There are some genres of games that I just can’t get excited about. It doesn’t matter how cool they look, or how many features of the “game type things I quite enjoy” list they can tick off. It doesn’t matter how hard they’re marketed, or who tells me about how great they are; I just can’t get turned on by them. RTS games, for starters. Most puzzle games. JRPG’s – as no matter how amazing they look, the endless menu management ends up driving me insane.
And driving games. I can never get excited about driving games. Maybe it’s because on the days I head to my office for work, it’s a 100 mile round trip involving one of the busiest roads in the UK (A34, I’m looking at you. You suck.). I’m sure that when I was younger, driving was a pleasurable experience. I used to get a kick out of owning nice cars – or as nice as it’s possible to own in your early 20’s unless you’re prepared to spend every penny you earn on it. I have dim recollections of owning cars that I cared about enough to actually polish them. As I’ve gotten older though, cars have become little more than workhorses in different sizes, shapes, and colours – and driving has become something I do while listening to music or podcasts. I never ‘go for a drive’ anymore, preferring a book, or a game, or TV. Or a visit to the dentist.
In spite of this, every two years I find myself playing Forza Horizon. The latest installment - Forza Horizon 4 - dropped about a week ago – and it’s as great as all the usual websites are saying it is. In spite of my gaming time being swallowed the double whammy time-sinks that are Sea of Thieves and Destiny 2, I’ve found myself unable to resist its charms.
There’s something about the Horizon branch of the Forza games that’s simply a lot of fun. The main branch – the Forza Motorsport branch – takes itself far too seriously for me. I don’t particularly care about rev ranges, or suspension settings. BHP and torque ratings are for other people - probably ones who own toolkits, and understand ‘cams’. They're welcome to their dedication, it just doesn’t interest me. I’d place that kind of information up there with the casts of soap operas or the goings-on of reality TV shows in the ranks of things that I couldn’t give less of a toss about. Fortunately, Forza Horizon seems to take that stuff and offer it if you want it - and if you don’t want that, but just want to thrash around the countryside in a shocking pink Aston Martin while listening to Holst’s Planet Suite, then it can make that happen too.
This year, it's set right here in the UK – in spite of most of the cars in the game inexplicably having steering wheels on the left instead of the right, it's quite nice to see NPC vehicles driving on the left, roundabouts, and blue and green road signs. The Cotswold villages look like the average Brexit voter's wet dream, and the whole environment is staggeringly pretty in the game’s gorgeous lighting effects. The seasons pass, affecting everything from the lighting and the weather in the game to the handling of different cars – races feel very different in the summer season compared to their winter counterparts. After a brief period of hand-holding, it opens itself up to you and lets you do pretty much whatever you want - as long as what you want is to GO FAST. Every race you win seems to cause another thousand of the buggers to appear on the map.The game lets you race all the time, everywhere - even getting from one race to the next can be treated as a race. The races themselves involve roads, rally courses, a mix of both of those things in one race. Airfields crop up, as do races against Vulcan bombers, hovercraft, and the Flying Scotsman. The spectacle is spectacular, with the rubber banding on all of these set almost perfectly to ensure a victory by inches for the player each time. You can drive pretty much everything you'd ever think of wanting to drive, with some of the best cars being found in barns that pop up intermittently.
I think the main thing about Forza Horizon 4 though is the general positivity that it oozes. The in-game radio DJ's are chirpy. The music is generally uplifting (or it is from what I've listened to. A lifelong metalhead IRL, I find myself listing to the classical music on Timeless FM or the pop music on Horizon Pulse when I'm racing - go figure). There's no conflict in Forza Horizon. There's no gritty realism, political commentary, or, if you don't want it, even any real competition. An evening with Forza Horizon 4 can consist of nothing more than "fire up Xbox, switch off brain, go fast" - and please understand that I'm not levelling that observation as a criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact - it's a cause for celebration in my eyes. If you don't adjust the difficulty from the start or when the game suggests you do, you'll find yourself cruising to victory in race after race after race. Some people object to this. Hell, once upon a time, I may even have done so myself. These days? Not so much. I play with all the assists on, all the racing lines displayed, and all the damage off. I have games that I play because they're hard (looking at you, Last Wish raid in Destiny 2), some that I play because I love the experience (hello, Sea of Thieves), and some that I play because I can just win all the time and sometimes, that just feels bloody good.
If only real life Britain felt half as positive as its virtual equivalent.