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The reveal of Forza Horizon 4, at Microsoft’s official pre-E3 briefing show. (Microsoft Photo)

The Forza series of racing games goes back to 2005 and the original Xbox, where the original Forza Motorsport served as Xbox’s answer to Sony’s exclusive Gran Turismo franchise. Since 2012, releases in the Forza series have alternated between Motorsport, a series of racing simulators with intensely realistic physics, and Horizon, a series of open-world racing/exploration games that run on the same engine, with the same intensely realistic physics. Forza has been published directly by Microsoft since its inception, and has traditionally been one of the big exclusives for the Xbox line of consoles.

Forza Horizon 4 takes the open-world half of the franchise back to the U.K., to the home of the sub-series’s traditional developer, Playground Games. The central conceit of Horizon is that you’re one of the racers who’s come to attend the traveling Horizon Festival, a street-racing event that encompasses Britain, Wales, and Scotland. This year, it’s in the English countryside, modeled after the environment right outside Playground Games’s window. As an attendant at the festival, you can collect and customize a fleet of real-world cars — each one precisely modeled to match a murderers’ row of current and classic machines — by winning the races you encounter out in the world.

Two of the classic British cars available to collect in Forza Horizon 4. (Microsoft image)

The key phrase during the demo was “living the Horizon life.” Past Horizon games were boldly plotless affairs that were mostly about treating the game as sort of a dream vacation, letting you drive around, enter races on a whim, and engage in activities against the backdrop of some endless picturesque summer environment. This time out, you actually have a goal, and a narrative: you aren’t a guest or administrator at the festival, but a permanent resident. You stay at the festival year-round, collecting cars, buying properties to use as fast-travel points, and accruing influence at the festival through your contributions, until you finally manage to achieve the rank of Horizon Superstar.

Typically, this would mean winning as many races as possible, but Horizon 4 notably subverts that. You can earn influence in a variety of ways, such as through photography or detailing rides. Theoretically, you can reach the end of the Horizon 4 narrative without ever leaving your garage; you could spend the entire time detailing cars and streaming via Microsoft’s Mixer service and still achieve enough influence to become a superstar. There are also promised narrative missions, such as stunt driving or working as a cabbie, which should be worth some decent influence, including one that’s rumored to play a lot like the classic Dreamcast game Crazy Taxi.

The year-round residency in the festival area also means that you can watch the seasons change. Every week, the Horizon 4 world will cycle to the next time of year, taking you through spring, summer, fall, and winter, with the world around you changing to match. This brings new challenges with it, including inclement weather, frozen lakes, dry river beds, and muddy terrain to race over or through.

Two official pieces of Forza Horizon 4 art, on the wall of a dressing room at the Microsoft Theater, showing the same cottage in winter and spring. (GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde)

You can opt to play the entirety of Horizon 4 by yourself, using “Drivatar” bots as your racing opponents, or play entirely online on instanced servers that can support up to 72 players at once. In order to prevent griefing, any player that you are not actively grouped with will be “ghosted”: they simply have collision detection turned off entirely, and other cars treat them like they’re intangible.

Forza Horizon 4 is slated for exclusive release on Oct. 2 as an Xbox “Play Anywhere” title — buy it once, and you can then play it on any Xbox One or a PC running Windows 10. The standard edition retails for $59.99; you can also purchase the deluxe edition for $79.99, which comes with a “Car Pass” that gives you two new cars for your collection every week for the next 21 weeks, starting on Oct. 2. Serious Forza fans can buy the ultimate edition for $99.99, which automatically includes two planned expansion packs, VIP membership, the car pass, and early access to the game starting on Sept. 28.

All editions of Forza Horizon 4, if pre-ordered digitally, come with a Formula Drift Car Pack, which works with both Horizon 4 and the forthcoming Motorsport 7, and adds seven new Formula Drift cars to your collection.

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