I hasn’t taken long for Forza Horizon to establish itself as more than a quirky off shoot to the sim racer series. There’s a vibrancy to the wide open worlds that Playground conjure up that simply can’t be matched by the Motorsport series, as good as it is, and a real bombast to the Horizon Festival that provides the loose narrative structure for each game.
This time around Forza Horizon 4 is coming back to Playground Games’ comparative backyard, providing us with large swathes of Scotland and northern England to race through, distilling their essence to create something suitable for over the top racing. London gets left out of the party this time around because, as Art Director Benjamin Penrose admitted, “It’s not the best place to go driving, certainly! ”
He continued, “It’s actually a fairly lengthy process that we go through to choose a location, so we look at lots of different places and we consider what each of those locations is going to bring to the game. It’s actually more than just the north and we’ve got some parts of the Devonshire coast and the Cotswolds, so we do go quite south. It’s really like a ‘best of’ in terms of bits of Britain.”
While many people might think of pizza or a glitzy hotel when they hear the four seasons, Playground aren’t thinking of food, but are instead taking the opportunity that Britain provides to give us some really terrible weather to race through. Of course, they’ve done much more than that and are recreating spring, summer, autumn and winter in a manner that’s almost glorious in how it looks. There’s nowhere near enough murk and misery for my tastes.
Laughing when I pointed this out to him, Ben replied, “Do you know, it’s quite interesting that you say that! All the lighting in the game, which I would argue is what gives the mood, that is all taken from our real world data capture. It’s sky capture which we did on location in Britain, and we had a guy capturing for every single season; he’s a very dedicated guy who was there for the entire year, in all conditions.
“The thing with that was we got the real deal. We got the skies which were actually there in real life for each of those seasons and we brought them into the game. Sure, we curated them slightly and we picked the stuff that we thought was going to look the most dramatic and give us the best visuals in game, but there’s a decent representation of all the different weather types that you’d expect to have.”
Regardless of the conditions, the game looks simply stunning and the winding roads naturally provide plenty of opportunities for flamboyant racing (and more than a few offs). The game’s opening race is a multi-part showcase that blazes a trail through the four seasons and the different types of car that you’ll get to enjoy, ranging from hypercars to racing trucks, rally cars and back again.
One major part that I didn’t get to experience here was the synchronous multiplayer world that the game will now feature. Where previous games have leant on the Forza staple of Drivatars to help populate the world with other named racers, while also providing the option for co-op and competitive racing, that’s set to change with Horizon 4, which is instead embracing the oft maligned concept of simply throwing real racers together.
Responding to these common concerns, Ben said, “I think we all recognise those complaints and those issues that you associate with an online game, and that’s why, first of all, we’ve made sure that this isn’t an online only game. If you don’t want to play online, you don’t have to. It’s a button press in a menu to switch to solo, and if you do that all of the real world drivers will be replaced with drivatars. Obviously, that’s going to make the experience pretty comparable to what you had in Forza Horizon 3 where you were in a world populated with Drivatar AI.
“We felt was that playing in the open world with real people added this whole extra layer of fun and spontaneity that you can’t really programme into an AI. That’s something that needs to come from genuine human behaviour.”
On the one hand it should lead to some of the kinds of fun that I used to simply adore in Burnout Paradise’s playful multiplayer, whether through organised events and racing or from the new world events to tackle. The important thing is Playground stamp out the potential for abuse in these games, which they are doing in a pretty comprehensive sounding fashion with Auto-Ghost.
Ben explained, “We’ve been talking about something we’ve introduced called auto-ghost, which means that anybody in the open world that you encounter won’t have any collisions with you unless you decide to join them in a convoy. So it you want to convoy up with a bunch of your mates and they’re the kind of people that do enjoy slamming you off the road? That’s entirely your fault for hanging out with those guys!”
Alongside something of an arcade racer renaissance, Forza Horizon 4 may well continue to appeal to an audience that don’t traditionally consider themselves racing fans, something which I’ve heard on a number of occasions over the last months.
“I think we’ve been in this really lovely place where we’re able to balance with the release of the Motorsport series as well,” Ben said, “What’s great about Forza at the moment is that there’s something for everybody; if you’re a hardcore racer, you can go play Motorsport, but if you want something that’s a bit more laid back, then there’s Horizon there for you as well.”
As Forza Horizon 4 heads for release on Xbox One and Windows 10 in October, it feels like it’s going to be the perfect way to batten down the hatches as the nights draw in and we have to put up with wetter, colder and windier weather. After all, what better antidote to the misery outside than getting to pretend that it’s actually enjoyable weather out there?