Forza Horizon 4 Review: Microsoft's crowning achievement of this generation

Playground Games has delivered an experience that blows the doors off other open-world games, all while offering amazing visuals and unmatched ease of access.

Photo Credit to /u/chibitacos101

Over the last five years, Sony has managed to hold a firm lead on the home console market thanks to a lower initial price at launch and some goodwill earned at the expensive of Microsoft’s bungling of the Xbox One announcement. Sony has also had a stranglehold on tentpole exclusive game releases, including God of War, Uncharted 4, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. Microsoft never managed to offer a killer app for its Xbox ecosystem and eventually opened its games up to the PC market in an attempt to grow its player base. Finally, after a half a decade into this console generation, Microsoft has its showstopper. Forza Horizon 4 manages to do nearly everything at a level that meets or exceeds all of its direct (and indirect) competition. It is an open-world masterpiece overflowing with content that avoids the usual tropes of the genre all while working under the constraints of being a racing game.

Take a spin through the old country

Forza Horizon 4 follows the formula laid out by its wonderful predecessor, dropping players into an open world full of events tied into a racing festival. The action takes place in an incredibly loose representation of the United Kingdom that corrects the few shortcomings of Horizon 3’s Australian map while managing to offer more than twice the amount of content. The landscape is full of open straights, narrows hairpins, and exciting elevation changes that provide the perfect variety of driving challenges for the game’s impressive collection of vehicles. While there are a few points on the map with bespoke ramps made for catching air, the landscape is loaded with opportunities to send your car hurtling towards low orbit. Older fans of the San Francisco Rush games will shriek with delight at some of the massive jumps that are possible across the old English countryside.

Out of the box, Forza Horizon 4 offers more than 400 cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, and buggies that can be used to race through and explore the world. Each of these vehicles is painstakingly detailed and are dead ringers for their real-life counterparts. All vehicles can also be modified or upgraded whenever you desire and the game has no restrictions on the amount of them you can acquire and store. In their stock configurations, each one feels unique and offers a different way to enjoy the races and events in the game. While the game leans towards the arcade driving side of things, you have the option of disabling various driving assists that help push the needle towards a more simulation-like experience. The underlying physics simulation is the perfect mix of realism and fun at the default settings, allowing players to drift between paved, gravel, iced, and muddy surfaces without having to dedicate hours of practice to become proficient at each. Assist adjustments and damage simulations can be tweaked to make tackling these surfaces a legitimate challenge. Forza Horizon 4 permits both types of players to compete together in events and the open world without either feeling disadvantaged.

The skill point system from Forza Horizon allowed players to dump points from drifts, wrecks, jumps, and more into a passive skill tree. In Forza Horizon 4, each vehicle has its own unique skill tree, allowing even further customization. Some of the unlocked skills offer bonus points for various tricks or feats and really let you feel like your car is giving you an edge in game progression, without affecting the balance between you and other players. Horizon’s excellent paint and design system returns for the fourth installment, allowing you to paint and design the vehicle of your dreams. Importing designs from previous Forza games is incredibly easy and downloading designs from other players is perfectly integrated into the car buying and modification menus.

A bottomless treasure chest of racing action

The open world is littered with all types of races to participate in, including road circuits, dirt tracks, off-road sprints, and more. New for Horizon 4 are story mode events that offer ten scenarios that showcase the impressive car variety and location highlights. One of these event types puts you in the shoes of a movie crew stuntman and requires you to nail stunts across its ten chapters. Another has you buying and operating an exotic car rental service where you need to test the rentals prior to the customer taking delivery. Traditional Forza Horizon showcase events also return and all of them are upgrades over what was found in Horizon 3. Open world challenges like speed traps and drift zones also make a return. Thankfully, AI cars will now go transparent in drift zones, in addition to other quality-of-life improvements that alleviate some of the series’ biggest frustrations. Longtime fans of the series will be ecstatic to learn that AI drivers must now follow the same rules as player vehicles, with AI no longer being allowed to skip checkpoints without resetting their cars.

On their own, these races and events would make up a very compelling package that rivals what was offered in Forza Horizon 3, but the inclusion of the Seasons system takes things to a whole new level. Fall gives way to winter as some roads ice over, while others become flanked by large snowdrifts. Blizzard-like conditions completely change the way you approach and drive through the events, with Forza Horizon 4 seamlessly integrating its predecessors Blizzard Mountain Expansion into the open world, rather than its own self-contained experience. Ponds and lakes that were once inaccessible freeze over and allow for new events that weren’t possible. When winter gives way to spring, dirt roads become thick with mud and afternoon showers leave various puddles all over the surfaces of the roads and open world.

Horizon 4 picks up the suspension and traction improvements from Forza Motorsport 7, allowing you to feel every wet spot on the pavement and to rely on the Xbox One controllers excellent rumble trigger feedback to help keep you from spinning out of control. Summer arrives and drier roads allow the speeds to increase, again providing an entirely new driving experience over the same terrain. Fall rolls around and loads of amber leaves coat the pavement, while rolling fog obstructs sightlines during early-morning drives. The dynamic day/night cycle integrates perfectly with the seasonal changes to keep things fresh, even after more than a hundred hours of play.

Connecting car nuts with casuals

Once you work your way through the opening hours of Horizon 4’s lengthy prologue, you will be dropped into a shared online session with real players instead of the AI-controlled avatars from Horizon 3. All races and events can be played solo with AI, in cooperative teams, or full PvP, with the game automatically populating the event with drivers when you choose to begin. Initiating head-to-head races with other players is as easy as a button press, and the new d-pad communication system works as intended to let random players chat on the fly. Each time I participated in a Forzathon Live Event, seeing the screen showered with positive comments from the swarm of other drivers upon our completion of the challenges. It helped give gatherings prior to and after the Forzathon Events a feel akin to a real-life car meet, with each driver presenting their ride for exhibition.

Playing with friends or pubbies could not be any easier. Forza Horizon 4 represents the best system I’ve ever seen for connecting players to each other. I cannot think of any other game of any type that comes close. Even if you choose to play against AI, Horizon 4 will use drivatars based on the behavior patterns of your Xbox friends to operate the CPU-controlled drivers. It increases immersion and adds a lot to the fun. Random open world challenges and events always let you know how you are comparing to friends, or if you choose, to the world leaderboards. It is easy to find your friends’ lap times and see what cars and tuning’s they used to achieve their feats and the game allows you to download their tunes in a flash so you can get right into topping their times, drifts, or distances (in the case of jumps). Cross-play between the console and PC is utter perfection, with all events, modes, and features shared from the combined pools of players without a single hitch or indication that multiple platforms are involved.

The open-world cooperative experience has been expanded to include up to six players at once, allowing you and five friends to progress through the game with each other, just the same as if you went about it solo. Team adventures allow your crew to go into team-based competitive races, playground events, or a combination of both. Sharing cars between friends could not be any easier. Players who spend lots of time in the game can arrange races with some of the most expensive exotics without having to worry about leaving lower-leveled friends out of the action.

Forza Horizon 4 is better than any other game I’ve played when it comes to allowing players of all types to experience positive progression. Even if you have buddies who couldn’t win a race with a gun to their head, they can still earn money and influence by doing just about anything. Last place finishes still provide credits and progression and cooperative events allow even last place finishers to get the benefits of a team win. Simply driving through those lovely cobblestone walls while tearing across the countryside can help you progress through the game. All forms of open-world goofing off are rewarded with skill points, adding to the good times.

Even people who aren’t excited by the idea of driving games can find something to like in Forza Horizon 4. The previously mentioned car design system allows creative types to publish and share their works to all players and will earn reputation for each download. The in-game auction house allows creators to paint and sell one-of-a-kind designs that can fetch big time money, allowing them to continue buying more cars. Exploration of the world is encouraged by the inclusion or collectible boards hidden throughout the countryside. Searching for these boards feels as good as any collectible hunt in the best open-world games and rewards players with each one discovered.

A feast for the eyes

The visual presentation of Forza Horizon 4 is impressive at its worst and breathtaking at its best. The representation of the micro-UK is a standout here, with an upgraded lighting system providing lush greens in the summer and rich reds and yellows in the fall. All surfaces carry a more realistic look than previous entries in the series and lots of the textures are razor sharp. Various particle effects and shaders bring the weather system to life, and motion blur only rivaled by Insomniac's Spider-Man helps enhance the wicked sense of speed. The Xbox One version runs at 1080p at 30fps, while the Xbox One X offers 1080p60 and 4K30 modes. The difference between 30 and 60fps is worth skipping the insanely beautiful 4K presentation since it enhances gameplay so drastically.  The PC version gets the best of both worlds, provided you have some beefy hardware, with the 4K 60fps presentation managing to keep a wide grin on my face for hours.

The PC version of the game also gets a lot more attention than we saw with Forza Horizon 3. Loads of new graphics settings toggles allows you to dial in the exact experience you want, while the dynamic optimization setting lets you choose your framerate and hit the races. In my experience, the dynamic setting works wonderfully to keep perfect frame pacing while letting the gorgeous visuals come through. PCs with older Core i5s and GTX 970s will have no issues getting a locked 60fps with high settings when using the dynamic optimization. I was able to get a deadlocked 4K60 on a 1080 Ti with plenty of GPU headroom to spare, allowing me to enable some of the game’s “extreme” graphics settings. These are intended to be used with future hardware, but I was able to use most of them and still hold a steady 4K60. High refresh rates work perfectly, as I was able to run a smooth 120Hz at 1440p when using the dynamic optimization setting with the ultra preset. Also included is a built-in benchmarking tool that gives a detailed report of your system bottlenecks on both the CPU and GPU, along with a scattergraph the details each point of the benchmark run.

Also worth mentioning is the game’s HDR presentation. First appearing on the Xbox One version of Forza Horizon 3 and now on both consoles and PC for Horizon 4, the HDR mode is the best I’ve seen in a video game to date. The summer season feels more alive when cruising during the midday hours when the sun is reflected intensely off of the pavement. LED tail lights of your opponents cars will cut through the fall morning mist with a striking vibrance. The entire area around the Horizon Festival in the bottom corner of the map could be a showcase demo for HDR by itself, especially one of its tunnels that washes over your car in the most intense shade of pink I’ve ever seen. This boost to vibrant shades and bright highlights is possible without having to give up the details of the darker nooks and crannies of bridges, cobble walls, and garage interiors, offering a substantial improvement over the game’s standard SDR presentation. Forza Horizon’s sprawling map, exotic cars, and inclement weather all feel like they were custom-made to show the strengths of what HDR can bring to video games.

Checking the pressure in your tyres

The sound presentation works well to serve the experience. Sadly, not every individual car has its own unique engine sound recording, but that is probably too much to ask of a roster so enormous. Taking a moment to stop your car and take in the sounds of the British countryside reveals a surprisingly detailed ambience. As developer Playground Game is located in the UK, it’s probably not too surprising that the team nailed down the sounds of their homeland. The licensed soundtrack is pretty good this time around, especially the rock station. The various DJs offer up context-sensitive quips that managed to elicit a chuckle from me more than once. The horrible Groove music integration from Forza Horizon 3 is gone, and playing music from Spotify or a similar app is easy enough if the included tunes are not doing it for you.

Controller configuration and accessibility options are improved over previous versions of the game. For the first time ever, Forza Horizon 4 allows users to have granular control over field of view options for each of its preset camera positions and these settings are unique for each view. Each play is now able to get just the right fit for interior views when using a wheel or are able to dial in a zoom level for third-person cameras that works best for how close or far they are from the display. This is an outstanding inclusion and should become a standard for all driving or flight games in the future. It is another reminder of how the development team poured over every inch of the game to provide the best possible experience for the end user, even if a majority of players never give it a passing glance.

A better open world

Forza Horizon exceeds where other open-world games become bogged down in a monotonous loop of time-wasting side quests and busy work. Every new event feels fun to compete in, the exploration is rewarding thanks to the hidden items and barn finds, and all types of goofing off are rewarded with progression. There is an abundance of content and all of it is top-tier. There are usually 5 different ways to go about playing the content, and the game’s blueprint mode allows users to tailor races to their preferences if they’d rather not participate in the seasonal live events, of which there are many. Playground Studios will also be adding in a customizable route editor shortly after launch that will lets users build out their own races, likely adding an endless supply of things to do, with or without your friends.

The base $60 package gets you all of this, but Microsoft has plans to offer additional car packs throughout the next year. These packs usually cost between $7.99 and $9.99. Two expansions are planned for release for $19.99 each, but you have the option to purchase a $99.99 Ultimate Edition that includes the scheduled car packs and expansions. If the Forza Horizon 4 expansions are similar to those previously released in the series, the Ultimate Edition represents a strong value for any racing game fan.

There are no microtransactions in the game and the closest thing to a lootbox is the Horizon Wheelspin, which is awarded for each level up, from special events, or earning skill points. These Wheelspins can drop cars, money, or cosmetics for the new player avatars. The new avatars don’t really add much to the game, but they never get in the way, either, and I’m sure there are lots of players who would like to see their driver do the floss dance after a hard-earned win. All of the progression in the game feels like it is perfectly paced. I never once felt like I was short on cash or that I was grinding towards a goal at any time. Horizon 4 is a welcome change from the loot box shenanigans found in Forza Motorsport 7. Games are expensive to make, but Playground has shown you can offer insane amount of content without forcing players into a grind that encourages more spending to skip. You can buy almost every car right from the first minute of gameplay and go anywhere you want with no restriction.

The victory lap

Against other racing games, Forza Horizon 4 stands alone as the best representation of what arcade fun is all about, evoking the spirit of OutRun, Need for Speed, and Burnout: Paradise. It is a love letter to car enthusiasts that doesn’t shun outsiders and casual players.  It manages to avoid being dragged into tired open-world tropes despite being confined to only vehicles, an outstanding acheivement on its own. The game is incredibly well-polished at every turn and offers truly seamless cross-play between consoles and PC with zero compromise. Horizon 4 is the new high-water mark for online connectivity and shared user experiences. It is a graphical powerhouse on any platform and takes advantage of those platform’s hardware strengths. In my opinion, Microsoft is making a blunder by not putting Forza Horizon 4 as the centerpiece of their Xbox Brand marketing. It should be used in bundles to move hardware and demoed as a showpiece for the power of the One X and the benefits of the gamepad’s rumble triggers. It is undoubtedly the best game Microsoft has published on the PC since Age of Empires 2. Forza Horizon 4 is Microsoft’s killer app and is on the shortlist of the best games of its generation. 

This review is based on the PC Windows 10 release. The game key was provided by the publisher. Forza Horizon 4 will be available for Windows 10 and Xbox One on October 2, for $59.99.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Review for
Forza Horizon 4
  • Breathtaking HDR visuals
  • Extremely polished driving mechanics
  • Gluttonous vehicle roster
  • Seamless, uncompromising cross-play
  • Seasons offer meaningful gameplay changes
  • Sickening amount of content
  • Constant live events
  • No lootboxes or grind
  • Infinitely customizable
  • Lackluster support for force feedback wheels
  • Unfortunate car omissions due to licensing
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