Scotch Corner – Looking to the Horizon

Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 7th October 2018.

 

Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One and PC, £44.99)

RACE fans seem to have a never-ending appetite for new challenges — and that is a major challenge for the developers.  Fail and the keyboard warriors will destroy you.  Stay at the same level and the reaction will probably be just as bad.  No, you need to raise the bar.  Again.  And.  Again.  Playground Games might have thought they weren’t doing themselves any favours with Forza Horizon 3.  It served up a slice of arcade racing perfection in the Aussie Outback.  It then added some spectacular expansion packs that boosted the fever pitch even more.  So what do you do next?  The answer is the stunning Forza Horizon 4.  This is a Game Of the Year front-runner and a cert for cult status.

Horizon 4 see the action move from past sun-kissed locations to . . . Scotland and England as you bid to be crowned champion of the Horizon festival.  The hugely successful standard formula is still at the core of the game, but there are a few twists.  One: to take the top spot you don’t actually have to race.  The guys at Playground reckon Horizon is much more than an epic battle for first place.  You can now level up through painting, tuning, taking pictures, selling rides or even by watching others play on Mixer.  It’s a huge sea change to how you progress through the game.  You can earn influencer points with almost every action that you take.  Two: Seasons.  They will change every real-time week once you have completed your first year.  This means that the whole game can change dramatically from week to week, with snow-covered tracks in winter to lush green fields in summer.  The seasons also spark their own races and special events — like barn finds that can only be completed when a lake is frozen.

But many will still be getting their hands on this for the racing.  All the staple thrills and spills are there — from street racing to cross-country sprints — but the bucket list challenges have been replaced by standalone story-style sections.  You could be a stunt driver or have to help a streamer relive some classic Horizon gaming moments.  Each section has ten levels so there’s a far bit to get stuck into and more are expected after launch.  If that wasn’t enough there is the Forzathon side of things.  You now get set daily and weekly challenges as well as an hourly event where you team up with other players to complete three challenges to earn a special in-game currency that can earn special goodies.  These Forzathon Live events are tons of fun and have a Destiny 2 vibe as you all team up to take on a challenge in the online world.

So that’s the stories and the racing . . . but there’s more.  The Forza legend has always been about the cars.  Forza would not be Forza without a garage full of over-the-top horsepower and Horizon 4 doesn’t disappoint.  There is a mouth-watering array of hyper and supercars, hot hatches and true classics.  Even the Chief’s Warthog is back.  If the cars rev your engine, then the world will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  It looks stunning and is full of magic moments like flying over a hill and seeing the Forth bridges or street racing through rain-soaked Edinburgh streets at the witching hour.  Epic.  Scotland has never looked so good in a virtual world, but you also get to rip up a large chuck of the Lake District.  There are also treat locations to find like an airfield and quarry which open up the options for mischief, especially when you’re online with friends.

You can use the new wheel spin system, customise characters and buy property across the globe.  Yep, even Edinburgh Castle.  The level of details is mind-blowing — from the light reflecting off your car as it goes 120 mph to autumn leaves being blown around as you drift through them.  The series is known for having a banging soundtrack through various radio stations and this outing is no different.  There’s a new batch of tracks and artists to enjoy.  The message is simple — Forza Horizon 4 has taken one of — if not THE — best racers in the world and made it even better.  Take a bow Playground Games.  This is an absolute blast whether you are a racing fanatic or a casual gamer.

Score: 5/5

Developer Insight

SKILLS pay the bills in Forza — and that’s the way it going to stay, according to Playground Games creative director Ralph Fulton.  The Scot reckons the hours his team has spent on the skills system will give gamers a real buzz.  Speaking exclusively to me, he said:

“We have had skill and unlock perks since Horizon 2.  Basically, there was just a sheet of perks.  When you had unlocked them all, that was it done and the skills stopped being a meaningful pursuit and currency in the game.  We tried to fix that in 3.  It partly worked by having more pages of perks and some were reusable, meaning you could still spend points after you unlocked the core skills.  That was better but we still didn’t think it was enough of a payoff for what is one of our core second-to-second systems.  You’re doing skills all the time and we want players to be driving in a stylish way so we need to reward them.  That’s what the new system does — it applies a perk table to every car in the game so we have given you infinite reasons to keep doing skills and to keep working on them.  It lets you to invest skills in the car of your choice.”

But they weren’t finished there — the skills points can go on any car in the auction house.  And that is a big number.  Ralph, from Ayr, added:

“We have a some new interesting vehicles in the game like the trucks.  I think they are great.  They are pretty unlikely and I think it’s pretty nuts that people race them.  But when you transfer them into the Horizon world they take on a complete new dimension that they don’t have on a race track.  We are kind of getting to the point where, in terms of vehicle classes we can bring to the game, there isn’t that many left so racing trucks is the new vehicle type for Horizon 4.  I think our car list continues to be eclectic and it continues to do what I love in Horizon games, which is celebrate cars that have business being in racing games.  This time you’re going to see a strong thread of British cars right through the game, especially when it comes to the barn finds which is a feature we use to showcase a lot of the esoteric cars.”

There has been much talk recently about the loot box system and encouraging a pay-to-win philosophy, and Ralph fully backs Turn 10 and Microsoft in dropping the system from the series.  He said:

“It doesn’t change Horizon 4 because that’s never had loot boxes and it was never part of the plan.  I take the view if your economy is balanced and fairly set up in a way that is designed to be rewarding for players it doesn’t matter about the other stuff you put in.”

The game’s launch is the beginning of the journey for the team.  Ralph added:

“We love doing the kind of expansions we have become known for and we love using them as an opportunity to give our fans more of the stuff they love but also to do different and surprising things.  It is good for developers to challenge themselves and I think we have seen fans respond to that sort of strategy.  The way people responded to the Hot Wheels expansion was great even though it was a little bit of a shot in the dark.  I wasn’t certain how the Forza core would respond but they were incredibly open to it and welcomed that sort of variety.  I thought that was great so we will continue thinking about expansions.”

Precision Engineering

McLAREN may not be loving life in F1 at the moment, but their GT cars are king and they are determined to boss things in the virtual racing world.  Chris Tague, the Head of Merchandise, Licensing & Partnerships at McLaren, reckoned it was a no-brainer to team up with Microsoft and Turn 10.  He said:

“The strength of the car and the fact that the game was going to be set in the UK — it was almost like the stars had aligned.”

The firm has really bought in to the link between gaming and cars.  He added:

“We talk about the brand being bold and pioneering and the cars are at the edge of cutting edge tech so everything we do has to follow that.  We have seen the success as we have customers saying they bought the car based on having driven it in a game or their kids have.  We have embraced it and have seen success on the eSports side.  We started looking at it a few years ago and it’s started to grow.  We wanted to be first to try it.  The skills can transfer across to the real thing as we have seen with Rudy Van Buren our driver, who won last year’s Fastest Gamer competition.  Our chief executive Zak Brown is on record saying that our dream would be to take someone and have them be the F1 world champion.”

He added:

“Our track 25 plan has 18 new cars which gives us lot of opportunities to keep our partners happy.  Each of these titles has its own personality — from track to street racing games — so we can pick the car to match the title.”

Air and Power

FORZA is more than a racing game — it’s a living community.  Take pictures, tune cars or paint liveries — there are plenty of ways to shine . . . and Horizon has opened the door for you to show off your skillset.  Stunt maestro Joe Leech and turning ace Jamie Marchewka are two who are relishing the challenge.  York-based Joe has a passion of freestyle stunts and Forza let him create his own style.  He has now made around 370 videos which have had over 24 million views.  He said:

“I’ve been a massive fan of Ken Block and his Gymkhana videos for as long as I can remember. T hat’s why I wanted to learn how to do it in the virtual world.  My renditions take around two to three weeks to complete and I’ve made five over the past three years.”

But it’s not just about flipping 180 degrees and doing burn-outs.  Joe added:

“I would definitely say that at least 40 per cent of the Forza Horizon Community are drifters.  That community grows every day.”

And he intends to boost the thrills with Horizon 4.  He said:

“I want to give everyone the best possible Horizon 4 experience — mainly by providing downloadable content that everyone in the game can use.  Although I don’t live in Scotland where the game is based, I travel up there nearly every month.  No matter the video I create, It reflects that.  I’m really looking forward to the new route creator — there are unlimited possibilities for video creation with that tool.  It’s a fantastic addition.”

American tuner Jamie also reckons Horizon 4 is a game-changer.  He has built a reputation for squeezing a few horsepower more out of his virtual rides.  The Wisconsin wizard said:

“I was part of an early tuning group back in Forza Motorsport 2 in 2007.  The name was Poor Boys Tuning.  I started tuning for them and started to learn the art by feel and feedback from the team.”

He believes the top guys are the unsung heroes in the Forza community.  He added:

“Tuning is a core part of the game.  It takes a lot of patience to get it right.  Not only that but there is an endless amount of feedback — whether you like it or not.  I have never thought about the total I have done — it should be around a thousand.  As for the total number of downloads?  I am not sure.  I never check, I just tune because I like it and I enjoy that so many enjoy my work.  I will not take a different approach with Horizon 4 than I have with the other games.  I will complete the game, play online with the community and continue to tune.  I am currently over 50-shared tunes in Horizon 4 . . . and that’s pre-launch.”

He can’t wait to get under the hood of some of the car’s big stars.  Jamie added:

“I am going to tune for all of the types needed in the game.  I love the diversity of the game and that means my tunes must meet that demand.   There are drift zones, speed zones, stunt jumps, on road and off road.”

But what’s his tip for the best ride to grab?  He smiled as he admitted:

“For any Horizon game a good all-around car to have is a four-wheel drive, rally suspension, rally tyres and a lot of horsepower with good gearing.  I would recommend my S1 class 1992 Ford Cosworth.  It will do 200mph on or off-road, I promise.”

Shaken, not Stirred

IT’S 00-heaven with the new Forza Horizon 4 Best Of Bond pack.  It includes Aston Martins from the 1964 DB5 to the DB10, the 1999 BMW Z8 and Lotus Espirit S1.  The pack is out now — at £7.99.

Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2 Headset and SuperAmp (Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £219.99)

WHEN it comes to gaming headsets then Turtle Beach have set the bar with the Elite Pro series.  That creates its own pressure when the new version is released.  Expectations were very high for Elite Pro 2.  It would have been easy for them to rest on their laurels and make more of the same — or, dare we say it, let their levels drop.  Fortunately, the people at Turtle Beach were determined not to catch that disease — they have taken the Elite Pro 1 recipe and made it better.

The Elite Pro 2 headset is a more civilised beast than the original — they are clearly designed for home use whereas the originals where built for the eSports scene.  They now have removable ear cushions, which means you can replace them when they start showing signs of wear and tear.  There are also removable base plates which suggest some tasty customisation options at some point down the line.  The biggest change is that the T.A.C. control box has gone.  There is now a Super Amp which highlights the home arena — no more sliders that you can need to tweak to get your perfect settings.  Now, there is just one big dial for volume.  But the Elite Pro 2 has gone all high techy techy.  You need to download the app on your phone if you want more control because it can access all the stuff you used to do on the T.A.C.  Fire up the Bluetooth and the Super Amp will let you play audio from Spotify and YouTube through the headset from your phone.  You can also answer phone calls with them which is a really nice touch.

The headset has 50mm Nanoclear drivers that produce some epic sounds as we tested them with Forza Horizon 4, Rainbow Six Siege and Shadow of the Tomb Raider.  If the zoom, crash and roar is still not enough, you can use the rather unimaginatively named Super Human Hearing feature.  It comes into its own in FPS as you can hear footsteps so you can get the drop on approaching bad guys.  The mic isn’t the same as the tournament add-on on the original set, but it isn’t far off.  It’s excellent in chat parties and there is virtually no sound bleed from the background.  Gripes? The mute button is on the headset wire which is fiddly in the heat of battle.  The mic is on a flexible stalk so you can’t move it out of the way when not in use or if you are having a drink.  But that doesn’t hide the fact that Pro 2 is better than Pro 1.  You can’t ask for more than that.

Score: 5/5

I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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