When Microsoft first showed Forza Horizon 4, some of us were disappointed. Although Playground Games usually delivers great arcade racing, it nevertheless started to feel a bit too familiar when compared to the last game (or the one before). And while Britain is great in its own way, it's maybe not as striking a location as the French Riviera or Australia.
We really enjoyed Forza Horizon 3. Partly because of the incredibly entertaining driving it offered, as well as the massive gaming world that was filled with different activities and brought to life via brilliant graphics. It was a game that was difficult to put down even if it wasn't perfect in terms of the challenges it offered - it boasted fun driving and the whole thing was wrapped up with a pleasant presentation. The exact same things greeted us the first time we got started in Forza Horizon 4, for better and for worse.
The presentation in Forza Horizon 4 could not be better than this. Stylish menus with big clear icons and a smart narrative make for a super-slick introduction to the game. It's inviting, playful, and it fits the overall tone to perfection.
The concept and structure are almost exactly what we've come to expect from the series at this stage. There's a big car festival (Horizon Festival) surrounded by a cool subculture, colourful companions, and of course loads of exciting cars. We're welcomed to the British countryside and start out by choosing our first car, a Ford Focus RS, and then it's just a case of starting to take down the available activities. The Forza Horizon series really tries to push so many different types of rallies, races and challenges that it's almost a bit overwhelming to look at the map for the first time.
A new thing in Forza Horizon 4 is the revised multiplayer mode that allows for a better and more vibrant community. Directly integrated with the Xbox Group function, it is easier to gather up to five friends to race together in the mud. Otherwise, online works much as it did in the previous game with varied game modes for those who want to play for fun as well as the chance to take part in more competitive ranked races.
As soon as enough fans have been impressed you unlock a Showdown event (much like in previous titles), and while they are really well crafted it's hard to be as impressed the fourth time you're racing against a train at blistering speeds. They are spectacular though, particularly an event starring a certain masterful chief.
The big thing in Forza Horizon 4, which makes it feel like a real sequel and not just a Forza Horizon 3 expansion, is, of course, the dynamic seasons. Dynamic may be a bit too strong a word as they change on a predetermined day once a week. However, the game actually feels more alive than it has done before. You have to play about a whole in-game year before you unlock the seasons feature but, after that, you have no control over the time of year. For example, some competitions are only available in the autumn and if you don't do everything you have been thinking about during a particular week, you will have to wait until the next autumn, three weeks later.
A drawback for some perhaps, but it gives an unparalleled variation to the game world, even if you actually race in the same places - sometimes even the same stages - everything feels different when you're racing in winter conditions compared to when it's the spring. It's not just the environmental change that offers variation (although the ever-shifting colour palette is wonderful, ranging from grey mornings to beautifully lit autumnal forests), the driving changes as well. Naturally, it's hard to just zoom off in a Pagani Zonda R on a frozen lake without endlessly spinning the tires and sliding all over the place.
It's probably not a shock to anyone to hear that Forza Horizon 4 is pretty. At times it's so technically impressive that it's hard to work out how the loading times are kept to a minimum. The British countryside has never been depicted so beautifully - not ever. Not even in a romantic oil painting. The blossoming fields in the summer, the snowy mountains in the winter, and the muddy roads in spring are so incredibly well-made that they give the game an atmosphere that few other titles in the genre can hope to match. It's also nice that the PC version for this year's edition actually works straight out of the gate and we had no problems playing on our monster rig or Asus gaming laptop.
Unfortunately, we have some complaints about the sound, and they're similar to the issues we encountered when we played Forza Horizon 3. The radio stations play awful music and all the chatter from the festival people quickly gets tiresome. They really can't help but comment on the various Showdown events and add commentary to everything that's going on at the Festival, but it's not always welcome. We simply turned off the radio and enjoyed the engine audio and sounds of nature instead.
Forza Horizon 4 is a great game, though. It's genuinely fun, wonderfully beautiful, fast as hell, and well-stocked with both cars and content. And it all feels very familiar. Familiar to such an extent that we would like to see Microsoft and Playground Games rework the concept from the ground up and offer something brand new with the inevitable fifth instalment. On the other hand, we haven't endured a single dull moment as we've raced through the rural countryside, which says a lot about how good the actual racing is.