat, it showcases a whopping 450 royal roadsters, with all but a handful of the most acclaimed badges gloriously represented. Muscle marvels? Check. People movers? Check. Customized offroaders? Check. And so on and so forth. Name it, and it’s there.
In stark contrast to the immediate past release, Forza Horizon 4 has players start from the bottom, participating in any and all sorts of races through 25 distinct campaigns to gain popularity in a social-media-savvy populace. Influence is the currency of note, and the more the wins, the greater the opportunity to advance in the game — by tweaking rides, pimping them out for psychic income, appreciating the open world, and, ultimately, taming car, road, and opposition en route to success.
Needless to say, Forza Horizon 4’s level of polish is unparalleled, and Playground parades it with pride. It has Great Britain exposed to all four seasons to start, allowing for the appreciation of the effort that went into having weather conditions affect gameplay, not to mention the competitions on offer outside of the ubiquitous “Forzathon Live” events. As a corollary, the objective of injecting even more realism is met by the introduction of a shared interface that, after the initial foray, chucks the otherwise-competent “Drivatar” aIl in favor of 72 players online and in real time.
Certainly, Forza Horizon 4 is eye candy galore. Whether in 4K running at 30 frames per second (fps) or in 1080p at 60 fps on the Xbox One X, the visuals figure to wow even the most jaded of racing-game habitues. As an aside, the visceral experience is further jacked up on a dedicated Windows rig, available as a cross-play feature. On occasion, the heightened realism can prove too much of a good thing, as gamers wind up appreciating the lush surroundings at the expense of tasks at hand. The flipside, of course, is that they can while the time away just driving and marveling at the somehow fitting juxtaposition of the ultimate in natural and man-made designs.
In this regard, it helps that Forza Horizon 4 boasts of the pedigree that has placed the franchise on the cutting edge of simulators in the market. The physics are, simply put, excellent; interactions between vehicles and terrains are exactly as they should be, and the remarkable rendition of environs even at breakneck speed serves to add to the experience. And only in nitpicking can the seemingly frequent absence of pedestrians be deemed a negative.
Meanwhile, Forza Horizon 4’s soundtrack is exceedingly eclectic. It has everything for everybody. Out for a leisurely drive? Ready for a rip-roaring ride? No problem. Half a dozen radio stations are at players’ disposal, with all types of music available to match the mood at any given time — ideal complements to the aural energy emanating from the humming of horses underneath the hood.
In sum, Forza Horizon 4 represents a milestone for Microsoft, Playground, and, yes, even Turn 10. It’s precisely the kind of release that has users of the Xbox One platform feeling good about themselves, their not insignificant investment paying off in spades. It defines success as a journey and not a destination; it can be played in adrenaline-pumping haste or cool-hand casualness, with edge-of-seat immediacy or relaxing deliberation.
A hundred hours of immersive experience counts as an achievement for most titles. It’s merely the beginning for Forza Horizon 4.
Video Game Review
Forza Horizon 4
Xbox One/Xbox One X
• A glorious feast for the senses
• Abundant realism
• Open-world racing composed of up to 72 players online
• The best of the acclaimed Forza series yet
• Engine sounds could be better
• May be too easy for simulation diehards
• No long races to reward precision driving