Sunday 23 September 2018

Forza Horizon 4 preview: A butter-smooth beast of a machine

Ronan Price talks Irish DLC, microtransactions and how the series has become progressively more outrageous with Ralph Fulton, creative director of Playground Games, ahead of the October release of Forza Horizon 4 on Xbox One and PC

Forza Horizon 4 is released on October 2
Forza Horizon 4 is released on October 2
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

IN a little clearing in the woods, we enter a glass room and spy a perspex lift shaft disappearing into the earth. Pressing a button brings the elevator silently to the surface and we descend into the bowels of the building, to be greeted by white corridors stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see.

This is the McLaren Technology Centre in leafy Woking, west of London, home to the F1 team and which does a fair impression of a Bond villain’s lair with its stark, minimalist décor and hidden underground labs.

But the most extraordinary sight comes just a few minutes later as we’re led on a tour of the research facility, where 2,000 people work for the racing team, the automotive branch and the applied technology arm.

The tour guide opens an non-descript door – white of course – and leads us into a long, curving hallway lined with maybe 100 F1 cars up to three rows deep. This is where prototypes and racing cars come to die, possibly. The pristine machines sit quietly, stripped of their engines, never to run again. We walk past them in silence for a couple of hundred metres, drinking in the history. No photos are allowed.

Playground Games creative director Ralph Fulton with the McLaren Senna in-game version behind him. Photo: Ronan Price
Playground Games creative director Ralph Fulton with the McLaren Senna in-game version behind him. Photo: Ronan Price

Outside, in the main hallway, we watch as technicians beaver away in glass-walled labs on engines, aerodynamic fins and other obscure accoutrements of the modern F1 car.

Not for nothing has Microsoft brought dozens of European journalists here to Woking for a hands-on session with near final code for Forza Horizon 4, the latest in the best-selling franchise which releases for Xbox One and PC on October 2. We’re obviously supposed to make the connection between the passion and precision of McLaren (ignoring its middling performance in this year’s constructors’ championship) with the craft and flair of Horizon. To hammer home the point, the gull-winged McLaren Senna supercar adorns the cover of the new game. We also get to admire a real one up close, though given that there are only 500 of them and they cost €850,000, it’s no surprise we aren’t allowed even sit into it.

Horizon is a series that now outshines its Forza Motorsport stablemate, with the arcadey FH3 comfortably overshadowing the more sober FM7 on the sales front.

Ralph Fulton is the creative director at Playground Games, which has been making the Horizon series since the beginning 150km up the road from Woking in Leamington Spa.

“I think it's no secret that Horizon 3 really broke out in a way that we had never experienced and in a way which set records for the franchise,” says Fulton as we sit down for an interview in one of McLaren’s all-white meeting rooms. “I think there's a lot of reasons for that. It was a great game. People really enjoyed it. But I think there's a tonne of other factors that contributed to that kind of breakout success."

He wisely demurs at my suggestion that Motorsport has tended to be po-faced where Horizon is cheeky and vibrant.

“The fundamental tonal difference is that Motorsport is serious,” explains Fulton, an affable thirty-something Scot who picks his words carefully. “They would describe it as serious. It's about perfecting racing lines and braking points and mastering tracks and shaving hundredths of a second. It's a serious business.

“We are right at the opposite end of that axis. We are about fun. I don't think we set out to make that the distinction but we've grown into that skin over the years. Now with each game, we've learned to embrace our sense of fun more than we did last time.

“The funny thing about the progression of our understanding of Horizon fun is that, in the first game, we weren't sure if that’s what we should do because we were starting off within what was known and understood about Forza. Whereas with each subsequent game, we said, yeah, people love doing big jumps. They'll find places in the world to go do them, so now we embrace that. Let's build big jumps, let's make it part of the game, maybe something you get rewarded for.”

Our hands-on time with Horizon 4 has already confirmed it as a technical tour-de-force – running in a gorgeous 4K at 30FPS or a butter-smooth 60FPS at lower resolution. FH4’s big “thing” this time out is mimicking the four seasons, which radically change the landscapes of the British countryside, the location for this year’s game after FH3 so successfully recreated coastal Australia.

A real McLaren Senna at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. Photo: Ronan Price
A real McLaren Senna at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. Photo: Ronan Price

Britain being so close to Ireland sparks my inevitable question: what about some Irish DLC?

Fulton laughs and nods to the Microsoft PR handler listening in: “We did speculate that would be your first question! We’ve nothing to announce specifically about that.

“What I would probably say generally is we really love doing the kind of expansions that we've become known for over the last couple of games. Which is to say, new areas, although don't take that as a hard and fast rule. But certainly being able to take players to a new location is something that we value. Being able to give them more of the stuff that they love about the game but also having a little bit of creative freedom that sort of departure allows – to do different or unexpected things.”

So take that as a long shot but, then again, Horizon has developed a little bit of a soft spot for the Irish, introducing Keira Harrison as the course director in FH3. She’s played by Joanne King, a Dublin actress who has also appeared in Casualty and The Tudors.

“Keira appeared in 3 for the first time,” notes Fulton. “She is effectively the game guide, she's the voice you hear the most. We wanted the most pleasing, frictionless accent for that character and we did a bit of research and there is research that shows a southern Irish accent is actually the most pleasing spoken English accent. That's why we went casting for that accent and we got the actor who plays Keira.”

Maybe Fulton’s overplaying the research a bit for my benefit but in any case the dulcet tones of Keira/Joanne make a welcome return in Horizon 4.

After the sales flop of recent racing game OnRush – made by a pedigree team with alumni from disbanded MotorStorm studio Evolution and published by Codemasters – industry chatter once again wonders whether car titles will find a audience.

Fulton, though, is having none of it – and not just because Microsoft is making FH4 one of its tentpole releases this year.

“I've heard that kind of narrative a number of times. It's very cyclical. For every year that people say, ‘oh there's not as many racing games’, the next year, there’ll be a glut of them and people will go, ‘Wow, what a renaissance for racing games’.

“I cannot speak to OnRush or what it's done in any way except to say I wouldn't necessarily attribute it a lack of demand for racing games in general. The other thing I would say as a general observation is that while it's true there are fewer racing games and fewer studios making them - that is pretty much true of every genre.

“There are fewer developers now, there are fewer titles released than if you're going back a generation or two generations. That's just the nature of the business. I think you could make the same kind of argument about a bunch of genres.”

One thing the Playground boss is certain about that microtransactions have no place in Horizon, an attitude incidentally that’s not reflected in Forza Motorsport.

He issues a flat denial that there’ll be widespread lootboxes or anything like that: “No, there won't. I'll make one caveat to that - you'll be able to buy a treasure map. We've actually had it in all Horizon games to date. It is as uncontentious as that kind of thing can be. But beyond that, absolutely no microtransactions. You won't be able to buy cars, etc.”

There’s time for one more question before Fulton shoots off to his next appointment and he cracks up when I ask him whether he could see a Battle Royale mode in FH4.

He pauses for a minute, grins at the PR handler and deadpans: “I think it's the law that you have do one now, so obviously…!”

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