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I Learned How to Drive in the UK by Playing Forza Horizon 4

Using the Microsoft game as a simulator helped me prepare for driving on the opposite side of the road.

Driving through a town in Forza Horizon 4
Forza Horizon 4 is still my best UK driving simulation, sort of.
Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

My first overseas trip in two years just happened, and it was a doozy. I was visiting my in-laws in the UK, and to get there I didn't just fly seven hours: I also drove cross-country in a rental car from Heathrow to Devon.

That means driving on the opposite side of the road for me, and it stressed me out. But one thing calmed me down and made me feel like I could take it all on: My pre-travel prep sessions in Forza Horizon 4.

Microsoft's fantastic line of racing games is critically hailed, and yes, I skipped the beautiful Mexico-set Forza Horizon 5. That's because Horizon 4, released way back in 2018, is set in a world that's based on Great Britain, including Scotland… and all of it is laid out with roads where you're driving on the left side of the road.

It was surprisingly hard for me to find simulations that match the UK driving experience. I'd love a great virtual reality UK driving simulator, but on the Quest 2 there are barely any driving games at all. I settled on Forza Horizon 4 because it's free with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, it's all set in sprawling countryside and occasional towns (just like my driving route) and its open-world style means I can just keep going, on and on, without having to worry about the artificial constructs of a race.

a country road in the UK

Actual roads in Devon, UK (while my father-in-law drove).

Scott Stein/CNET

In the world of VR, simulations are remarkable pathways to brain training. Pilots and car designers and athletes use it all the time. I experience that kind of brain training when I play Beat Saber, or create some virtual art, or explore a new place for the first time and use VR to get my 3D bearings.

I've been hungering for more VR games that can be used for driving simulations like these, just to even get a feel for the dimensions of cars, car height, staying in lanes. Roundabouts. But without that, Forza Horizon 4 did the job in a pinch. After an hour or so driving around aimlessly, then taking a few direction-guided paths, I felt like I was understanding the flow. 

I got used to the feeling of staying in the left lane and passing on the right. I got the hang of left vs. right turns and where to look as I turned. I tried night driving, too, because my cross-country trip was in the middle of the night. Sure, I would have loved it if I could have picked the exact car I rented, to simulate the whole dashboard layout. Whatever. I settled for my random Audi.

Racing video games don't simulate actual real-life driving conditions well enough to truly perfectly prepare anyone for actual driving, but it did help train my brain to accept the left side of the road and understand turns. The only thing I didn't get a sense of was how it felt to have the car's dimensions change with the flipped steering wheel (the cars I drove still had left-side steering wheels in Forza Horizon 4).

Driving in rural England, where hedge rises high

Forza Horizon 4 doesn't prepare you for real driving through the Hedge.

Scott Stein/CNET

I was still terrified when I rented my car, sat in front of the right-side steering wheel, pulled out onto the highway and got on the M5. I also had a new car interface to figure out along with navigation on a new screen. 

I'd recommend anyone taking a trip where they'll be driving on the opposite side of the road to play a realistic racing game for a little while to get your mind trained. I'm glad I did. I'd love if VR could help me in the future on this. 

Or for when you're navigating the strange world of rural one-lane UK hedge driving, where there are absolutely no lights at night and the hedges rise on both sides like the walls of the Death Star trench. Encountering another car means backing up to find a turn-off where the other car can squeeze through. I guess I'll have to develop that Night Hedge VR game myself, but in the meantime I'll always have Forza.