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Forza Horizon 4 - close-up of a car’s steering wheel and dashboard

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Forza Horizon 4 is a ray of sunshine, with a few clouds

Fun driving game embraces British landscape and weather

Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

Like its series predecessors, Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game. I travel around the country, entering myself into different kinds of races. I acquire cars, augment my reputation as an ace driver and upgrade my abilities, perfecting skills such as drifting, spinning and turning.

Dirty cross-country races sit alongside regular road races, inner-city races, night races, dirt races and so on. These can be one-off exhibitions, or part of a series of championships. In the early part of the game, I race against AI opponents, and am able to tweak their skill levels. Later, the default is to play against humans on a 72-player server.

I’m going to wait until the game comes out before playing on multiplayer servers and passing judgment on how well that works. But it’s fair to say that Forza Horizon 4 is heavily geared toward playing against, or with, other people. It’s full of co-op challenges, team-based events and opportunities to tweak other players on the open roads. [Note. You can now read my multiplayer impressions here.]

The option to only play against AI remains, and there’s plenty to occupy those who prefer their own company. Special events, including stunt challenges and bizarre races against behemoth opponents, pepper the game map. At one point, I find myself racing The Flying Scotsman (a famous steam train of yore). At other times, I take on a hovercraft and an RAF jet bomber. It’s all good fun, a spectacle that’s not to be taken seriously.

Forza Horizon 4 - two pickup trucks driving uphill in the snow Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

Car collections

I play, I earn more money and I buy more cars. But the game allows me to go off and do my own thing. I can rattle over the countryside racking up skill chains, which are long, unbroken runs of special maneuvers. These include cranking the car over a hillock at top speed, using the tail of the car to destroy hedgerows and carving wheel-ruts in fields.

Forza Horizon 4 features a subplot of sorts, in which I’m sent in search of hidden sheds, where the broken-down shells of truly magnificent automobiles are waiting to be discovered, renovated and added to my glittering harem.

Other currencies include “reputation” and leveling in a baffling variety of activities. Overall I’m Level X, but I’m Level Y in the particular of road racing and Level Z in creating my own liveries. I find myself paying lots of attention to a small number of the metrics, and almost none to the rest. I suspect this is the entire point: it’s a buffet.

Dispiritingly, one of these in-game points-accretion activities makes use of Mixer, Microsoft’s Twitch rival, which earns the player points either as a viewer or a streamer. This feels like corporate crowbarring of the worst kind. I can’t tell yet how much this Mixer nonsense affects in-game earnings. My hope is, not a lot. There are plenty of other things to do in this game, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in climbing different ladders and ignoring others, depending on your interests.

Ultimately, this isn’t a game about collecting cars or scaling numerical ladders. It’s about proving yourself to be a skillful driver, either to yourself or to other players who each believe themselves to be better than you.

Forza Horizon 4 - two classic cars at the front of the pack Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

British weather

A Forza Horizon game has been released every two years since the series’ 2012 debut, offering an off-year break from the more structured Forza Motorsport racing series. Previous games have been set in the U.S., France, Italy and Australia.

The series is developed by British studio Playground Games, which is made up of racing game veterans from a country that has given us series like Burnout, Colin McRae, Project Gotham and Driver.

So it’s appropriate that Forza Horizon 4 has come home to Britain. But the choice is also driven by the game’s heavy emphasis on weather, which is something the island has been famed for since the first Roman invaders grumbled about yet another day of light drizzle.

British weather in Forza Horizon 4 tends toward happy extremes. Winter is a snowy wonderland where lakes freeze over. In reality, Britain’s largest lakes rarely develop ice sheets thick enough to carry the weight of a car. But this license with reality allows players to venture out onto the frozen surface and explore new parts of the game world that are otherwise inaccessible.

Likewise, summers are the blue-sky paradises of childhood remembrance. In spring, England is carpeted with bluebells, and in autumn, the trees of Scotland blaze with orange and gold.

This makes for a beautiful playpen of moorland, highland, forests and meadows; all the best parts of an undoubtedly lovely part of the world. It’s a tourist brochure fantasy, of course, which is what might be expected from a driving game in which rolling vistas of sylvan splendor are preferable to the grim spectacle of suburban sprawl.

Forza Horizon 4 - buggies driving through sand Playground Games/Microsoft Studios

Careful manicure

Still, there’s a part of me (I’m British) that yearns for a less predictably perfect rendition of my country. The environmental budget for this game must have run into the millions, so it feels like a shame to see that all the dough was used to create a misty-eyed fiction of misplaced nostalgia, rather than something — anything — that speaks of the actual place.

Villages are bucolic. Edinburgh looks like a carefully manicured provincial town, rather than a great city. Everything has the faint whiff of an idealized 1950s about it, a place of ordered pub gardens and rosebushes. There’s no graffiti, no council estates, no industry, no suburbs, no litter-strewn Friday night High Streets.

This is a Britain that’s been scrubbed clean of its inhabitants, unless they happen to own a nice little cottage in the Cotswolds. I don’t mean to suggest that a racing game ought to be in the business of social commentary, but some semblance of reality, some wink to the time and place being portrayed, might have been nice. As it is, the Britain of Forza Horizon 4 feels like a carefully sanitized theme park.

Such creative timidity is a minor blot on what is otherwise a very fine racing game. It’s sharper than previous games, more openly designed, bigger and more fun. One of Forza Horizon 4’s strengths is that it tends toward freedom, letting us do just what we want, and liberating us from races and activities that we don’t fancy. Most of all, this is a fun, even joyful experience, a thrilling racing fantasy.

I’m looking forward to digging into multiplayer — look out for an update in the next week or so — but in the meantime, I’m going back to the sleepy meadows of Albion, where I’ll be spinning the screaming tires of my fancy rides, carving donuts in the turf, cutting my very own petroleum-fueled crop circles.

Forza Horizon 4 was reviewed using a final “retail” Windows PC download code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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