Forza Horizon 4 is exactly as fun as you'd expect. And it's so beautiful that it will continue to shock you hours after you started playing it.
This year, the game lands in Britain, which is also the home of developers Playground Games. It is rendered with loving care – sometimes a little too much, so that the rough edges are sanded away – and becomes a fitting location for one of the best driving games ever.
The real Britain, of course, hasn't had it easy in recent years. The leafy villages of long drives and 4x4s have come to stand for the anti-metropolitanism of Brexit; Edinburgh, the map's biggest city, has also become associated with the hard-fought arguments of Scottish independence.
There is absolutely none of that in this game, which seems to have taken its inspiration from tourist brochures and John Betjeman rather than the real state of the country today. It is the best outing that Britain has ever had – in the sense that it has never been so lovingly realised, but also in the slightly more dangerous sense that it has never been made to look so good. That's fitting for probably the best racing game Xbox has ever had, too.
Street racing is a central part of the game, but there are no real high streets to be seen. Even the game's hip-hop radio station tends to focus on classic East Coast rap rather than the exciting music coming out of Britain today. Where you stand on that will depend a little on what you're looking for: it can be patriotic escapism or naive ignorance, and it's probably both.
But how beautiful that escape is. Even the game's motorways are a joy, made stunning when dappled with spring sunlight or dusted with winter snow. Country roads are wonderfully winding; leaving them and rushing through the fields is a thrill. It is beautiful enough to leave you belting out Jerusalem and bringing you dangerously close to quoting Shakespeare in a game review. Even the sheep are rendered with such care that their AI drew plaudits before launch.
What's really useful about Britain to the game's designers, though, is its infamous and changeable weather. One of the key upgrades to this game is the fact that it will progress through each season, the game's world completely altering as it does. In its prologue, the game takes you through each season; after that, they will adjust across the world each week. The changing weather means that the game's map is really four maps – a pond that was once a hazard will freeze over and become a path, for instance, and roads that were once a pleasure to drive on will become perilous when covered in snow.
The weather is also a beautiful way of showing off the attention to detail in the game's world. Summer's blazing sun will highlight the beauty of the game's beaches and forests; the snow of winter brings out the soft rolling hills of the countryside.
The sound is not as spectacular as the visuals – but only just. Everything from the most subtle twitch of birds and baa of sheep, all the way through to the guttural roar of engines and the clatter of tumbling walls, is recreated with incredible attention to detail and exquisite texture.
The game can probably be most concisely summed up in imagining a quaint, quiet bridge over a babbling brook being quickly interrupted by the blast of a hypercar's engine and the thud of EDM from its radio; the precision and power with which all that sound is recreated is the ultimate testament to the care taking in the game's design.
The landscape is so lush, so beautifully and playfully rendered, that it's sometimes a shame that you spend most of your time careening through it, in a race on or your way to one. It's enough to make you wish that the game had something like a hiking mode, allowing you to stop the car and get out, and take in the scenery.
That desire doesn't last long because the driving is such incredible fun. Everything is perfectly perched between authenticity and enjoyment, with driving mechanisms that reward skill but won't punish you too hard for not having it.
You'd expect Forza would do its cars well. But you might be surprised by the quantity as well as the quality; there are more vehicles than ever before, stretching from the hilariously tiny to the hulkingly large. That array of makes and models is matched by a fairly vast and vibrant number of options in terms of colour and design, and a community-led marketplace for new looks for your cars that is already filling up with impressive designs.
But the driving experience is, for the most part, unchanged from previous versions of Forza Horizon. You drive around, crashing into the lightly destructive environment as you do, taking on people in thrilling races. Fans of the series might find themselves a little disappointed in how similar that mechanic is, but the joy and splendour of the new world feels like more than enough innovation on its own.
Forza Horizon's Britain is a place of incredible beauty and fun: rustic stone walls that tumble down as you plough through them with the world's most elegant cars. It's a shame that the real UK isn't quite so picturesque, and that its walls don't fall down or rebuild quite so easily. But taking a break from it by hiding inside the idealised world of Forza Horizon is probably the most pleasant experience you'll ever have inside a driving game.
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