For the first hour of Forza Horizon 4, all I did was smile. The Horizon series has always hit the sweet spot for me, focusing in on the fantasy and thrill of racing rather than the simulation of boring automotive reality. And a big part of this is the concept: in each case, you're driving around a gorgeous setting helping to establish the Horizon festival, winning fans and influence with your l33t skills.
Horizon 4 is no different except, if you're from the UK, it has the additional thrill of being set here. So it was that by the third race I found myself in a dinky recreation of Ambleside, a small town near the heart of England's Lake District where I lived for a few years. I was able to buy a house there, at which point I started thinking this might be the best game ever made. I crawled around this miniature reimagining of a place I knew so well, trying to grok which buildings developer Playground had chosen to stand for the whole, and why it had been laid out in this manner. The thought of all those Microsoft bucks going into recreating a tiny rural town in the Lakes really tickled me and, while I was sad the jazz club didn't make the cut, was almost worth the price of admission alone.
The whole opening of Horizon 4 is like this, full of the simple joys of discovering virtual places you vaguely know IRL, and looking at how the developer has tried to capture somewhere. Thing is though, unless you're being very deliberate about it, usually you're tearing through these places at over 100mph. And it was when I began to really focus on the racing and progression side of Horizon 4 that I realised something was missing. Somewhere along the road this series has moved so far towards fun that it's forgotten about racing.
I want to be clear that I'm not talking about the precision controls, or the exquisitely-tuned handling on my menagerie of cars. I think the acceleration rumble on the trigger is one of the most gorgeous feelings in any racer. Just throwing your car around the place, not even in a race, is amazing. But Horizon 4 has a philosophy underpinning everything which is, simply, that everyone has to be a winner.
At first this isn't clear. The earlier races are rigged to let the player win, which seems a reasonable enough decision. It's once you start really getting into the meat of Horizon 4's journey, when things step up a notch, the difficulty increases and the AI begins to prove more competent. We all play video games for different reasons: one of mine is that I like a challenge. I like games with deep control schemes where you can improve over time (such as this). I like being pushed, and I like competitive play. I want to win, and I want to feel like I earned it.
Well, in Forza Horizon 4, winning doesn't really matter. Essentially it is extremely hard not to progress, because whether you win or lose a race your racer will be rewarded with pretty much the same volume of credits and influence (the race also gets marked as complete on your map, even if you completely botched it). Influence, a game currency representing the 'fans' you've won over, is particularly annoying in this context. I said earlier the Horizon concept of a car festival is great, and the idea of your racer winning over punters is a good one: yes, every player knows it's just a progression number, but the thematic link is there.
That link was frayed to the point of snapping when I noticed after one race that, after spinning out on the first corner, crashing multiple times, and limping home in last place, thousands of fans decided that I'm the man. I then noticed the difference in credits and influence between winning and losing... it's not huge.
The distinction Horizon 4 draws between winning and losing isn't much of one at all. I was still loving the feel of the game but, as soon as I noticed that I couldn't really fail, it all began to seem so... frivolous. There's nothing at stake in these races, not really, and for me the game soon began to feel like an unlock simulator. You do a race or two and, regardless of what happens in them, the game showers various rewards down on you. Great job player one!
I wanted to show this rather than just saying it's my impression. So I chose a race at random and ran it three ways: finishing last, finishing first, and finishing in the middle somewhere. The race is called 'Lakehouse Copse Circuit', and the results were:
Finishing 1st: Credits 21,752. Influence 6363
Finishing 6th: Credits 20,547. Influence 5150.
Finishing 12th: Credits 19,357. Influence 4572.
Note that I'm playing on harder difficulty, and I also have a VIP edition of the game, so the credit total is boosted across the board. Call me Mr Meanie, but does that seem like a massive difference between first and last place? With the Credits, the difference is negligible. With the Influence it's a bit wider but still...
It's not that these metrics are especially important, but they are how Horizon 4 paces itself, and arbitrary as they are they're still the only way you really have to measure success. And no matter how badly you do on the track, the Credits and Influence keep on flooding in.
Some players may welcome that, and fair enough. There's an argument that designing in such a way allows the widest possible number of players to enjoy what your game's world has to offer. Personally I'm not a believer in this philosophy, because it seems to me the consequences of an 'everybody wins' design is that players can intuit what's going on and, ultimately, winning comes to mean less. In Horizon 4, long before I could quite articulate why, I understood that winning was meaningless. And if a racing game has moved so far from that basic idea of a race, in which there are winners and losers, what remains?
One could say that Horizon 4 is, simply, a car festival. That is the setup and, at its very best, this game achieves the carnival atmosphere and has you grinning from ear-to-ear. I don't want you to come away with the idea I dislike Forza Horizon 4; it's more that I had a fantastic time, then quickly got bored of it and wondered why. There are some obvious counter-points to what I'm saying. The showpiece events, although rare, do depend on you winning them in order to progress. At a certain point you unlock PvP and, of course, the mere fact of other humans on the track inspires one's competitive spirit.
My expectations, however, were of the highest. I felt the UK was such a perfect setting for the series, and that perhaps Playground had inherited some of that spirit which makes Burnout Paradise the last truly envelope-pushing AAA racer. Nothing since Criterion's masterpiece has come close, a state of affairs only reinforced by the recent re-release, but in Horizon's freeform open-world structure and enormous budget you could see the potential to get there. In fact, Horizon is nowhere near as seamless an experience, which is somewhat surprising after all these years but there you are.
The bigger difference is that mastering Paradise City was a long and winding road trip, one full of wrecks and missed turns and failed attempts. Gradually taking over the place, rolling up to the lights ready to go, smashing into random fools online... that all took time. Forza Horizon 4 has many more cars, a more sophisticated handling model, the kind of gorgeous looks that only serious investment can give you, arguably a higher skill ceiling... and yet under the hood this thing doesn't really growl at all. It feels like, when I screw up a race, I get patted on the head and given a prize for turning up. It's why Horizon 4 has all the ingredients of an amazing racer, and indeed even plays like an amazing racer. The problem is that when everyone's a winner, the winning means nothing at all.