If I listed all the strange days in my life, September 26, 2018, would be near the top.
Normally, I would wake up, get ready for work, commute to the office, drink enough coffee to compel a sloth to sign up for Zumba classes, and start chipping away at a mountain of emails.
However, last Wednesday was different.
A loud roar like a jet engine woke me up with a start, and my still-half-asleep brain was wondering why I was in a yurt. I unzipped the entrance enough to poke my head out and was greeted with the sight of an enormous hot air balloon being inflated. A man in the basket sent another jet of yellow and blue flames up into the balloon, saw me, waved and said “mornin’”.
I rubbed my eyes, nodded and popped my head back inside; the freezing cold morning air snapping my memory back into focus.
Xbox had recreated the Forza Horizon 4 world on the 12,000-acre Goodwood estate, in Sussex, and I was lucky enough to be invited to what Aaron Greenberg, the General Manager for Games Marketing at Microsoft, called “the biggest launch we’ve ever done for Forza”.
The highly-anticipated open-world driving game received rave reviews ahead of the Ultimate Edition’s launch on September 28 – the Standard Edition and Game Pass release will follow on October 2.
The fourth instalment of the series, made by Playground Games, is set in the UK, and features changing seasons and more than 450 vehicles from history and the present day. To succeed in the game, players will have to adapt their driving style to cope with on and off-road races during spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Outside the luxurious yurt that I had been assigned for the night, a very loud hot air balloon, a red Ferrari and a blue Lamborghini were parked on the grass in the late-summer sun. Both cars were emblazed with the words “Forza Horizon 4”, and were just a taste of what was to come.
After satisfying my coffee fix (some morning routines must never be changed) I jumped into a slightly more affordable Land Rover Discovery and was driven a short distance to Goodwood House. If the Ferrari and the Lamborghini were tastes of the day ahead, then what was on display outside the 17th century residence was a feast for the eyes.
A McLaren Senna sat on the gravel driveway, sunlight bouncing off every glorious curve and the “Horizon” numberplate. The car features on the cover of the Forza Horizon 4 box, and the digital version drives the same as the real one. That means that if you play the game in 4K at 60 frames per second, you can experience what 0-62mph in 2.7 seconds and a top speed of 211mph looks like.
I jumped out of the Land Rover before it had even stopped, ran over to the Senna and very carefully lowered myself into the driver’s seat. There were buttons everywhere, and a sliding digital screen showing the speed (unfortunately it remained at 0mph). It’s every tech and car fan’s dream. The previous day the Senna had raced four motorbikes across the Goodwood estate, with Xbox capturing the whole thing on film. I wasn’t allowed to do that, but I did pair my phone with the Senna so I could test out the sound system. Now my map app thinks I own one of these £750,000 cars and shows me the location. It’s a bittersweet feeling.
I saw the next range of cars parked outside Goodwood House as I was lying on the ground. When you’re 6ft 5in, it’s impossible to get out of a sports car with any grace or style, and I ended up rolling and tumbling out of the Senna, landing in the gravel.
When the dust had cleared, I got up, patted myself down, checked no one had seen what had just happened, and casually strode across to the four Aston Martins flanking the huge, pillared entrance to the house – two versions of the DBS from the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (a pristine model and one of the beaten-up stunt cars used in the movie), a £4.5 million DB5 driven by Sean Connery in the 1964 classic Goldfinger and the DB10 from Spectre.
Two weeks ago Xbox announced that a James Bond add-on pack for Forza Horizon 4 would be released from day one, offering players the opportunity to drive 10 vehicles from across 50 years of the 007 films.
Several of the cars will also feature film-inspired gadgets that gamers will be able to view in Forzavista mode, which lets you walk around vehicles and see them in detail. The 1964 James Bond Edition Aston Martin DB5, for example, will feature numerous gadgets such as a revolving number plate and extendable bumper rams. The 1977 James Bond Edition Lotus Esprit S1 has a special body kit option inspired by the “Wet Nellie” submarine vehicle from The Spy Who Loved Me.
In addition to the cars, players who own the Best of Bond Car Pack will also receive some additional items, including three James Bond outfits and six “Quick Chat” phrases for use in the game.
Leaving the Bond cars behind, I went inside Goodwood House to play Forza Horizon 4 – on my own in an expensive-looking driving rig, as well as with other gamers in a car “tag” event.
While driving very fast in the game was fun, I was itching to feel some speed in real-life. I walked back outside to be greeted by four McLaren 720 S cars – in black, orange, white and dark purple. It’s a beast of a car, boasting a design inspired by the Great White Shark, but is the lightest in its class at just 1,283kg. That means it can go from 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds and hit a top speed of 215mph. I opened the passenger-side, vertical door of the black McLaren 720 S and (for the second time that day) lowered myself carefully into the car.
What followed was 20 minutes of adrenaline and white knuckles. All four cars travelled in convoy off the Goodwood estate and onto public roads. We got a lot of stares from passers-by when my driver decided to show off our vehicle’s acceleration, which pinned me to my seat as the engine roared behind me. It sounded amazing and it was over too quickly for me.
We had arrived at our next event – a hot air balloon ride. The Forza Horizon series has a long association with this scenic mode of transport: they can be found flying above most of the Horizon Festivals dotted across every game’s map, and you have to race a fleet of them in Forza Horizon 2.
I’m going to confess something now that few people know. I hate heights. I like my feet on the ground, preferably in my living room while I’m holding an Xbox controller. So, I had planned to pull out of any activities that involved being airborne; but then I started thinking about how many chances I would get to do something like this and I took the plunge (luckily, not literally). It was a beautiful, clear day and we rose high enough to see the Isle of Wight, Chichester Cathedral and Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.
“The highest I’ve flown is 17,000ft over the Swiss Alps. I needed oxygen,” our pilot said. Thankfully, we didn’t go that high, and I was grateful when we finally descended back to Earth. I was so proud of myself for even stepping into a hot air balloon that I phoned my wife and Tweeted about it.
I was dying to get back to the fun stuff, and Xbox obliged. We were heading to the next event in a 60-year-old Land Rover Discovery (the other vehicle on the front of the Forza Horizon 4 box), and I would be behind the wheel. Yes! This was more like it.
It only had four gears but I barely used first: “This vehicle’s got so much torque you should be pulling away in second,” my co-driver, who worked for Goodwood House, said. A plaque on the dashboard said the Land Rover could reach 122mph, but the engine sounded like it was going to explode at 60mph. I had a hard time slowing it down at that speed, as the brakes are as “classic” as the steering, and I nearly hit the car in front a couple of times (sorry to whomever was driving that red Fiat Punto).
We soon headed off-road and took a chalk track that used to be the main route from Chichester to London for horse-drawn carriages. Keeping the Land Rover in a low gear was essential here, as was concentration, as the ride was bumpy, to say the least.
“Take your foot off the clutch and brake and let it go on its own, it won’t stall,” my co-driver said. I was used to driving a modern car with the constant fear that I would stall it. No such problems in the Land Rover – it effortlessly rolled downhill without even thinking about stalling.
A few corners later (“turn in early or you’ll end up on the wrong side of the road”) and we were back at Goodwood House, ready for our final two challenges.
Earlier that day, Greenberg had told me: “Some of the stuff we are doing here at Goodwood is just flat-out crazy. I rode in a hovercraft as I raced a Ford Raptor truck down a hill!”
At the time, I agreed that it sounded a bit crazy, and perhaps should only be attempted by those playing Forza Horizon 4. Greenberg smiled, and now I know why – I was going to have to do it, too. At least they gave me a crash helmet.
The Raptor – the only one in Europe – was faster, but the hovercraft experience was definitely scarier. The giant fan threw up so much dust and grass that I was looking at the floor for most of the race, just hanging on and leaning in tandem with my driver.
I thought the hovercraft had lost heavily but my ride in the Raptor revealed the race was actually very close. The Ford’s driver threw the truck into corners, surged up and down hills and sped across bumpy grass – it was uncomfortable, fast and fun!
However, even that experience was nothing compared with what the Xbox team had lined up next. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to face.
One of the highlights of Forza Horizon 4 is its changing seasons. Every week players will have to get to grips with a new driving environment – sun, rain, snow and much more will test them to their gaming limits. Areas that are cut off by a lake in summer will open up in winter when the water freezes, offering new experiences and places to explore.
Xbox wanted to recreate this in real-life at Goodwood, so they built a rally course that featured fake snow in the air, on the ground and the trees (winter), a couple picking fake flowers on fake grass (spring), a group of friends throwing a frisbee while having a picnic (summer) and a man throwing leaves at our car as we passed (autumn).
I didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy that, however, as my professional rally driver pushed our Ford Escort to its limits. Speed, tight corners, handbrake turns, jumps – at one point our rally car was airborne – this course had it all. We shot off like a rocket, into the first tight left-hander, straight, 180-degree turn using the handbrake, accelerate, up into sixth gear, speeding along, a few shallow turns, tight right-hander, left-hander, very fast straight, jump, across the finish line. That’s when I exhaled for the first time – I had been holding my breath for the entire ride.
On the way back to my yurt we passed the McLaren Senna that started it all. As I watched the setting sun bounce off those curves for the last time, I realised that car summed up my day perfectly – it was fast, exciting and made me feel like anything was possible.
I drove home, booted up Forza Horizon 4 and chose the McLaren Senna one more time.