Bundle Up This Winter In A Virtual Great Britain With Forza Horizon 4
Photography by Alex Sobran
As soon as Halloween ends, retailers will ditch the pumpkin spice theme and start trotting out Santa Claus decorations layered in candy cane colors, asking us to accept their hurried rush toward the next shopping season as a normal way to perceive time. Living somewhere where winter’s weather eats cars alive, it’s frankly depressing to see fake Christmas tree displays in storefront windows while the last of the orange leaves have yet to let go of their branches outside. Our cars might go into the garage to avoid the salt-laden slush that comes with winter driving, but lucky for us there’s a way to indulge in the traction-less fun of snowy roads without paying reality’s corrosion tax.
Forza Horizon 4 is a racing game recently released for the Xbox One and PCs running Windows 10, but if you’re looking for a simulation experience you won’t find it here. It’s hard to really call it a racing game for that matter, as that’s just one part of the experience that is Forza’s take on Great Britain as a playground.
If you know the Horizon series, the fourth iteration updates and adds to the existing formula, applies it to a new world to explore, and that’s basically that—but if you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about the gist is this: there’s a fictitious car festival that’s come to Great Britain, and with it comes circuit racing, sprints, rally stages, off-roading routes, jumps, drift zones, drag races down airstrips, and hundreds of vehicles to collect and tune and modify. You can put a quad-rotor in an RX-7, jack it up on studded tires, put an extra differential in it (realism is not the point), and launch your 700-plus-horsepower hell spawn through blankets of powder or slide it through intersections in Edinburgh. Below we’ll break this massive game down into its component parts: the world, the cars, and the customization.
The World: Consolidating Great Britain
As in the first three installments in the Horizon series, the sandbox to play in is based on a real place, but the developers have taken a few liberties in the process of converting a sprawling country into a Greatest Hits-type zone of fiction, with recognizable locales and landmarks peppered in and reimagined. The map is fully drivable—from slicing a fresh line through open fields to hopping dunes at the beach or waking up sleepy villages in between—and I find myself aimlessly exploring the lush world more than completing the race events contained within it. The jumps you can drive away from are ludicrously unrealistic, you can drive through stone walls with hypercars and come away unscathed, but again, if you wanted a full sim you wouldn’t be playing this game—when you’re looking for one of the multiple barn finds hidden in here, it helps to knock over a few fences without needing a new radiator support each time.
Besides the new space to play in, the most significant change to the Horizon environment is the rolling time progression between the four seasons. Turn the game on one week and it’s summertime, the roads are dry, the fields are deep green, the sun shines. Take a break for a few days and it might be winter by the time you jump back in, the whole place blanketed in white, it’s slick on the roads and thick when you leave them; time for snow tires on your F40, if not a ripe opportunity to get into a Dakar-spec 959. The game has an internal clock that doesn’t stop when you do, and each season offers a distinct driving experience that keeps things feeling fresh even after you’ve sunk many hours into it. This highly dynamic world is more immersive than you might expect, and after only a short time playing I’d already earmarked certain builds for certain seasons.
There are beaches to play on, mountains to climb and jump off of, cozy cottages on Derwent Water to powerslide past, lakes that freeze over and thaw out with the seasons, grids of city streets in Edinburgh to play traffic-slalom on, long stretches of motorway to give you your Koenigsegg kicks, switchback-laden trails covered in dirt and mud and snow, and a car (or raid rig, or dune buggy, etc.) for every occasion. There are also houses to find and purchase throughout the map, but even buying a castle or two won’t be enough space to park everything you can drive in this game.
The Cars: Yes, They Probably Have It
You can drive the Porsche 917/20 “Pink Pig” or you can climb up into a Ford Raptor—whatever discipline of driving calls to you, there’s likely a four-wheeled something or other that’s perfect for it in the latest Forza. There are more than 450 to choose from right now, and through additional car packs in the months to come the number will continue to grow. Cars are acquired either through the game just giving them to you, winning them from completing races and other challenges, or through earning in-game credits that you can spend to expand your garage.
The diversity of what’s offered—Mini Coopers to McLaren Sennas, a Myers Manx or an Auto Union Type D—all but requires a classification system to keep things organized, but rather than basing the groups on the vehicle’s horsepower and roadholding abilities like most games, they’ve opted to separate them into certain classes based on type: for instance, there are rally heroes that include the Stratos and S4 Lancias, retro supercars that count the 911 GT1 and CLK-GTR among their numbers, hot hatches from every era, etc. To list the lot here would be tedious and overwhelming. Car shopping in this game would be a good litmus test of one’s degree of choice anxiety.
Because of the vast number to choose from, you might expect that many of them would feel quite similar on the road, but that’s really not the case, or at least not any more so than it is in real life. Each car that I’ve driven—about 100 at the time of writing—feels like its own entity, and though the laws of physics don’t apply to what’s happening on your monitor in this game, the cars still somehow feel like cars; they’ve got proper weight to them, they move and slide and skip around and respond to changes in tire pressure.
You can drive a hypercar on a snowy road, but it won’t feel nearly as planted as something more suited to the conditions. In that sense, the handling and feel of the vehicles in this game is just realistic enough that you can feel proud of yourself for pulling off a stylish wintry rear-wheel drive slide with the traction control off. The best part is that you can tweak the cars and the driver assists to your preferences. Customization has been the backbone of Forza’s success (Motorsport and Horizon titles alike) since the beginning.
The Customization: To The Cars, And How You Use Them
If you’re familiar with past titles in the Horizon series, the car customization is largely the same, with a few new wide body kits and such added in this title. New for Horizon 4 is the option to widen the front and rear track on select cars, but that’s not a groundbreaking update. The thing is though, there doesn’t need to be one. The way things have been is pretty good as-is: you can bring a car into the upgrade shop and do everything from removing weight and adding roll
cages, to putting in cams and boring out the engine, swapping in new powertrains, adding turbos and superchargers, tweaking the chassis with suspension, brakes, sway bars, etc., and selecting from hundreds of wheel designs to wrap in all kinds of rubber from drag radials to slicks.
After you’ve decided on the ideal build parts-wise, you can then tweak the settings in the tuning menu, where almost anything is up for changing: downforce adjustments, camber angles, bump and rebound rates, at what degree of difference between the wheels the differential will lock, braking bias and pressure, and so on and so forth. The changes made in this menu can refine or drastically alter the way the cars perform, and there are many hours to be spent adjusting the sliders back and forth to find the perfect setup for your build should you be so inclined.
If you’re not interested in spring rates, the visual elements are also pretty much up to you to decide. Many cars have optional aero kits, you can adjust ride height and how the wheels fill the arches, and then there is an almost limitless amount of paintwork to be done. I’ve seen people recreate near-photorealistic scenes on these virtual hoods and panels, and almost all of these community-created liveries are available to download to your own car for no charge (in game cash or otherwise).
Besides what you can do to the cars, the ways in which you can play this game are very much left to your discretion. Turn on brake assist and traction control and stability aids and an automatic transmission to turn it into an arcade experience, or turn everything off and shift your own gears with a button dedicated to the clutch. You can progress through the game by doing all the race events in it, or just goof around with your friends online in free roam. There’s no one right way to play, and though it’s certainly not a game focused on recreating real life, this aspect actually brings it far closer to achieving such a thing: a simulation racer can’t even come close to the way Forza Horizon encompasses the multiple ways in which we call ourselves car enthusiasts.