There's a little less than a month to go until Microsoft Studios and Playground Games release Forza Horizon 4, the latest and biggest iteration yet in the wildly-popular and just plain wild series of open-world racing games. On October 2, virtual racers around the world will start tearing across the game's bucolic slice of British countryside—but we were lucky enough to play through the first hour of the game at a hush-hush event last Friday.
Spoiler alert: Forza fans have nothing to fear from the changes ahead. This game is a goddamn riot. Check out the video above for some direct-capture gameplay footage, and read on to learn our first hands-on impressions.
Forza Horizon 4: Change the Season, Change the Course
Microsoft has pretty much stuck with the same basic recipe for every Forza Horizon entry, setting the player loose in a vast environment with an equally-vast array of cars to enjoy. The game's "Horizon Festival" heads to the U.K. in the fourth version and provides the backbone for a more robust career mode, but this time your character is no longer tasked with running the show. It's back to driving fast and climbing the ladder from the ground up.
There are some other fundamental changes, though, with the biggest being the addition of four-season weather. You've seen it in the trailer by now, and the first time you boot up the game, you're immediately plunged into a demo race that takes you through an entire year's worth of sun, snow, and everything in between. Note: real British weather is a bit more boring than this.
You start out in autumn behind the wheel of a McLaren Senna (as promised), duking it out with an Aston Martin Vulcan, a Lamborghini Centenario, and a Ferrari LaFerrari; the game then puts you through a snowy trophy truck race that crosses several frozen lakes, a muddy rallycross stage in a Ford Fiesta to celebrate the coming of spring, then back into the Senna under the blazing summer sun as you (hopefully) cross the finish line at the center of the festival in first place.
Those are all very different vehicles, but it was still possible to feel how the seasonal changes will affect their in-game handling. Forza Horizon 4 doesn't do much to alter the series' trademark blend of arcade- and simulation-style driving, but the differences in traction between the seasons (and between day and night temperatures) will add a new wrinkle to the proceedings—especially when you leave the pavement, as the game encourages you to do with regularity. The countless roadside bushes and stone walls aren't nearly as sold as they look.
Career mode begins in the summer, and after a few wins you'll find yourself moving on to the fall season. Fall is mostly a visual change from summer (reflected in thoughtful touches like crops changing and the sheep growing thicker wool as winter approaches), though we imagine the game's popular photo mode will get used a lot at this time of the year. We didn't get to experience Winter or Spring outside of the initial race.
The developers say that each season will last one week in real time for online players, and everyone playing around the world will be experiencing the same conditions together. That might get annoying if you discover you really hate driving in the game's version of winter, for example, but as-yet-unannounced options like multiple season servers could mitigate that issue.
At the Wheel in Forza Horizon 4
The previous Forza Horizon really made driving literally anywhere on the map a huge part of the experience, and the fourth installment ups the ante with a hilly, topographically-interesting countryside to explore. There are small British villages to roar through like a conquering king, decent-sized mountains to climb, and small hillocks around every bend that transform into a serviceable jump at the right (high) speed. The map is centered around a semi-faithful recreation of Edinburgh, Scotland. Horizon 3 was criticized for its somewhat monotonous terrain. That's definitely not the case here.
This being a demo build, we didn't have the experience of ripping around with other players, stumbling onto barn finds, or finding all the hidden secrets, but the game does a good job of pushing you to explore by spreading out your challenges and objectives. Before you get to that, though, you're tasked with customizing your avatar and picking out your first ride. We chose the vintage Dodge Charger R/T, because we wanted to bring a little American spirit to the sleepy English surroundings.
The career mode features the typical mix of on- and off-road races, "unsanctioned" street battles, big showcase events like racing a giant hovercraft in a trophy truck (yes, really), smaller challenges, and a new Stunt Driver mode has you try your hand a being a movie stuntman. The very first shoot is a race between you in a Bugatti Chiron against a villain in a fighter jet, culminating in a thousand-foot jump for the $3 million hypercar.
The driving mechanics feel as rock solid as ever through the first few races—if you think it's too cartoonish, just try turning off all the assists—and the car models are noticeably crisper this time around. Everything we drove, from the Senna to the Charger to a 1995 Audi RS2 Avant, was rendered in the same obsessive detail, and any racing game that offers fully-detailed cockpit views for its entire lineup gets a gold star in our book (looking at you, Gran Turismo).
The same can't be said for the humanoid avatars themselves, some building textures, and a few other subpar visual moments where the game belies its focus on the cars. But chances are you'll be driving too fast to get hung up on that. Instead, you'll be thankful that the in-race rewind feature has also returned to correct your more egregious mistakes.
One key difference in Forza Horizon 4 is the addition of player houses, which can be bought and used to store cars and manage your character's appearance. The first one is gifted to you by the departing film crew from the Chiron shoot in a highly realistic scenario. Microsoft says that money-generating business will also available for purchase, giving the whole thing a vague Grand Theft Auto Online vibe.
Forza Horizon 4 Plays the Hits, And That's Totally Fine With Us
The game promises a whole bunch of new online features and content, but again, the development build we sampled wasn't hooked up to a real server. But that limited setup actually showcases another important point: it can be played totally offline in today's always-on age. Honestly, you could lose days pouring over the in-depth tuning system for each of the game's 450 cars alone, mixing and matching parts and setups to make your wildest dreams come true.
But then you'd miss out on all the driving, and you mustn't do that. That's when Forza Horizon 4 is at its best—when you're drifting wheel-to-wheel in a McLaren Senna, when you're hucking a Ford Escort Cosworth down the very roads it was made for, when you're flying cross country in a lifted Range Rover Sport. No other racing game can deliver these kinds of moments right now in such a polished package, which is one of the strongest arguments the series has going for it.
We'll have to see if the seasons aspect and all the extra online features make a real difference for regular players, but moving the game to the lush hills of Britain and giving it the largest car roster ever is reason enough to check it out. And as our hands-on time with the game confirms, it's still the same orgiastic explosion of automotive enthusiasm we've come to know and love.