It’s 4AM, and like a kid on Christmas morning, the anticipation for what the day has in store is stopping me from sleeping any longer.
That same sense of wonder is present too. The big difference? Instead of a pile of gifts from a mysterious bearded man, a variety of car experiences await me.
You see, I’ve woken up in a campsite in Mills Field at historic Goodwood Estate. The night before, the sound of a certain 1,400hp Mustang punctuated the rolling hills just outside Chichester. Ken Block’s at it again this morning too — a little later than 4AM, mercifully — but in between methanol-fuelled Toyo destruction, there’s an unfamiliar, very loud whooshing noise. As the sun rises, I venture out of my yurt to see the source: a hot air balloon is taking shape at the other end of the field.
It’s happening: the Forza Horizon festival is real, and it’s taking over Goodwood.
After a quick (and very tasty) breakfast, a huge convoy of Land Rover Defenders transports the assembled press to Goodwood House. No less than a McLaren Senna takes pride of place at the center of the driveway circle, and it keeps plenty of us distracted until we’re called over to the front door.
Playground Games’ Ralph Fulton is there, flanked by two Quantum of Solace Aston Martin DBSs on one side, and a DB5-DB10 pair to the other. He keeps the speech short, as there’s a lot of ground to cover over the next 10 hours.
The groggy-eyed guests split up into groups. My bunch should perk up pretty quickly: we’re told we’re starting the day with a blat through the forests of Goodwood in rally cars.
Left Two, Winter Over Crest
Three Subarus greet us at the top of the hill. We’re a few feet from the usual finish line for the Festival of Speed hill climb, but we’re not sticking to the paved stuff this morning.
Three soft-spoken rally pros introduce themselves as our pilots for this stage. These are legit rally cars, and given the narrow path through Goodwood’s forest, I know I’m glad it’s them behind the wheel and not me.
As tasty as the McRae-era first-gen Impreza is, it’s little wonder it’s the hardest one to grab a seat in. The WRX sets off with that characteristic flat-four bark. Two minutes later it bursts out of the trees to the side of base camp. The rear wheels stop rotating and the Scooby pitches completely sideways around the hairpin, throwing up a huge dust cloud on this picturesque British summer day. As soon as it’s appeared, it ducks down the hill and out of sight again. Yes, I would like my turn now please.
My first go is in the newest car here, the hatchback STI of around a decade ago. Once I’ve clambered over the roll-cage and strapped on the five-point harness, we head to the start line. It may lack the pedigree of its grandfather, but the hatch is no tardy relation. Right from the off, my driver gives it the beans, and I’m fighting to keep my head level.
We break free of the trees at the same point by the tent, and my driver takes the previous run’s angle through the hairpin as a personal challenge. What I didn’t realize was upon exit, we’d drop down into a brief tour of the centerpiece feature of Forza Horizon 4: the four seasons.
Suddenly, it’s winter. There’s snow plinking off the windshield, and I catch a glimpse of someone building a snowman beside the track. A few corners later spring has sprung, with colorful gardens lining the trail. Soon after a frisbee flies over our roof intake: two guys are enjoying summer as their female friend soaks up the sun.
Xbox has lined the course with the same flags and banners you find in the game. It all adds up to an excellent real-world experience pulled straight from the game. What doesn’t come from the digital world serves to elevate the experience: the constant rat-tat-tat of gravel echoing through the stripped interior and the heady smell of fuel and hard-worked brakes. My driver has two decades of experience and it shows. He’s a consummate wheelman, easily placing the car exactly where he wants it.
My second run is even wilder. I’ve swapped into the second-gen “Hawkeye” WRX, and my new driver is obviously a devout believer in the Book of Scandinavian Flicks. I spend a good portion of the run checking out the route ahead through my door window. It’s awesome.
At one point, Tanner Foust casually strolls into the tent between runs. He plays it straight, asking everyone how they’re liking their runs through the forest. Only once everyone realizes who it is who’s asking that the photo requests kick off.
Time is up at our first leg. Next up, a staple of Horizon: a Showcase Event!
Hovercraft vs Truck
Yes, an actual hovercraft. For safety reasons, we’re not talking the massive one in Horizon 4, but a more reasonable two-person item. The trophy truck is also out, with Ford’s Ranger subbing in. Not the new Raptor, either; it’s here for us to look over, but won’t be duelling with the hovercraft.
There’s a rough slalom wriggling its way down the mountain for the hovercraft. The truck goes its own way. There are a few tight corners in the grass, sure, but there’s also highly-banked bowls for us to navigate, a steep drop that definitely elicits some groans from the Ranger’s underbelly, and… pheasants. A lot of pheasants. Or at least, one less by the end of the day.
The divergent routes create a mad dash to the finish that, just like the game, is ripe for close photo finishes. The truck is far more fun than I expect: we’re really moving, and the jostling around in the cabin as we try to keep a bead on the hovercraft’s position is a rush.
Then again, this is an opportunity to ride in a freakin’ hovercraft. Those don’t come up often. I’m sitting right in front of the fan, so it’s loud — really loud — and requires you to literally lean into it through the corners. Xbox’s own Aaron Greenberg warned us over dinner last night to keep our mouths shut during corners in the hovercraft. It’s sage advice: I let out a brief yell of excitement as the truck closes in and immediately get the taste of freshly cut grass. Hey, lunch is soon — it’s good for building up your appetite, right?
McLaren’s Magic Carpet Ride
After a trip back to Mills Field for food and a burst of energy, we’re up at Goodwood House once more. Oogling the Senna — and getting what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try it on for size — a fleet of its little brothers roll up. There’s three 720S models, a 570GT, and a 570S Spider. In a particularly fetching shade of purple, it’s one of the more powerful cars that draws me in.
It’s still early days, and the hue might help, but the 720S is looking righter and righter in the flesh each time I see it. The first spotting was at E3 last year, and a handful around Toronto over the course of summer have done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. It’s a bit like the first Audi R8, actually. You have to trade out one controversial styling element (the side blade) for another (those eyes), but both cars offer a mix of supercar performance and everyday livability.
This is evident from the first 20 feet in the McLaren. I’ve experienced a 650S before, but not on the wide range of roads in its home country. Gravel roads are barely noticeable from sealed surfaces. The crowned and cratered roads around Goodwood offer the briefest of jiggles as the 720S simply takes them in stride. It breathes with the road in a way that seems completely at odds with its otherworldly appearance — the ride down in an Audi Q7 was more jarring. Have I mentioned how great visibility is?
Of course, that’s not what we’re in these cars for. There’s a sense that, while the McLaren is playing nice right now, its muscles are tensing, waiting to pounce. It’s so far away from the edges of its performance envelope that it’s almost gravitating to the Goodwood circuit, knowing that’s the most appropriate place for miles to truly let it off its leash. Tracking the 570GT taillights ahead as this million-pound convoy threads across southern Britain, a near-cloudless sky allowing the sun to streak across the car’s nose as we all take turns briefly squirting up to unpublishable speeds — it’s all pretty special feeling.
With the sky being so clear, our next experience seems incredibly well-timed…
Hot air balloons have been a staple of the Horizon series since it started. They’re back in FH4, and now we’re all going to take turns going up in one.
The basket is a mix of serenity and cacophony. It’s far louder than I expected as our pilot ignites the flame, heating thousands of square feet of air just above our heads. At the peak of the balloon, you could cook an egg in the air. The heat is intense too. I find myself leaning out of the basket a wee bit just to have mercy on my pale Canadian skin.
Once we’re up though, it’s so incredibly peaceful. We can see for miles (and miles, and miles) — I can see the coast, and the Isle of Wight is just off to my right. The vantage point really highlights the undulating landscape of the area, which naturally has me thinking about the similarities within Horizon 4. It really is hard to separate the two. Even if it’s not built a one-to-one recreation, Playground has nailed that feeling of the British countryside. It’s hard not to grin at a time like this.
Land Rover History Lesson
Feet firmly back on terra firma, it’s time for the last non-gaming experience of the day for our group. This will be the slowest drive of them all — even more than the hovercraft — and yet, for a non-native like me, it proves to be one of the most enjoyable.
There’s a lineup of old Land Rover Series IIs awaiting us. Each one is a slightly different shade of green, their inset headlights giving them a friendly, approachable face. We’re a bit behind schedule, so the plan to have us all drive is slung in the back alongside our gear, and the pros take over.
The S2 is pushing sixty years old. It has bags of character from the moment you open the door, which is the sort of thin, metallic item you’re sure you’ve seen on a fairground ride before. There’s zero pretension inside too. Come to think of it, there’s almost zero anything inside, outside of the bare essentials one needs to operate a vehicle.
It’s noisy, it rides terribly, the steering has about a half-turn of play, and there’s a perpetual smell of old car and motor oil. It’s an assault on the senses — and it’s awesome.
Maybe it’s because Land Rovers just aren’t as ubiquitous over in Canada-land, but I’m fascinated by this thing. It’s a time machine, offering a grumbly yardstick of just how far the automobile has come in half a century. It’s fun in its own way, even if the highest its speedometer ever climbs is a strained 40mph on a brief stretch of actual road.
Crawling over a deeply rutted back road, the Landy feels at home. My guide informs me that in the days of horses and carriages, this road was the main artery between Chichester and London. A hill to our right was the staging area at the time, and a key defensive position given the high ground. How perfect to be in such an integral part of British motoring history when getting info on the past of the country itself?
The Series IIs drop us off back at the House. The rest of the day is spent inside, playing the game itself and interviewing members of the Playground team (stay tuned for that). Each person I chat with is noticeably proud: the review embargo dropped yesterday, and a running average of 92 on Metacritic is cause for celebration.
I have an irrational hatred for the word “synergy”. But there’s no more appropriate word for what Playground, Xbox, and all of their partners have pulled off here. This launch has mirrored the product it’s about in a way few games could. Goodwood is the cultural epicenter for automotive passion in the United Kingdom, and it’s truly transformed into part of the Horizon Festival today. I’ve witnessed all four seasons, taken part in a Showcase Event, and flown up in a hot air balloon.
On a deeper level, the event also nails the social interaction aspect of the game. Most of our group reconvenes at the hotel later that evening, chatting about anything and everything over drinks until far later than I think any of us expected. We may all be here for Forza, but we’ve arrived through very different paths. It’s not important why you like cars, or which ones: liking them is all that matters.
Forza Horizon 4 is now out on store shelves. Thank you to Microsoft for having us along for the game’s launch!
All images courtesy of Microsoft and the author.