If you’ve ever played a Forza Horizon game, the core of Forza Horizon 4 is pleasantly familiar. Its most important aspects — its cars and locations — are as impressive as you would expect. FH4 refines the classic Horizon open-world gameplay and extends it across even more environments, taking you from muddy cross-country treks to snowy hills and frozen lakes.
Showcase races, which place you against showstopper competitors like planes and hovercraft, also return. Although these are fun displays featuring ingenious opponents, the showcases occupy an awkward middle ground between a setpiece spectacle and a race. Showcase races are focused on putting you and your opponent in the right positions for dramatic jump scenes and conflict points, which detracts from their stated role as a race. I have a game clip of myself trailing a Showcase opponent yet suddenly being switched to first place as a race ended. It’s a minor gripe, but that kind of switching makes Showcases feel somewhat dishonest — I believe the Showcases would have been better if they were purely a spectacle, rather than being a mixture of race and setpiece.
So far, I’ve spent about 12 hours on Forza Horizon 4, mostly in Road Races and Dirt Races. I’m level 25 and I’ve just finished the first main section of the game season.
FH4 offers a wide range of races as well as exploration challenges, stunts, and mini-campaigns. The stuntsperson-focused campaign is a welcome addition, which I felt deserved more attention from the game. With so many other events in focus, both major and minor, the campaign missions are buried amongst other icons.
Most sports and racing games rely on some variation of the “rags to riches” storyline, where an unknown fresh talent fights to join the big leagues. However, don’t try and interpret FH4 that way. If you try to read it as a straightforward extreme sports story, it will ring hollow. The attention, fame, social prestige, and rewards reserved for most games’ finales are handed to you at the start. There is no “rags” side and no recognition curve.
If you instead view FH4 as a Burnout Paradise-style infinite playground — a knowingly silly adventure that relies solely on the rule of cool — the game is even more enjoyable, and many of its logical flaws become irrelevant. Similarly to Burnout Paradise, FH4 makes almost every activity free to do at any moment, which allows maximum flexibility over what events and activities players want to take part in. No types of races are forced, and you will never be blocked from progressing.
However, in the balance between flexibility and structure, I would have preferred slightly more structure. Using this pick-and-mix approach, where every event may or may not ever be played and so no events are essential, can lead to individual events being treated somewhat carelessly. Getaway races and chase-scenes against a jet plane have the same gravitas as a random speed trap on a residential street. Winning a supercar on the lucky dip Wheelspin is accompanied by the same visual and audio display as winning a new hat.
FH4s modified levelling system is interesting, as it’s essential to the game’s pick-and-mix nature. In addition to your overall level, each possible activity has its own level. As you do more of each activity, the map expands with more difficult variants of that activity with greater payouts. The map offers you more of the events you like most, so you are never required to do activities you dislike in order to progress. You also receive items, Wheelspins, and activity-specific communication options when reaching higher levels of each ability.
While I liked how the ability system let me unlock more of the activities I prefer, sometimes the multiple levelling and progression systems seemed to be too much. During the first few hours, the continuous level-ups created situations where I felt like the levelling existed just for the sake of seeing numbers increase, rather than for any strong in-game reason. For example, after completing the first Danger Zone and Speed Trap Hero activities, I nearly reached level 3 on each. If doing the smallest possible unit of an activity nets me multiple levels in it, and I’m levelling up after nearly everything I do, to me that feels unbalanced.
Despite my long list of minor complaints, I am enjoying my time with FH4. I’m only able to be picky about these smaller aspects because the game delivers on its fundamental aims so well. Everything works as intended and looks amazing while doing so — the immense visual work put into FH4 is clear even on my 720p TV. Mechanically, FH4 has been put together with care and attention, as all aspects of actual driving work fluidly. I’ve had no mechanical issues, and I’ve only experienced occasional, minor lag or interruption during online play.
Overall, FH4 is an excellent game, tarnished only by its overabundance of levelling and novelties, and its rushed exposition. Almost every location and activity type are thrown at you in one burst, which leaves less room for gradual discovery. Yet after the prologue calms down, and the game trusts you to explore the countryside undisturbed, it offers up a sprawling adventure with near-RPG levels of longevity.