If Georges Bizet had gotten inside a Subaru Impreza WRX STI and thundered it along a muddy woodland track, it’s safe to say we would never have gotten Carmen. So rearranged would his atoms be, so swift the inspiriting of his being, he could scarcely bring himself to sit still at a desk, let alone compose the steady swell of the Habanera. And yet, the two find such loving harmony in Forza Horizon 4 – the aria of your engine layered over the score – you wonder how they ever lived apart.
The same could be said of the culture crunch at the heart of the game. The Day-Glo American enthusiasms of the Horizon festival, its banners a blush of hot pink and tangerine, will surely be doused by the peaty air and pursed lips of the British? Not so. In fact, given that developer Playground Games is based in leafy Leamington Spa, the question isn’t ‘why Britain?’; it’s ‘what took you so long?’ Where, then, does this American essence come from? Could it be that the series began with its head in the clouds, in Colorado? Or maybe it’s the drawl of the DJs on Horizon Radio? Then, seconds after starting, it hits you: the Horizon games are defined by dollops of American hospitality. They kill you with kindness.
There are no tests to take, no licences to earn; you just drive. You fly through the four seasons in an interactive trailer-cum-tutorial – which consists of little more than telling you the buttons for accelerate, brake, and handbrake. When you’ve got the hang of that, you’re deposited at the festival site, and what’s the first thing they have you doing? You enter a race. Playground Games knows what you want, and isn’t demure with delivering the goods. As all foreplay is summarily skipped, you can feel Kazunori Yamauchi shudder.
What’s more is that seemingly every action you perform is met with a crush of rising numbers. There are your credits, with which you buy cars, clothes, and houses. There’s your ‘influence’ points, which grant you access to further events and increase your standing in the festival – social media, in other words, but mercifully without the whinge and cringe of The Crew 2. And then there is the sugary uptick of miscellaneous points that fire off at every drift, every near miss, every glorious cliché of cars and cool. ‘Come hither,’ the game seems to entreat, ‘you won the moment you got behind the wheel!’
After finishing sixth in one race, I was gifted a tranche of influence points, cash, and compliments, courtesy of the festival organisers. It was an odd feeling, somewhere between having your coffee topped up just as you’re flagging and being given a participation trophy. Elsewhere, its flattery can flatten you: after moving heaven and earth to pinch a race by a hairpin’s breadth, a message popped up informing me that I’m ‘winning easily’ – a nice thing to say, but not true – and would I like to up the difficulty? Certainly not. I’d discovered my sweet spot, and I urge you to forego Forza’s flirtatious prompts and discover your own own.
When you do, you’ll find it furnished with a driving engine that, once again, rushes to embrace the foolhardy and frivolous. Each cross-lane dart that crumples an opposing fender, each heeling handbrake drift that broaches you, like a boat, round a bend: the gavel that fusty Forza Motorsport would bring down upon your head remains forever aloft. Is it lazy or laissez-faire? Let’s settle on lenient. The Horizon Festival is one that ensures its carbon dioxide emissions are met with at least equal effusions of fun.
And quite right, too; it’s the least they could do for casting the cough and splutter of fumes over our fair land, which has never looked fairer than it does in Forza Horizon 4. Staring out my office window, I yearn to escape to the Britain that hums in my Xbox One: a sunny land of leave-quilted fields, folded like a damp patchwork and decked with dry stone walls. Supposedly, it lurks somewhere outside the grey coil of the M25 – a place called Edinburgh, apparently, but I'm skeptical of its existence.
In this loose take on Scotland, Playground has stayed true to its name and strewn the place with amusements. The Forza Showcase events make a wondrous return and, having seen your fair share of automobiles, you’re squared off against planes and trains instead. Racing the Flying Scotsman while Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King beats time is a highlight. But the pick of the bunch is a rousing reveille to Halo. Banshees scream through the sky above; Falcons brush the top of your Warthog; and Cortana chirps in your ear. ‘This cave is not a natural formation,’ she remarks, as you bullet through a tunnel.
Cross Country, Dirt Racing, Street Scene, Road Racing, Speed Traps, Danger Signs, Drift Zones, and Drag Strips: all are variations on the delirium of driving fast, each demanding a revision to your skills, be it drifting, tight cornering, or sheer speed. Then, there are the Stunt Driver missions, which have you performing set piece manoeuvres for a film crew. While these all freshen the appetite, I found myself in need of slow country drives to break the feel of racing, which pervades all modes.
Further seasoning comes by way of the calendar, and as winter blankets the roads in white, or spring splashes the tarmac with rain, your tyres react and so do your tactics. Outside of performance, the shifting colour palette keeps your eyes from growing weary while you hunt down the barn finds and beauty spots. The former give you a chance to purloin a rare wreck and restore it to winning form; the latter are a series of photo ops that show off the landscape, but, unfortunately, they also expose the avatars to direct sunlight.
It’s when your character steps outside their car that Playground bears its achilles, and one shared by many a racing game developer: humans. The characters look and move as if they were crash test dummies cursed with souls, and seeing them jig on the podium is a sad sight. The vacant grins and glassy eyes: these faces are not, as Cortana might say, a natural formation. The added impetus to drape these poor things in trendy garb – glittering tracksuits, flat caps, and fluorescent blazers – made me feel like a lonely dollmaker.
Fortunately, when it comes to creatures of the four-wheeled variety, Forza Horizon 4 is adept. Its roster is rich in daydreams; where else would you find a 1932 Ford De Luxe Five-Window Coupe rubbing bumpers with a 1980 FIAT 124 Sport Spider, or a 2012 Aston Martin Vanquish? I spent so much time in Forzavista mode, where you preen over your collection, admiring everything from the grain of the dashboard to the gleam of the grill, that I felt guilty. Why was I not out there driving these things?
All of a sudden, I realised what I was doing wasn’t a dalliance; it was the game’s heart and soul. It's as much about driving as it is about playing with toy cars. And as much as I relish the race days, it’s my time spent idling along country roads that stirs me. It reminds me of Toad from The Wind in the Willows, who, 110 years ago, summed up Forza’s joys perfectly. ‘The poetry of motion!’ he said. ‘Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped – always somebody else’s horizon!’
Developer: Playground Games, Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: 2 October, 2018
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