Across several reviews, I’ve praised Playground Games’ wonderful Forza Horizon series of open-world racing games for their free-spirited generosity. But this is getting ridiculous now.
Forza Horizon 4’s first expansion, Fortune Island, was released last week. As a package it is satisfying, but you wouldn’t call it lavish. Its new map consists of a small island in the far reaches of the North Sea, where a tiny fishing village clings to the edge of of a mass of barren moorland and marshland topped by jagged rocky peaks and liberally scattered with ruined viking longboats and druidic stone circles. The skies are either riven with lightning storms or pulsing with beautiful aurorae. It’s not the most lush or varied environment Playground’s artists have come up with, but personally I appreciate its stark Nordic atmosphere and mildly fantastic stylings – and the driving is exciting.
You also get 10 new cars exclusive to the expansion, including the new Lamborghini Urus SUV and a wood-panelled 1950s Morris Minor, and a wealth of new campaign content. There’s a series of drifting challenges, a pair of long-distance race layouts, a new form of PR stunt called the Trailblazer – a timed point-to-point dash across open terrain with no checkpoints – and a new campaign structure based around treasure hunting. Seasonal championship enthusiasts like myself will be delighted that the expansion doubles the number of these available in each weekly update.
It all sounds about right for your 15. But it’s not the amount of stuff here that I want to talk about – rather the way it’s dealt out.
Take the treasure hunting. This is the expansion’s most novel hook for seasoned Forza Horizon players. (The PR made much of the extreme weather conditions and treacherous roads, but these are familiar themes from the bluntly named Horizon 2 and 3 expansions, Storm Island and Blizzard Mountain.) As you race and rank up in Fortune Island’s discrete campaign, you are set (not very) cryptic riddles which are usually solved by attempting a specific challenge in a specific vehicle. Then you are rewarded with the rough location of a treasure chest to hunt for with a photo to help you locate it. This is much more fun and less frustrating than hunting for Barn Finds in the main game.
Some of the treasure chests unlock new cars but every single one contains a million credits. Now, I have played an awful lot of Forza Horizon 4, and I have not been hoarding cash: I’ve bought most of the houses and got involved in a bidding war on a vintage Alfa Romeo on the auction house. But I haven’t been spending it wildly, either, because the game is so absurdly generous with its cars, doling them out every few minutes from its slot-machine-inspired wheelspins, that I’ve seldom needed to actually buy new wheels.
Yet after just a few hours playing Fortune Island I am twice as rich as when I arrived. Byt the time I complete it and head back to the mainland I will have enough cash to buy Edinburgh Castle without breaking the bank. The expansion is drowning me in money, and if anything the wheelspins seem to be coming even thicker and faster, too. I suppose that’s the fantasy – go on a treasure hunt to a remote location, come back rich – but I find myself wishing it would slow down a bit.
The pace of unlocks, as it was in the main game, is far ahead of your ability to make use of them. I currently have dozens of unraced routes, marked as “new”, on both the mainland and Fortune Island maps, and I have probably driven less than a third of the cars in my garage. I could sell cars that I don’t want on the auction house, but unless they are rare finds I will actually make money faster by playing the game. Thanks to my taste for the seasonal championships, I haven’t finished any of the storylines, I have played little multiplayer, I have barely touched the excellent Rivals time trial system. I have the Ultimate edition of the game, which means I get two free Car Pass cars every week and all the DLC packs (haven’t got round to downloading them all), and also extra wheelspins and double Forzathon rewards. The game rewards me for playing it with twice as much stuff as I have time to use, and it keeps piling up exponentially. I’m being smothered in fun, and sometimes I find it weirdly stressful.
This seems like an odd thing to complain about. There are many players out there who would prefer to hand over their hard-earned and get everything unlocked from the start: every single car and route and feature and an infinite bank balance. I’ve paid for it all, their argument goes, so I want it all. And I do get that. But sometimes I like a little friction from my games, a little pushback. I like to have to save for a car I really want, or think about what I can afford to buy to be able to compete in a particular championship, rather than pick from one of the five untouched prize cars I’ve already received that are eligible. I like to look forward to what’s coming next rather than choose between one of the dozen things that opened up in the last hour of play. I like a game to show me its treasures one by one rather than dump them all in my lap.
Forza Horizon 4 is a magnificent game, one of the year’s best, and it cannot be faulted for its scope, its freedom and its celebratory sense of fun. Of course, it’s (almost) always better to be too generous than too mean. But the place this game is in, I think, says quite a lot about where game design has ended up in 2018. The content-casino approach of the loot box era lives on – but without the actual loot boxes, and married to the endless diversion expected of open worlds, it leaves us with a heedless, pointless economy of bounty where my time as a player is overvalued, and the hard work of the event designers and asset modellers and feature programmers starts to be devalued, because there will never be time to look at it all. “Never too much,” Luther Vandross once sang, but I am not sure the great man was right.