Car Games and Apps

Forza Horizon 4 hands-on: For every race there is a season

The fourth entry in the Forza Horizon racing series for Xbox One debuts a new four season dynamic weather cycle for its open-world UK map.

The Xbox One's Forza Horizon series is all about racing, stunts and the love of cars. Its fourth entry promises to be bigger and more immersive than before. It's the latest in the Horizon series, the more-stylish counterparts to Microsoft Studios' hardcore Forza Motorsport series. Horizon games place an emphasis on the culture and music surrounding cars.

I recently went hands-on with a pre-release version of the upcoming title and got a taste of the first hour or so of gameplay. Here's what I've learned

Four dynamic seasons

The in-game Horizon Festival -- a fictitious traveling racing and music festival -- takes place in the UK this time out. No, the open world map isn't an accurate 1:1 representation of the country, but we're told that players will be able to roam over an area that's a bit larger than the last game's scaled-down rendition of Australia.

Previous entries in the series introduced dynamic day-night cycles and weather. The fourth entry innovates with a dynamic four-season cycle. You first experience each season during the game's introduction, which smash cuts between fall, winter, spring and summer races within one epic sequence.

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Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

After a few tutorial missions, the game will then then sync online to a four-season cycle shared by players around the globe. Each in-game season will last a real-time week before transitioning to the next season for everyone.

Developer Playground Games tells me that with the changing seasons, you can technically consider this game to be four times more replayable than the last one. The game is affected by each season in some surprising ways: A river you splash through in the Spring, for example, might be dried out in the Summer or frozen over during the Winter opening up new shortcuts in races or routes through the open world.

As a player who really just enjoyed hanging out in the open worlds of the previous Horizon titles, I'm eager to see how this system will work out (my demo only lasted an hour) and am curious to see how the player base ebbs and flows around the dynamic seasons. Will certain seasons be more popular than others? Or will the constant change keep players coming back for more? Time will tell.

The online connection means that the map is shared with other players -- it's not a massively multiplayer deal, but you can see a smattering of players cruising the streets of the Horizon Festival, looking for challenges. If you play videogames to escape human contact, of course, you can opt out of online play through the in-game menus.

So many cars

During our demo, I got a taste of the McLaren Senna hero car -- which is featured on the box art -- during the introductory mission. The controls and physics have the same great feel that I've grown accustomed to over the Forza series and you can customize assists and settings to get your desired balance of realism and arcade-y fun.

Shortly after that the game gave me a more realistic choice of starter cars. I had to pick from the Audi TTS, Ford Focus RS and Dodge Charger R/T for the first few roads, but soon I was also given the choice between the Subaru WRX STI, Lancia Stradale and Ford Escort RS Cosworth for the many dirt races that feature heavily in Horizon 4.

Eventually, after a few introductory missions that teach you about the various race and challenge types scattered around the game, Horizon 4 drops you into the open world where you'll be able to earn and purchase the cars you want. Around 450 cars will be available at launch from over 100 manufacturers.

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Toyota and Mitsubishi are missing from the roster, but at least we've got Porsche back!

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

Browsing the list of launch cars, many have noticed the omission of Mitsubishi and Toyota, though there are a few Toyota racing trucks. It is a bit disappointing that there won't be any Lancer Evolutions, Celicas or Supras on the road, especially considering they've been there for the prior 10 Forza Motorsport and Horizon titles. I guess they could always reappear as downloadable content?

And there will be plenty of DLC: About 20 DLC cars on launch day coming as part of the various Standard, Deluxe and Ultimate editions you choose. There's also a promised 42 extra DLC cars to be delivered over a 21-week period as part of the Forza Horizon 4 Car Pass.

Showcases and the Stunt Driver

There is a lot to do in Forza Horizon 4. In addition to hundreds of road, dirt and street races with point-to-point and circuit variations on all three themes, you can also create and share custom races with the community. Technically, that means there'll be a potentially endless amount of content, though the quality of that player-created content is sure to vary wildly.

The insane Showcase races that are this Horizon series' highlights are back for the fourth outing. During my hour-long demo, I raced against a freaking hovercraft in Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Toyota T100 Baja truck. Promotional materials hint at racing a locomotive in an Ariel Nomad and some sort of stealth bomber in an Aston Martin Vulcan. And I'm looking forward to the Halo-inspired showcase featuring that game's M12 Warthog.

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The insane Showcase matchups return to the series in Forza Horizon 4.

Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

New to Forza Horizon are narrative missions that allow you to participate in themed stunts and races to earn cars, player homes and in-game perks. I got a taste of "The Stunt Driver," a narrative that places the player in the role of a Hollywood stunt driver faced with challenges such as jumping a Bugatti Chiron as far as you can or speeding down the coast in an Auto Union Type D without damaging a priceless artifact of automotive history.

I didn't get into it during my hour-long pre-release demo, but I'm told that Horizon 4 will also feature better integration between online play and the open world to make the Horizon Festival feel more lived-in and shared with other actual players.

Custom avatars are back

Horizon 3 introduced the ability to select your silent protagonist from about a dozen avatars -- all 20-something hipster types of various ethnicities and gender -- along with hundreds of player names that in-game NPCs can speak aloud. The gang's all back for Horizon 4, so if you want to be an Asian woman who goes by "Night Man" or a black man named "Alice," you're covered.

There's no way to change the hair or faces of those avatars, but Horizon 4 does introduce around 500 clothing choices that you can unlock to customize your look. There are also about 50 emotes and dances that can be seen during pre- and post-race cutscenes.

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Microsoft Studios, Playground Games

Also new for Horizon 4 are purchasable and unlockable player homes and businesses that unlock in-game content and perks. During "The Stunt Driver" mission, for example, I unlocked a country cottage. Playground tells me that even Edinburgh Castle is on the market in this fictionalized version of the UK.

Play Anywhere

Having said all of that, the bottom line is that Forza Horizon 4 feels like an enhanced version of Forza Horizon 3. That's sort of exactly what I want from a sequel, so I'm looking forward to playing more when it launches on Xbox One consoles and Windows 10 PCs on September 28, 2018.

It's an Xbox Play Anywhere title, so buying it for either platform unlocks and syncs with the other. Xbox One X players (and PC gamers with powerful enough hardware) will be able to play in 4K HDR.

There will be three editions at launch. The Standard edition ($60) includes the base game and the Formula Drift Car Pack with seven downloadable cars. The Deluxe edition ($80) adds the FH4 Car Pass -- 42 extra DLC cars delivered over a 21-week period following launch. Finally, the Ultimate edition ($100) includes a Day One Car Pack (10 more cars), Forza VIP perks and two post-launch expansion packs expected in December 2018 and early 2019, bringing "new world location, vehicles, and gameplay."