Forza Horizon 4

FBT has arrived at his destination

I’ve always avoided racers. I hate going around a figure-of-eight track, bouncing off the hoardings while watching other drivers make perfect turns and I end up in 12th place after some totally unfair cheating AI car bested me. Never my fault. I was a Carmageddon man; it was a free-roamer, which was not only awesome but meant my appalling driving skills actually worked in my favour. FH4 is a free-roamer, and set in the UK - freeroam smashing into things I recognise in a boy-racer era flashback? … go on then.

At first glance, this ain't no Carmageddon. Horizon is a get-together of like-minded drivers who congregate to admire each other’s cars and race safely. Everyone’s pleasant, nice; when we win a race, our competitors applaud - when I lose, my avatar congratulates them, which is the exact opposite to what I’m doing. We’re all so inclusive and inoffensive - even the guy who runs the unofficial street races is so chipper and clean you’d take home to meet your Mum. There’s not a Ludacris in sight. Time to Move Bitch, Get Out The Way this thing.

I pick the whitest, most middle-class looking woman I can find, the kind who wants to speak to your manager, and because I can't find the name Karen, name her Zeus – which the GPS and mission-givers use - and then I take off and smash through country walls and fences, over carefully trimmed bushes, through red phone boxes and knock law-abiding drivers into ditches like a joyrider blasting through the Last of the Summer Wine set.

It is incredibly beautiful, detailed and realistic despite my attempts to ruin it all. Purring through country lanes and villages is fantastic, even if I only manage it for a few moments before I’ve shot into a field and started chasing sheep about. It really captures the natural beauty of Little England, being a compressed representation of Edinburgh down to the Cotswolds. It’s so well done and recognisable I half expect to pass someone I know.

It’s actually possible I have crashed into someone I know. The map is online and shared with 70-odd other real-world maniacs who you can ignore or interact with, and challenge or invite to co-op certain races. In photo mode you can even zoom in to see them, although not sure what privacy or GDPR concerns that raises …

Sharing the world with like-minded folks adds to the game’s overall playground feel, but you can take it seriously if you want. You can pimp the car with sprays and decals, but upgrades allow the kind of tinkering only mechanics care about. In the real world I can’t tell the difference between a bonnet and a hood but here I can alter the PSI of the tires? What’s a PSI? One has me counting the number of teeth on a flywheel, and you can get headsup display that tracks everything from MPH to how much g-force you're putting the car through.

I end up doing the Jeremy Clarkson approach of upgrading everything to the redline - I have a beautiful Mosler MT900S which I overpowered until the game no longer had a class for it. Its profile is “X-999” - there’s not even any X-class races. I barely get 10 feet before I’m wrapped around a tree. I turned a Mazda RX7 into a merry-go-round; it’s so torqued up it only goes in circles.

The range of cars available is so large I actually manage to get a couple of cars I remember my dad owning, including an old Jag XJS in red - not sure he’d appreciate how I’m treating it though. There’s over 450 to pick from, which is insane, and the detail is eye-watering. You haven't lived until you've seen a Ford GT's spoiler rise and lower as you put your foot down. Besides the in-game cars and DLC like a Bond collection, you can buy other players’ cars with their own design and set-ups; the Auction is worth a nose around just for a peek into the minds of gamers.

A noticeable omission is no cops, so while it’s fun for a while, freeroaming gets a little boring. Isn’t anyone going to stop me? The roads are often empty and at times it can seem a little bland, just like the mission givers and peppy dialogue. No edge or threat. Still, pretty much everything you do is rewarded with XP, even when you didn’t intend to do them; ‘drift bonus!’ ahh yeah, actually I was just out of control and happened to not crash, but I’ll take the XP.

The XP is your reputation, and reaching level-ups unlocks each season – the game is split into Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer and each has seasonal challenges. Once you crack all four, the game switches into a weekly seasonal change, which adds a level of replay to certain races and challenges, trying to beat your Spring score in Winter – Winter is worth it just to track down snowmen whose happy face turns sad when you drive through them. Lakes will freeze in winter letting you reach edges of the map usually inaccessible, and when it happens you’ll find dozens of other players having the same idea as you - a frozen lake is gonna be so much fun to skid about on and score drift XP.

Races and challenges are standard linear tracks but surprisingly fair and a lot of fun. Rather than a recover option, FH4 includes a rewind function that lets you rethink your approach, and it’s a good way to avoid rage-quitting when you get bumped from 1st to 12th. It does remove some of the tension but as you progress, learning the cars’ abilities and how the world behaves, you use it less. Who am I kidding, I use it constantly and still muck up.

Within the races you can get paired with AI versions of other gamers, their ‘Drivatar’, which is the worst word ever created. It feels like an option for really antisocial gamers. They don’t seem significantly different to other AI cars but it’s a fantastic idea, that the system uploads your playstyle for an AI bot for use in other gamers’ races; I get a lot more serious when one appears in a line up – I’m not going to be beaten by someone real-ish. If nothing else it’s fun to imagine who had to deal with an AI emulating my driving ‘skills’.

While some events are only available in a season, there’s a seemingly endless amount of championships, races and stunts plus season challenges, the game's seasonal race 'Forzathon', places to explore, specials like racing against a hovercraft, jet or the Flying Scotsman - of which feature awesome cinematics if you keep up with your opponent - along with uncovering lost cars, doing a Top Gear challenge where you play The Stig, you can even play as Master Chief and your GPS becomes Cortana, find work as a movie stuntdriver, buy car-related businesses that allow you to drive/race cars you can’t afford, it’s endless.

It feels very generous for all of this to be included in the main game, but there’s DLC as well; Fortune Island lets you tear around finding treasure while Lego Speed Champions has a Lego region and Lego versions of the cars, which is more a daft diversion than anything, until a Lego Drivatar appeared in a ‘real-world’ race and beat me. Blocky little bastard.

FH4 is dedicated to making sure you have as much fun as possible. I unlocked all seasons within a few hours, had attained nearly 100 cars without meaning to and had enough money to buy Edinburgh castle – but that doesn’t mean it’s a doddle; it’s designed to maximise freedom and fun, and you can alter the AI and conditions, turn off the GPS and make it impossible if you like. You have as much freedom in the game as you do on the roads.

FH4 reminds me a lot of Test Drive Unlimited which had free-roam RPG aspirations; I even buy a Saleen S7 in yellow to reflect my favourite car from that game. I still prefer TDU for its carefree commitment to making you a rich speedfreak but FH4 succeeds in creating a living breathing world; the map looks like Skyrim and you realise this is, at least until FH5 comes out, a persistent and constantly updating world. It is an MMO for cars, a four-wheeled Fortnite or Elder Scrolls Online.

It might be down to the location, I’ve driven some of those streets in the real world (and just as badly), but I loved this. It’s a love letter to petrol heads and an absolute blast.