Forza Horizon 4 might be the loudest chill out game I’ve ever played. In the eleventh overall entry in the Forza universe, Playground and Microsoft Games have created an exaggerated facsimile of the English countryside and handed you the keys to over 450 (and growing) motor vehicles. Their efforts yield a breathtaking racing experience I’d compare favorably to inarguable classics of the genre.
Ye Grande Turismo
The greater Forza franchise offers two distinct flavors of serious motor sim. In Motorsport, you take true-to-life racing cars and tune them within an inch of their piston-pumping lives to conquer true-to-life racing tracks across the world. This Forza flavor feels a lot like the good old days of PS2-era Gran Turismo entries.
The second flavor, offered by Forza Horizon, opens up a similar formula to a much wider, less simulation-obsessed audience. Where Motorsport offers velvet ropes, Horizon offers painterly skies and sprawling fields.
The finely-tuned track action expands into an open world akin to Burnout Paradise—minus (most) of the vehicular carnage. Between the two styles of Forza, I personally gravitate toward Horizon. I gravitate toward this year’s entry in particular, thanks to the television show The Great British Bake Off.
Each episode, GBBO contestants flock to a tent on a pure, green English hillside to bake their floured fingers off, all while being effortlessly charming and polite to one another. It’s perfect. I watch it before bed, though there’s no bad time to watch The Great British Bake Off.
There’s a very similar of attitude of enthusiasm, positivity, and trust between my favorite British bedtime series and Forza Horizon 4. And it’s not just the quaint English-ness of it all. You see, Horizon isn’t only the name of the game. It’s the name of the fictitious festival thrown by in-world Forza bigwigs every year as a celebration racing culture. Organizers walk your avatar through different types of events, cars, housing options, hidden treasures on the map, and more.
There’s such an easy cheeriness to the festivities that it pulled me out of the hyper-competitiveness I usually feel in racing games. It allowed me to focus on the emotionality of the cars I selected. I’m no real-world gearhead, but Horizon made me feel like I was behind the wheel in a very real way. The tactile feedback via Xbox One controller rumble simulates multiple levels of automotive shake, rattle, and roll. Every sound conveys a location: pebbles on farmland hit the undercarriage, echos boom inside each tunnel, snow crackles as it melts under tires. It’s a truly transportive achievement.
The Horizon organizers made me feel welcome. I never felt like I didn’t belong at the festival. That’s what I mean by trust. These AI avatar, with wonderful regional English accents believe both in what they’re doing and my part in it.
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
“What is Forza Horizon 4 like, though?” I hear you asking. “It made you feel a lot of good things, but what’s the loop?”
As in previous Horizon games, your player character gets a starter car and explores an open area with total freedom, You discover races and events on the map. You’ll earn credits (cash) and influence (experience points). And you need both to access cooler cars and bigger events.
It’s a satisfying loop. Event types are different enough that you can always switch it up if you get tired of the standard track race. What helps with variety is this year’s emphasis on changing seasons. While not a revolutionary feature on its face, the execution of changing seasons in Forza Horizon 4 is astonishing. The developers know it, too. Changing seasons are the very first thing the game presents to the player, even before you start your first official race.
Horizon 4‘s prelude shifts you between the tactile differences between seasons in real-time. Race enough in the summer and you’ll move to autumn. From autumn, to winter. And so forth. The transformation of the English countryside isn’t just aesthetic. It’s absolute. Events change; sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. The type of tuning or car you bring to certain races may need to change depending on the current weather.
I’m particularly partial to autumn and winter. I drove a street race in the sprinkling rain with dense, layered clouds hovering over a lake. I spent way too much time in fictionalized Edinburgh in the winter, squeezing past snowplows in a rally car. Living in Los Angeles, where the only season is oppressive sunshine. Forza Horizon 4’s complete celebration of changing climate makes my heart grow two sizes too big.
Once you make it through every season (hours of content by that point), you’ll make it to the “main” area of the game. Here the seasons change with every real-world week for every Horizon player. New events cycle through, new challenges appear and challenges change with the seasons— the developers at Playground took a lot of welcome cues from games-as-a-service like Destiny 2.
They want this to be a “hobby game” you revisit each week. They mostly succeed.
How Deep Is Your Love
I do plan to revisit the game for an hour or two every week, after my 40-ish review hours. Playground is betting I’ll want to see what changes each time I boot up. It’s a bet that’s likely to pay off.
There’s a ridiculous amount of shifting content in this game. Each car has its own specific skill tree. Some have more perks than others. You earn skill points in exchange for in-car “chain points.” So the rewards for pulling off a sick drift, while busting through someone’s chicken wire fence, and squeezing past your opponents without hitting them, add up.
Then there are the different event types. The “off-festival” street races pit you against souped up turbo cars with colored smoke lighting your path. Stunt events, where a totally put-upon production crew sets up increasingly bizarre (and fun) courses for an upcoming action film.
Each style of action is broken up into levels. Each level has multiple races. I’m very partial to cross country, where you select an all-wheel-drive vehicle and rumble your way through unpaved land. It’s a game of speed as much as maintaining control while you barrel through stone barricades and hay pastures. It’s a smooth string of chaos and bliss.
Showcases are special events pitting you against giant hovercrafts or the famous train, The Flying Scotsman. These are fun but relatively forgettable set pieces, despite their scope. The worst offender is a Halo-themed race where you drive a Warthog to safety through some very Halo-y detritus. It’s fun fan service, but feels like being asked to get out of my cozy bed to make someone a sandwich. It puts a sharp spike in middle of my cozy car trance.
Other problems arise when you try to sort through all these disparate elements. Forza Horizon 4 has an organization of information problem. There are so, so many menus. Even after dozens of hours played, I still forget about the sub-menu needed to change the color of my car. Also, in a game so invested in my freedom, I still have to go to designated areas to upgrade my car. I can have any car in my garage delivered to me (after a lengthy load). Why can’t I purchase and install upgrades the same way?
I have another minor gripe about the minutia I used to love in, say, Gran Turismo. That series always told me why I was upgrading my cars: to raise them up to the level of my competition. I knew why I needed to tune my car in certain ways, too. This information was always clearly delivered to me. In Forza Horizon 4, I’m not sure my micro-tuning is ever necessary. I don’t even know why I shouldn’t just upgrade every car to S2 or X-class (if possible) as soon as possible. These are ultimately small things, but they stand out in a game that does so much else so well.
My complaints with Forza Horizon 4 are few and far between. There isn’t a single racing game play-style unaccounted for in this world. Events focused on speed, control, mayhem, and novelty fill the game’s sizable map. For each race there’s a car. For each car there’s a fully customizable appearance. For each fully customizable appearance there’s a tuning setup.
Despite being so focused on the uncontrollable nature of seasons, Forza Horizon 4 gives players an enormous variety of HUD options, difficulty settings, and personal touches to command directly.
Finally, this game is profoundly beautiful. Even on a launch Xbox One, with a 1080p TV, this one is a stunner. It’s appropriately even better in 4K with an Xbox One X. Visuals don’t usually play a big, conscious role in my enjoyment of games. what a delicious cherry on top of such a righteous sundae. Horizon captures the bundled up cheer of winter and the soporific drizzles of spring with crystal clarity. It looks as cheerful as it purports to be.
The seasons may change—even in Horizon 4—but the quality found in the Forza series remains steadfast. Playground has done an excellent job in this year’s open-world entry, creating a memorable experience I’ll return to many times. At least until the studio inevitably offers another brilliant sandbox to motor through.