Platforms: Xbox One, PC (reviewed)

Did you know that Scotland is full of stone walls made of styrofoam blocks? Did you know that a ramp-launched sports car can fly hundreds of meters if you’re going fast enough? Did you know that you can race a jet in a Lamborghini… and WIN?

You will learn these and many more things in Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 4. FH4 transforms Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside into a gorgeous, endless high speed playground where you can indulge all your most absurd racing fantasies.

Players looking for a hardcore sim racing experience would do better with early access Assetto Corsa Competizione or even Gran Turismo Sport, but folks who want to go fast, look cool, and have a good time will love Forza Horizon 4. And it leaves its closest competitor, The Crew 2, in the dust. If you can only buy one open-world racing game this year, make it this one.

Graphics and Gameplay

Visually, Forza Horizon 4 dazzles at every turn. When reviewing racing games, I provide a generous amount of latitude for every graphical aspect that isn’t cars or tracks. FH4 requires no such leeway. The rolling hills of the Scottish highlands are rendered in stunning detail. Forget racing games, I rarely see any game look this good. If you can play this in 4K, do so. Specs note: I get fairly consistent performance with an i7-8700K, GTX 1080 Ti, and 16 GB of RAM. I do get the occasional slowdown and frame drop, but that’s probably down to my GPU only having a single reference blower. Folks with better-ventilated hardware will probably do much better.

The opening gameplay sequence looks good enough to be a cinematic (but surprise, it isn’t! Quick, pick up your controller and steer!) and takes you through all four seasons in both on- and off-road racing, giving you a little taste of what you’re going to spend the next several dozen hours doing.

Want to zip through the streets of Edinburgh, taking hard 90 degree turns in a Porsche that costs more than your house? You can. Want to slam your Range Rover through brick walls, sheep meadows, and small trees on your way to a dirt race? Done and done. Want to get terrorized by a hovercraft? You can, and it’s stupid and amazing simultaneously.

Underground street scene, road racing, dirt racing, and cross country racing are all well-represented. While FH4’s map is tiny compared to The Crew 2’s scale model of America, the condensed map size means that you’re never more than thirty seconds away from another race. And those thirty seconds are full of death defying passes around civilian cars, fence-destroying antics, and 200 mph straightaways that earn you driver XP (called influence points). You can’t fast travel directly to a race, and you don’t need to.

It’s all very accessible. This is the racing game you can buy for your car crazy 10-year old niece, your mechanic best friend, or your dad. FH4 doesn’t scold you about consistent lap times or force you watch a patronizing video about politeness in racing. It’s here to let you terrorize Scotland in an SUV.

Realism is not on the menu. You can turn on “simulation” levels of car damage, but I hit a house going 100 miles per hour and all I did was crack my windshield. You can damage your engine, crippling your acceleration, but doing so requires repeated, brutal abuse.

Stone walls and small trees fly apart like they’re virtually weightless. And you get a bonus for smashing through them. FH4 rewards you for near misses, sideswipes, trading paint, and what they call “landscaping” which is really just destroying the countryside with your car. It also rewards you for clean racing, but come on now, we both know which one you’re going to be doing more of.

FH4 also fixes one of the main problems in racing games, which is “I made one mistake and now I’m in last place.” The reverse system allows you to rewind time before your fatal mistake, and lets you redo the turn that destroyed your lead. It’s cheating, but it’s fun cheating, and it’s only enabled when you’re playing against the AI.

I found this sort of temporal manipulation to be a great learning tool. Rather than waiting for another lap to retry a tough turn, I can try it again immediately, and get it right this time. Also, when you combine FH4’s occasionally wonky physics engine with high velocity ramps, you’ll occasionally flip your car, or other cars will land on your car in a ridiculous and impossible automobile sandwich. The reverse system allows you to mitigate the frustration of Physics Jesus taking the wheel.

Also, the AI is a bit of a jerk. It’s happy to slam into you if it thinks it can gain an advantage from doing so or if it just feels like it. FH4 has a lot of features, but an AI that drives like it has a wife and kids at home is not one of them. Or maybe it has a wife and kids and it just hates them.

The Seasonal System

FH4 revolves around its seasonal system. During your first few hours in the game, you stay in each season as long as it takes you to level up and qualify for the next season. Get through all four seasons, and you qualify for the Horizon roster and you will enter the standard game, wherein seasons change every few days.

The seasons are visually dazzling, and the Scottish countryside changes accordingly. Also, new racing events open up, including multi-race championship events that give you extra rewards for podiuming against difficult drivers. I like that new events open up every few days. It creates urgency to play while keeping the game fresh.

However, winter eventually rolls around, and that means ice and snow all over the roads. And then you’re stuck there, waiting for the season to change. This one weird concession to realism annoys me. As beautiful as the snowy landscape is, I’d much prefer to race without ice under my tires. While the control is still lovely and the ice is well-simulated, sometimes I just want to go fast and not worry about inclement weather. I wish there was a “salt the roads” option that let you drive through a winter wonderland with well-plowed streets.

Progression

There are several progression systems hiding under the surface of FH4’s gameplay. Racing provides credits, which you can spend on cars and car upgrades. You also receive influence points (basically XP) for racing and engaging in crazy stunts while free driving, which levels up your character.

Leveling up lets you spin a wheel of fortune that provides free cars, huge amounts of credits, and outfits / dances for your avatar. It’s nifty but weird. “Hello good sir, would you like to take a spin on this wheel? You could get an Alfa Romeo, $200,000, or a t-shirt! Good luck!” It’s a lootbox system without the box or microtransaction.

Deactivating driving assists, using a manual transmission, and increasing your AI opponents’ skill provides a percentage bonus for credits. I turn most assists off, leave ABS on, set the AI difficulty to Highly Skilled, set my shifting to manual, and I get a cool 65 percent bonus to all my earnings.

I drove a pink anime-themed Lamborghini Urus off of a 10 story hill, flew hundreds of meters, and didn’t die. FH4 shouldn’t be mistaken for a serious sim racing game, but rewards those willing to treat it like one.

Upgrading your car’s performance is fast and fun. I transformed a ho-hum C-class 2015 Honda Civic into an S1-class rocket ship with about 30,000 credits worth of upgrades. My beloved S1 Lamborghini Huracan stepped up to S2-class and felt even better with a roll cage and some engine upgrades. You can also mess around with the nitty gritty technical details, but I avoided this for fear of screwing something up. Gearheads will find everything they need to go nuts though.

You can also level up your car with perks. A cheap car gets one perk tree while a high end sports car gets a slightly different tree. These trees mostly provide influence point bonuses.  There are a ton of systems in FH4, but you can easily ignore them all and just race.

Interface

FH4 makes some welcome interface improvements compared to its competitors. Gran Turismo Sport forces me to enter a tournament before telling me that I don’t have any cars that qualify for it, and then I need to back out of the tournament section, go back to the tournament level selection, go to Brand Central, remember what kind of car I need, choose a region, choose a car company, and then I can buy a car for the tournament.

If I stumble upon an event in FH4 that I don’t have a car for, it tells me right away, and lets me go to a menu that lists all the available, qualified cars. I buy one, I hop in, I race. This shouldn’t feel like a revelation, but after the awkward interface of GTS, it does.

That being said, there are still some flaws. If I set a destination in my GPS, then switch cars before reaching it, my GPS resets and I have to re-select the race I was headed towards. I’m sure someone at Playground thought this was a feature, but it definitely feels like a bug.

Also, if I start a race and realize I want to choose a different car, I have to quit the race, which leaves me on the side of the road wherever I was. Then I have to go back to the pause menu to have the new car delivered to me, and then I have to drive back to the start of the event to try again. Is the new car also not working for this event? You get to do this whole dance again! There’s really no reason for this. Just give me the option to restart the race with a new car.

Lastly, I can only buy upgrades for a car if I’m at home, or at the Horizon Festival site. Look, we’ve already dispensed with all pretense of realism. There’s a racing showcase where you turn into Master Chief and race a Warthog while being chased by Banshees. I can slam into an adorable Scottish cottage at 200 MPH and not die. Reality is already laying in tatters at my feet. Please let me install new rims while my car is parked on the beach. 

Control

In terms of control, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that playing on a pad feels terrific. I’ve never played a racing game that felt this good on two analog sticks. The Xbox One controller feels really lovely, even on PC. And that’s good, because that’s the only pad you’ll be able to use with it, since FH4 is only available on Xbox One or the Microsoft Store.

The bad news is that playing on a racing wheel is a nightmare. With a pad, I can crush a track and come in first every time. On the same track with my racing wheel, I come in dead last. It comes down to recovery. If I take a curve a little fast on a pad, it’s simple to correct. Try to do the same on a racing wheel and your front bumper will be making a high speed acquaintance with a Scottish old growth forest. It’s impossible to push the limits with a wheel, and that comes down to FH4’s software implementation.

Every other racing sim I own (Assetto Corsa Competizione, Gran Turismo Sport, F1 2018) provides a lovely plug-and-play experience with my wheel, whereas FH4 fails utterly. Don’t let all the advanced control settings in the game menu fool you; this game was never meant to be played on a wheel.

A quick dip into the sim racing and Forza subreddits reveals that this is a known issue in the series, and it’s a shame that Playground Games didn’t bother to correct it. Why create this gorgeous, immersive world, and make it impossible for us to experience it using the peripherals that represent it most accurately?

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a total racing wheel snob. But I am willing to play FH4 on a pad and it may replace my favorite racing wheel-enabled games. It’s that good. That being said, if they patch this (and they should), I’m switching back to wheels immediately.