A very interesting read from IGN about the October 2 - bound Forza Horizon 4! Holy moly this game will be sick!
Also, those who are worried about its online-only shared world feature....they will also have the usual offline mode in case you don't want that, I highlighted the section below where they talk about that....so those who don't like online, you can still enable to Drivatar offline mode apparently....good stuff....new location looks awesome! Details below!
Also, fyi, the 2 cover cars are the McLaren Senna & the 1997 Land Rover Defender 90
By Luke Reilly To say that Forza Horizon 3 has been a success might be understating things. It was named best racing game at both the 20th annual D.I.C.E. Awards and The Game Awards 2016, and picked up a BAFTA nomination for Best British Game at the 13th British Academy Games Awards for good measure. It was the most played game on Xbox in Australia in 2017 and is the best-selling Xbox One game down under since the launch of the console. Worldwide it’s moved millions of copies.
It’s one of the most critically-acclaimed racing games ever made.
“I think, to date, more than 9 million people have played Forza Horizon 3,” says Ralph Fulton, creative director at UK-based Forza Horizon developer Playground Games. “But if you’d told me right back around the launch window that that was going to be how it panned out? That's astonishing; that was beyond wildest dreams territory for this team.”
While the Playground team was confident in the game’s quality they were nonetheless unprepared for how Forza Horizon 3 was received.
But where would the team go next? How exactly do they follow up what happens to be the highest-rated Microsoft exclusive of this generation?
The answer, it turns out, was right on their doorstep.
Forza Horizon 4’s heavily-stylised version of Britain stretches from the centuries-old streets of Edinburgh to the quintessentially English villages of the Cotswolds, covering a variety of other distinct, postcard-perfect locations in the process, like the North of Scotland and North West England’s famous Lake District. It’s broad and absolutely gorgeous. For a man from the other side of the planet, Playground’s Britain looks to me like a decade of Top Gear episodes brought to life.
After a short glimpse at the foundations of Forza Horizon 4 it’s difficult to imagine the studio setting it anywhere else, although before I arrived at the studio Britain was not my first guess for the next stopover in the Horizon series. Fulton admits even he had to be convinced.
“I think I started from a kind of cynical position,” he says. “Why would I want to spend my time in Britain, when previously Horizon games have taken me to an exotic place? You know; Australia.”
“But, by comparison, I grew up in Scotland. I’ve lived in Scotland for 30-odd years; I’ve lived down here [in England] for 12. I’m super familiar with it, and familiarity breeds contempt, a little bit.”
According to Fulton the team charged with deciding where to set the next Horizon game did an exceptional job changing that mindset.
“This team during the concept for Forza Horizon 4, I think they did a really great job of trying to challenge those preconceptions and show us just what a great country we live in here,” says Fulton. “How varied it is, how beautiful it is. How historic it is, as well. I think we have our sense of history and that combines with our landscape to make a very unique location. So they did a great job of coming and saying, ‘Hey, we should consider Britain where we haven’t previously.’”
“I think this has been, more than any other, a passion project for the studio. I think everybody, as soon as we made that decision, was, like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to show Britain at the best it can be.’ The most beautiful. The most varied. We want this to be an advert for the country that certainly we all live in and, for most of us, we hail from. And think that’s been a really important paradigm shift in the way that we make a Horizon game.”
Forza Horizon 4 goes far beyond simply dropping the Horizon festival into Playground’s home turf, however. The team isn’t just bringing Britain to the open world racing scene; they’re bringing all four seasons along with it.
“’Seasons change everything’ sounds like a neat tagline, but it’s a really honest description of what actually happens from season to season… in our game,” says Fulton. “I think it’s testament to the production team and our tech art team, and our environment art team here at Playground who have managed to create basically four worlds the size of Forza Horizon 3, in one, for this game.”
The Playground crew has lined up a series of four screens, all in the same location of the map but each in a different season. The game is unsurprisingly exquisite but it’s the seasonal differences that are especially show-stopping. In summer the sun beams upon a small cottage tucked away in the Cotswolds area and grass glows a bold green. You can almost feel the warmth. Winter is a starkly different story; dusted in snow and noticeably more dim, thanks to the lower sun – with the skeletons of leafless trees silhouetted against the sky. Autumn is cool, all tinged in browns and yellows, with leaf litter carpeting the asphalt. Spring looks damp and fresh. It’s no exaggeration to say it really is four worlds in one.
Gathering a huge amount of environmental reference material is a crucial part of bringing a Forza Horizon game to life but studio art director Ben Penrose explains that this has previously been done at one particular point in time.
So we’ve gone over to Australia in the past and done all of the sky captures that we do; we’ve got all our photogrammetry information, all of our general photography reference for the artists,” says Penrose. “This time around it was a process that went all the way through the year.”
“So we were capturing spring, summer, autumn, winter – not necessarily in that order – but we were getting everything. And that’s important to us because it means we’re capturing every single nuance about each season in the UK.”
The sky is supremely important, partly because it usually takes up half the screen real estate, but also because it drives the game’s diverse lighting scenarios.
“Dynamic seasons has been a huge undertaking for us,” says lead lighting artist, Jamie Wood. “For Forza Horizon 3 we developed this practical photography approach to our time of day cycles. So we developed a custom camera rig; we were out in the wild away from the comfort of our desks and with this rig we shot high resolution, high dynamic range time lapses, which feed into our lighting and time of day cycle.”
“One of the most ambitious things last time was that we actually took this rig out to Australia. We actually captured a whole summer’s worth of lighting and that became the lighting in Forza Horizon 3. When we started looking at what we were going to do this time, with seasons in the mix, obviously shooting for a whole year blows that ambition out of the water, to another level. The assets that we create are full of these sheer, huge amounts of data; each shoot is 1.5 terabytes of photography that we process. We have dedicated people in house that just process skies as a full time job.”
ood explains that each day is basically a series of images, and that each moment in that time lapse is a unique lighting scenario in game.
“They’re a lot of work to make but we get a lot of value from doing them,” he says. “When you start to think of seasons and the UK when it comes to sky capture, there’s a huge diversity in what happens throughout the year, which is kind of what makes it worth us doing these captures seasonally.”
“In the summertime the sun actually rises in the north east and has quite a high sun arc, and sets over north west. Whereas the most extreme opposite to that, in winter, the sun actually rises a full 90 degrees around, has a very shallow sun arc – the sun never really gets high in the sky – and then it sets around in the south west.”
The difference this makes in game is significant, with noon in winter feeling cool and subdued, with the sun casting long shadows, and noon in summer being the complete opposite. But there’s still more the team discovered capturing British skies for Forza Horizon 4.
“There’s a thing about Britain that’s captured in those new data pieces which is really specific,” says Penrose. “We get all the contrails in this country overhead, which we didn’t actually get very much of in Australia – I’m guessing because you guys don’t have so much air traffic, right? Because it’s such a huge space. Everything’s so condensed here.”
Forza Horizon 4 also contains plenty of the agricultural influences the British landscape has in spades, which Penrose confirms was something the team couldn’t ignore.
“You will see all of our crops and our livestock adhering to their real life counterparts in game,” says Penrose. “So wheat fields will appear green and fresh in spring [and] return to their characteristic golden colour in summer. In autumn you’ll see all that harvested and baled up, ready to go, and in winter obviously the field will be fallow.”
Even the sheep get shorn (yes, there are animals and other wildlife like deer, rabbits, and chickens in the game and no, you can’t hit them, you monster).
“Beyond that, foliage was a huge, huge focus for us on this project,” says Penrose. “Obviously all our deciduous trees needed to change colour, as they do here, so each tree in autumn changes uniquely from tree to tree, and that is all dependent on the health of the tree, the soil, the moisture on the ground. So some trees will hold onto their greens for longer, some will become brown and golden, other will drop all of their leaves entirely. Over in spring, you’ve got blossoms starting to bud in our hedgerows and our blossom trees; in the woods you’ll start to see all those wildflowers you associate with spring, like bluebells and snowdrops.”
Wood adds that, by keeping track of the weather while capturing skies all year around, weather conditions throughout Forza Horizon’s seasons will be more authentic.
“We now have seasonal overrides for all our precipitation chances, chances of high winds,” says Wood. “Even the temperature and the rate at which roads dry in the different seasons is all built on that data that we’ve captured, throughout the seasons.”
From the outside looking in, it seems like an astonishing amount of work to get done in 18 months, but the results are already enormously impressive.
“It was a massive amount of work for the art team to take this on, and we did some big things that we knew we had to do,” says technical art director Gareth Harwood. “We added snow, we added frost; we knew we had to add that autumn colour to the game.”
“But while we were making this we also had quite a lot of subtleties that we knew we needed to add to the game. And when we were adding these subtleties and when we were creating it we realised that we couldn’t have created Britain without these seasonal varieties, and, if we were going to do seasons, Britain was the best place.
“I think spring for me is my favourite. The reason why is because it’s when Britain comes alive; it’s when colour and life comes to Britain. I might be mentioning some things here that, unless you’re in Britain, you don’t know about, but we created it all in game. So you’ve got the rabbits that appear on the centre of the roundabout and you have no idea how they got there. You’ve got the daffodils that only come up for two weeks in spring… you’ve got the ethereal bluebells that appear in forests, you’ve got that mist that hangs there in the valleys and then burns off, all sporadically punctuated by the April showers that we get, that seem to come and then disappear.
“We realised that every time you look at Britain, a month later it totally changes. If we weren’t able to recreate all those different seasons, I don’t think it would’ve felt like Britain. Creating a snapshot of Britain probably wouldn’t have felt like Britain.”
“There are no real half-measures there,” says Fulton. “There are no shortcuts. Seasons touch almost every single asset or asset type within our game with each seasonal change.”
That goes for sound, too.
“It’s very easy to blanket a country with the same sound if you’re not very aware of it,” explains senior audio designer Fraser Strachan. “But because I’ve travelled around the country quite a lot, I’m very aware that each area sounds very different and we’ve tried to capture that the best we can.”
“One of the things I really wanted to convey with the ambience of seasons and locations was not just a sense of place but also a sense of temperature. So with each of the seasons, you’ll feel like spring is very fresh and crisp; there’s lot of fresh new wildlife coming out. And as we move into the summer, it feels like the temperature’s risen. We’ve got more grasshoppers out, the wildlife’s changed and the landscape feels a bit different. Moving into autumn you can feel that it’s gotten a little bit colder, which is kind a nice thing to feel. It feels very different from the grasshoppers in the previous season. And again, we move into winter and things start to feel a little bit different; you’ve got different wildlife and it feels a bit colder.”
Strachan cues up several samples and the aural diversity between the seasons is fascinating, from the bleating of spring lambs to the jarring caw of crows in winter. It’s something I expect might be missed by those with the throttle permanently pinned and the music cranked up to 11 but hearing these additional layers of authenticity speaks volumes about Playground’s overall commitment to attention to detail.
“We’ve been up to Edinburgh tons of times to record stuff up there,” says Strachan, recalling a recording session at sunrise at the top of Edinburgh Castle, and another day where he spent “a good two hours” running alongside Edinburgh’s trams to capture the right sound. “It’s not just the daytime we record in as well; every location we were in we recorded during the day and also in the middle of the night, which is really great.”
“So everything you hear in Forza Horizon 4 changes based on not just location, but also season and time of day, which is really cool.”
Ambience is one thing, but seasons also change up the sound of the driving experience dramatically.
“We’ve got all new driving surfaces,” says Strachan. “We’ve got dry mud, we’ve got wet mud, we’ve got compact snow, deep snow, ice – there are tons of different surfaces you can drive on and we wanted to make sure that the sound of each one of those sounds is as unique as we possibly can get it.”
Strachan pauses to hurl a car through some thick snow and onto a frozen lake. There are several layers of audio hard at work here, from the muffled roar of ploughing through the powder, to the wads of snow being thrown from the rubber and the grate of tyres sliding across ice.
“We have three different layers,” he says. “We have the rolling on snow; if I was to go a bit slower you would hear that slow crunching of the powder. There’s also a skid layer, which gives you all of your [sounds] as you start to skid out, or if you burnout or peel.”
“But we also have kick up layers which, as you leave one surface and move onto the other, you get a little bit of ice or a little powdered snowball coming off your tyre. Even though you’ve changed surface type you get that nice transition between the two.”
Strachan dryly jokes that they nearly killed themselves recording the driving sounds for Forza Horizon 4, but he maintains it was all worth it.
“I was more concerned about my car,” he grins. “When we were out recording around the country there were tons of spots where we would drive past and go, ‘There’s loads of mud there; we need to record that!’ So we’d pull up at the site, one of the guys would get out with a microphone, and I would just ram my car through this mud.”
“My car has never been dirtier but, as I say, all in the line of duty. Everything you hear is new and fresh for this experience.”
Seasons also bring radical changes to Forza Horizon 4’s gameplay, obviously in relation to car handling.
“Seasons really dictate how a car drives in the UK,” explains senior car handling designer Chris Phillips. “The biggest thing in this is the temperature range you get in the UK; we can be over 30 degrees [Celsius] in the summer, well below zero in the winter. Cars are very temperature sensitive, specifically the tyre, so it really does change how the car drives.”
“So for Horizon 4 we created an entirely new temperature model. Seasons obviously have a big impact on this, but then from moment to moment both the time of day and the weather conditions can change the temperature. That’s then fed into the car.”
Playground was able to conduct plenty of winter testing to tune Forza Horizon 4’s handling dynamics thanks to the unseasonably nasty cold snap the UK was plunged into earlier this year.
“We even had the opportunity to go out to an off-road adventure park in these conditions… and this was really valuable reference,” says Phillips. “Not only for car handling, but we also passed this on to our level designers and our environment artists, and it’s gone into the [game]. We have an off-road adventure park in Horizon 4.”
According to Phillips, Forza Horizon 4’s seasons – in conjunction with the game’s 450 cars – is allowing Playground to fashion an incredibly deep and varied driving experience.
“Just last week I was setting up the [McLaren] Senna and I’d been driving it around in various conditions, testing it and the night feel, in the winter,” says Phillips. “The temperature drop for night in the winter is actually quite a bit and, all of a sudden, I started to lose a bit of front end from the car and I really had to adapt my driving.”
“It was a really pleasant experience; finally, after about three hours of testing I got this other side to the car I hadn’t experienced yet.”
It’s not just the feel of the cars that changes, either. Any given event could be a vastly different experience depending on the time of year it’s raced in. Any single corner could be fundamentally changed; a spring puddle could be a treacherous patch of ice in winter.
Chief game designer Ben Thaker-Fell demonstrates this by orchestrating a race across four separate screens in each of the four seasons. The course is identical and so is the car, but the experience is clearly quite distinct between each season.
“We have a cross country race that goes through a river, and the river’s quite dry in summer so it doesn’t have a huge effect on your car,” says Thaker-Fell. “As soon as you go to, say, spring that river’s quite full, it’s fast flowing, it starts to add a lot of drag, so having a high suspension set up really becomes essential.”
“And then in winter you’re actually driving on top of the river because the entire thing’s frozen, so you want off-road tyres. You’ve gotta be really conscious of all the understeer that driving on ice gives. It’s a really good example of just how different the game feels playing through from season to season.”
Thaker-Fell describes that it’s not just the road surface, or the foliage, or the climate itself that changes between seasons, but the gameplay content itself.
“Seasons coming and changing… gives us a really good place to hook and introduce new gameplay content,” he says. “So we introduce new race events, we introduce new seasonal things to do for the players, so every time you come back there’s also something to do.”
Introducing new events and activities as the seasons change is just one of a suite of changes to the way Forza Horizon 4 will be structured, compared to previous Horizon games. It’s something Playground is broadly calling Horizon Life – a conceit that revolves around spending 365 days a year as part of the Horizon Festival (not just a summer) and enjoying it among fellow Horizon fans from around the world.
The biggest change is the way Forza Horizon 4 is being built as a shared world game, where the AI-powered Drivatars of Forza Horizon 2 and 3 are being replaced by real players within a 72-player server.
“The reason we’re doing that is because we believe that real players, real drivers, actually will exhibit more interesting, more unpredictable, fun behaviours than we could ever program into even an AI system as sophisticated as Drivatar,” says Fulton. “They will just do fun, emergent, surprising things. And also because they’re real, they’re actually people you could have a relationship with; you could become friends with.”
“And it’s not just seeing other people; we’re all sharing in this world together. So everything in the game world is synchronised for all players. Time of day is synchronised. Weather conditions are synchronised. Seasons are synchronised. So seasons last one week per season, and then the season changes. So you will play in spring, for example, for a week, and then we’ll countdown to the season transition and you’ll move into summer.
“If it rains, everyone sees it together. If there’s a rainbow, everyone sees it together. If there’s a sunset, everyone sees it together. I think that shared experience – particularly in the world we live in today with sharing and Instagram and twitter – it’s actually a very current idea. That I can go in and actually live in this world with lots of other people, and we can experience the same things; we can talk about the same things. We can gang up and play the same things, together.”
It's important to note, however, that while the shared world experience is Playground’s vision for how best to enjoy Forza Horizon 4, it’s not an online-only game.
“Always online is a problem for people,” admits principal game designer Mike Brown. “Sometimes you just don’t want to play with other people; sometimes people are just put off by the idea of having to cope with other people.”
“It comes with loads of other problems, such as your internet goes down, you can’t play. Our servers go down; you can’t play. So we solved that problem by saying that Forza Horizon 4 will not be an always-online game. As much as this is a shared-world game, and we believe it’s much better played with other people, you can totally just click a button and play the entire game in single player with Drivatars if that’s your wont.”
“We sidestep the issues people have with losing connection to the server, or having poor internet, or losing their internet when they move house,” says Fulton. “We’re not forcing you to be online, and the game handles very gracefully either you opting out, or you losing connection – maybe our servers go down. What other games tend to do is maybe they’ll boot you out, you’ll be back at the front end, maybe you’ve lost progress. Doesn’t happen in our game; it’ll very seamlessly transition you back to an offline state of play, which is great.”
Of course, there are other problems that plague online-based experiences, but Playground explains it’s already intercepted and addressed a series of important ones to protect the traditional Forza Horizon experience. Yes, you can still pause the game. Yes, you can use photo mode. Yes, you can even rewind. And, no, you can’t be griefed by strangers.
“You can imagine the scenario,” begins Brown. “You’re flying through a drift zone, you’re about to nail your all-time high score, someone flies in from the side, ploughs into the side of you, ruins your day.”
This can’t happen in Forza Horizon 4, at least not with strangers. Players unknown to you will be ghosted on contact.
“Now any player you meet online who you’re not a friend with, who’s not in your convoy, they won’t be able to negatively impact your experience,” says Brown.
There’s also a quick chat system available via the d-pad for players without a mic, or who may be separated by language barriers. We’ll also be able to form convoys with players met within Forza Horizon 4 instantly and take part in every race and every activity in up to six-player co-op.
There’s been a big boost in the spectrum of racing content, driving content, and other activities on offer in Forza Horizon 4, too – all wrapped up under the Horizon Life umbrella. Regardless of how you play Forza Horizon games there’s a strong chance Forza Horizon 4 will be able to specifically cater for you.
“Looking at Forza Horizon 3 we found that people played that game a lot,” says Brown. “Most games have a really similar player graph; you launch the game and you have a big spike in players, then it tails off a bit. You hit Christmas, have another spike, then it tails off.”
“With Forza Horizon 3 that didn’t happen. There was the spike at launch and it went up, then it spiked at Christmas and it just carried on going up, and people just kept playing the game for months and month and months after launch.
“We hadn’t really built it for that – it had loads to do… [but] we hadn’t really built it in the same way as other games do when they’re trying to create some sort of live service.
With Forza Horizon 4 we wanted to really celebrate those people and give them stuff that they can play with. We wanted to give people something new every hour, every day, every week.”
The hourly content is something Playground Games is calling Forzathon Live, which will be open to any players currently roaming the map who wish to take part (Forzathon Live supports 12 players).
“What happens is you get 15 minutes and a group target of something like a Danger Sign, or an area where you have to do skills in, and it’s this cool piece of chaotic gameplay where… everyone’s taking part,” says Thaker-Fell. “If you manage to beat stage one in the time limit you then go through to stage two, and then eventually to stage three.”
“Then, at the end of it, everyone gets the same reward, which you can spend in this new area called the Forzathon Shop.”
There are no individual scoreboards; just a group target. The idea is that it’s geared around teamwork rather than competition.
“It’s like the cool stuff that you’ve always done in Forza Horizon and then the game gives you a reason to do it with people, without having to get you to officially have to group with someone,” says Thaker-Fell.
It goes well beyond just a regular cadence of activities rationed out daily, though. Forza Horizon 4 has been built from the ground up to cater for all Horizon players, not just those who want to race.
“One of the other great things which we’ve always found in Horizon is, because we have a really broad feature set, we end up with a really diverse set of players who play the game in really interesting and different ways,” says Brown. “Obviously there are people who come to race, but there’s equally people who don’t really want to race at all, and maybe they’re artistic and they want to express themselves in the livery creator.”
Brown explains that players who just want to explore, photographers, tuners, and painters will all be able to work through Horizon Life in Forza Horizon 4 in their own way. Even streamers, via Mixer, will be able to earn progress based on how often they stream and the viewers they amass.
“In Horizon Life you’ll be able to earn progress in the game… and level up and get rewards through any of those activities,” says Brown. “If all you want to do is paint, the game will recognise that; it will give you objectives and challenges and rewards, and you can level up and see all the game’s content just through being a painter. It’s the ultimate evolution of Forza’s play-how-you-want philosophy.”
There’s still more. Another feature, which Playground is dubbing Horizon Stories, adds a host of bespoke driving opportunities spearheaded by a large injection of new characters to the Horizon world.
“In previous games, everyone you’ve ever met at the festival, worked or lived at the festival,” says Brown. “Because you’re living there now we wanted to try and add more life to the world, so through a feature we’re calling Horizon Stories you’ll now meet people from around the UK; [they’re] colourful characters which will give you loads of really cool driving opportunities.”
Brown explains we’ll be able to pick up gigs like being a stunt driver in a movie, or assisting in a car documentary shoot.
Playground has also introduced purchasable properties to the game, from quaint country cottages to Edinburgh Castle itself, as well as the ability to buy businesses. The example given was a taxi firm, which will reward us for darting all over the map in a tricked-out Austin FX4. There’s even avatar customisation this time around – the cast of characters is the same crew introduced in Forza Horizon 3, but Forza Horizon 4 will ship with around 500 apparel choices designed to work across both genders. They’ll also be able to express 50 emotes that will be seen at key moments, like after races.
Fulton is very confident in Horizon Life.
“I think that’s going to land really well,” he says. “I think it’s a design born out of watching and understanding our players, and I think it makes for the most open, most freeing campaign design we’ve ever had.”