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Wot I Think: Forza Horizon 4

Cars served with some light seasoning

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Mostly, I play the more hardcore racing sims. I want to be reminded of my time on real tracks, driving real cars. I want to work on my skills. I want to watch my replay and analyze mistakes and correct my technique. Taking it all a little too seriously is part of the fun for me.

However, sometimes I’m bloody tired. I’m tired from managing a four-year-old nonprofit organization, a three-year-old human, and a one-month-old human. It’s a lot of work taking things Seriously®, and after a long day in which a dozen adults have asked me a dozen difficult questions and one tiny person has asked me “why” about eight million times, I just want to play a videogame while drinking a ginger beer. The energy just isn’t there to try to shave two-tenths off my lap times in iRacing, but sometimes the desire to drive is. That’s where Horza Forizon 4 comes in.

It’s a driving game, based on real driving dynamics, but it’s not punishing. It rewards some real skill, but it allows itself to be arcadey enough to remain approachable. This game isn’t going to bother simulating tyre wear or brake temperature; it’s just going to assume that your car is working as intended, that tyres are the toughest objects in the known universe, and that there’s absolutely no reason not to drift continuously for five miles (and why wouldn’t you, when Forza Horizon 4’s graphics performance is so wonderful?).

Moreover, there are never any real stakes; if you screw something up you can either just hit Y to rewind a bit or just try the event again. Progression is based on your influence rating, which goes up for competing in events (which are infinitely repeatable), hooning around the beautifully rendered British countryside, smashing hidden signs, racing random drivers you encounter on the road, and a million other things. Basically anything remotely interesting you do in this game will raise your influence. On the flip side, nothing brings it down. You don’t have to worry about a bad race screwing over your championship chances. If you had a bad race you still get some points and some cash (CR, in Forzaland), and if you have a good race you get a lot.

The events themselves are short and sweet. You’re not going to get the sinking feeling of botching a single turn and rendering the last 35 minutes a waste because the races are just a handful of laps or a single short sprint. They reward aggressive passes and don’t punish a bit of contact. Avoiding contact is still a good idea as you risk a spin out, of course, and you’ll get a “Clean Racing” bonus if you keep your wing mirrors to yourself. Sometimes, however, the game gets a bit confused and gives that bonus even if you’re drifting a McLaren through a hedge about 12 feet off the track. “Clean” is clearly a relative term.

There’s good variety in the planned activities that you can spend your time on. There are the expected road races, but also dirt races in rally cars that feel like a delightful midway point between a stage rally and rallycross. There are overland races that are stage rallies designed by maniacs with amazing insurance, and street races in which you have to race a diverse field of cars while dodging incoming traffic. There’s also crazy danger sign events in which you try to jump as far as possible, and showcase events where you have to take on Top Gear style challenges.

While the events don’t change much, you do have some control over them. What car will you drive, and which season will you drive it in? Each course feels very different with snow or rain on the ground, and you might want to bring a Ford Focus RS in the winter to a course that better rewards a McLaren P1 in the summer. This new seasonal aspect of Horizon really does add a lot and it keeps the game feeling fresh as you progress.

Once you’ve picked a few favorite cars (your opponents are chosen based on the estimated speed of whatever you’re driving), you’ll no doubt start thinking something along the lines of “I love driving the Alfa Romeo 4C, but it could use a bit more straight line speed and it doesn’t recover from oversteer very well.” So you pilot it back to the Horizon Festival HQ and start tuning. The options are comprehensive, have noticeable but not over-dramatic effects, and let you turn the car you already like for personal reasons into a serious beast in a race; just don’t be the guy who upgrades the engine without touching the suspension, aero, or tires or you’ll turn your favorite car into a device that exists primarily to skid into walls. Then, because this game values fun over realism: you can do something utterly unfeasible, like miraculously cramming a racing I6 and an AWD system into that Alfa 4C’s body.

So after I got my Alfa set up the way I wanted it (no AWD or engine swap, but a ton of racing upgrades), I took it to the races and it kicked ass. Then I just started driving and occasionally racing other people I encountered and stayed up MUCH too late. It was fun and relaxing and not too difficult to just enjoy tearing through the game world’s highways at 170 mph. That’s the real beauty of this game and its format: you can do whatever feels good in the moment, even if that’s just indulging in the fantasy of having a badass car in a world with no laws and no consequences. Forza Horizon 4 is quickly turning into one of my favorite racing games. For me, it’s up there with iRacing, but for totally different reasons.

Forza Horizon 4 is out on the Windows 10 store on October 2nd.

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Stirling Matheson

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