“There are all sorts of things embodied by the LEGO brick. Geometry and mathematics and truth and proportion and shape and colour… it is a faintly spiritual activity that everybody connects with.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”
The Forza Horizon series has become a valued commodity as a long-standing Microsoft exclusive, getting its start on the Xbox 360 back in 2012. Consider Forza Horizon to be the “arcade-y” younger brother to the more simulation-style, hardcore track racer Forza Motorsport. Quick history lesson: after 4 iterations of the increasingly popular Forza Motorsport series (developed by Microsoft’s US-based Turn 10 Studios), an offshoot game was conceived when Turn 10 Studios collaborated with British developer Playground Games Limited. What was born was arguably the most impressive and inclusive open world racing game ever developed: Forza Horizon.
If you’re not familiar, the Forza Horizon concept basically takes on the form of a huge automotive racing celebration (the Horizon Festival), where multiple forms of motoring are on exhibition. It’s basically a Lollapalooza of racing and car culture. And it works brilliantly. It’s festive and fun, without being too “dude-bro’ or “grease monkey” (though it leans more towards the former). The Horizon Festival has a central hub, and then spreads dozens of on- and off-road races, stunt challenges, and crazy exhibition events to run across a huge open world of varying terrains and environments. All the while you earn cash and win cars to build up your garage. Along the way you can customize your vehicles in a variety of ways, both aesthetic and mechanically. There are whole Forza Horizon subcultures that revolve around just creating unique and detailed car liveries or developing that perfect tuning set up to break records. The Forza Horizon series managed to capture all the positive energy surrounding car culture, and funnelled it into a killer package of graphics and grab-and-go gameplay. To add to the interest and excitement, each iteration of the Forza Horizon sub-series places the festival in a new international location. The original game saw the festival pitch their tent in Colorado, USA with subsequent fests located in the French/Italian Riviera, Australia, and most recently, Great Britain.
If I’m coming across as a gushing fan of these games, I apologize. It’s not just that this series of games has something for nearly every auto racing fan, it’s also that the experience is completely customizable, making it accessible to just about any gamer who picks it up. Want to focus only on off-road driving? You can do that while still progressing. AI drivers beating through every turn? Crank down the difficulty. Want more sim-style feel to handling your car? Turn off some driver assists. Don’t want to race at all and just design and tune? Have at it. Each game in the series has built and expanded upon the previous, rewarding players with more and more to do in each iteration. On second thought, I don’t apologize. The Forza Horizon games are all phenomenal, with near-unanimously critically acclaimed standing.
Each game in the Forza Horizon series has had its own unique sets of optional downloadable content (DLC), expanding the game in new and interesting ways. Forza Horizon 4’s most recent DLC, Lego Speed Champions (released on June 13th 2019) takes us to the down-scaled world of LEGO Valley, and a whole new brick building and smashing environment to powerslide though. Based on the relatively new LEGO toy series (Speed Champions), there are all new challenges, races, stunts, and a even LEGO-sized domicile to build.
Oh, and before we go any further, it’s pronounced ‘FORT-Zah’, the Italian word for vigor, strength, or power. But it’s also used as a kind of rallying cry like “Forza, andiamo LEGO!” – “Come on, let’s go Lego!”
The Forza Horizon and Forza Motorsport series have essentially become the benchmark for graphical fidelity on Xbox consoles. The Forza Horizon 4 base game is currently that gold standard, and enhanced for the Xbox One X to run in native 4K resolution at 60 frames per second. The LEGO Speed Champions visuals unsurprisingly continue to maintain and uphold that standard, and virtual LEGO blocks have never looked so vibrant or real.
LEGO Speed Champions puts you in a new sub-area, LEGO, probably about 8 miles by 3 miles in scaled-off dimensions. It’s not as big as some of the Forza Horizon sub-series’ past DLC areas (Forza Horizon 4’s Fortune Island DLC released last December feels larger and has more vertical relief for recent comparison). The valley area itself is made from the same gorgeous Great Britain terrain models for the base game, but now a large percentage of the vegetation, and all of the buildings, structures, fences, have been replaced with LEGO. It feels as if you were out in your backyard with a bunch of LEGO kits that you laid out and integrated them right into the landscaping. It’s immersive and beautiful, without being strictly 100% LEGO.
The valley is comprised of a variety of LEGO-based environments, from a beach packed with pirate ships to an Area 51-style LEGO desert littered with UFO debris. You can plow through fields of LEGO flowers and crash through brick fences with reckless abandon. Dive into banked curves at the Falcon Speedway or drag race at the airport runway littered with LEGO planes. The usual day/night and weather cycles are present, identical to the base game, and the lighting effects are spectacular as the weather changes or as the sun begins to set.
The models for the LEGO cars you can drive here in the valley are detailed to a degree I could hardly believe. These look identical to having a LEGO kit sitting in your hand, right down to the little stickers you apply, or the wavering minor imperfections in the plastic you can see along the surface of a flat brick edge. You can even swap to the in-car camera views, and sure enough, you’re sitting in the actual LEGO cockpit. The level of and attention to detail is staggering.
Only 3 car models are available in LEGO form at present (plus one Barn Find car) – a nimble little souped up Mini Cooper, the glam hypercar cover model McLaren Senna, and a classic red Ferrari F40. I expect a few more will make their way to car pass owners down the line, especially since the actual LEGO Speed Champions Toy line has quite a few exciting cars in it already (Ford GT, Porsche 919, Audi R18 e-Tron, etc). But you can also drive any other non-LEGO car from your curated garage in the valley as well, which leads to a fun visual juxtaposition in some activities. It almost looks like you’ve invited your Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection to join in on the bricky goodness.
It’s almost too easy to take for granted the graphical achievement of what you’re seeing, because you’re having so much fun cruising around and careening through walls and trees to fully appreciate the details. But you should jump into photo mode if you want to really see the level of effort that went into recreating this colorful faux-acrylonitrile butadiene styrene environment. If game visuals are potentially approaching the point of true 1-to-1 photorealism (whether the natural world, or a pile of LEGO bricks) then Forza Horizon 4 is at the forefront of asymptotically reaching this point.
Radio tunes have always been a big part of the Forza Horizon tradition. From the beginning, the series has offered multiple stations with dozens of songs and a unique DJ for each, from classical to hip-hop to alternative. There’s always been a decent mix, although lacking in some genres. So what do you do when you add a LEGO world to the Forza universe? Add a new radio station, naturally. Enter Radio Awesome, a station devoted to the looping play of The Lego Movie‘s theme song “Everything is Awesome”. Initially it’s a cute touch that makes you smile, if only for a few minutes, before it begins to chip away at your sanity. Luckily you can always change the station or turn off the radio entirely.
The sound effects introduced into this DLC consist of a variety of LEGO noises of bricks and pieces colliding with your car and scattering all over the surrounding area. It’s satisfying and authentic enough to maintain the immersion that you’re not driving through the Scottish countryside anymore. Beyond that, there’s nothing new here aside from some additional dialogue recorded for your Brit handlers that guide you from activity to activity.
The way the Lego Speed Champions DLC handles relative to the base Forza Horizon 4 game is unchanged. Forza Horizon will never be mistaken for a sim racer, as it’s generally set up to feel and play in a more arcade style, damping down the physics of over/understeer. This works, as you’ll spend plenty of time driving off road, cutting across fields and streams to move around the map quickly or just sightsee off the beaten path. With so many game modes to choose from, a strict sim-style feel to the controls would serve only to frustrate when driving over so many different surfaces and slopes. All that said, if the default controls and driver assists make things feel too easy or you simply want more precise control over your ride, you can customize to your hearts content. Need to feel your Dodge Hellcat’s true power and massive oversteer? Just turn off the stability and traction control. Want to time your own shifts and maximize your time in the RPM power band in your Hennessey Venom? Set transmission to manual. Prefer to drive with a wheel and pedal setup? Adjust as needed to accommodate that type of controller set up. Allowing this kind of flexibility really allows the player to fine-tune the gameplay to whatever they want it to be. The game also encourages players to become more adept drivers by rewarding them with a modest cash and XP bonus if you turn many of these assists off. The base controls are solid for the novice to dive-in and get work done. But spend a little time fine-tuning your experience to exactly what you want/need, and you’ll be rewarded with an even more satisfying experience.
You can also address the difficulty of your actual AI controlled Driveatar opponents (other cars that populate your world based off your Xbox Live friends list) with enough settings to please both the novice and the experienced Forzahead. Adjusting these settings can make your AI racing experience exactly what you feel like playing at that moment, whether that’s blowing everyone away from the start, or struggling to finish in the top 3.
The variety of activities available in the LEGO Speed Champions DLC offers the usual Forza Horizon 4 fare and more. Road, trail, and cross-country races (both circuit and point-to-point) are there for the more traditional race fans. The PR stunt events include speed traps, speed zones, distance jumps, drift zones, and the newer trailblazer events (introduced in the last DLC, Fortune Island) for the adrenaline junkies who want to see how fast they can whip their car through an S-curve or how far they can jump off a cliff before hitting the ground. There are also two new drag racing locations, a host of new XP boosting billboards to find and smash, more achievements to knock out. And if you’re a fan of the story mode “missions”, another 10 have been added at the LEGO Hype offices.
New to the massive checklist of things to do is the construction of your LEGO mansion. Forza Horizon 4 introduced the ownership of homes on the main map, used as a hub for working on your cars and working on other customizable features. This DLC gives you the option to become the Master Builder, and in doing so you’ll be awarded components to your very own LEGO estate. To become a Master Builder, you’ll need to collect bricks, and you get them in varying amounts from basically doing just about anything in the game; winning races, completing stunts, smashing a certain number of items under a time limit, and even some other oddball activities will get you bricks that help complete your goal to finish off your domicile. Even just randomly driving around will net you a few more bricks towards Master Builder status.
Even if running these tasks gets boring, the game has so many cars and customization options, that if you hit a stumbling block, you can usually find a car or a setup that will help you to overcome whatever you’re finding difficult or tedious. You don’t have to feel bad knowing that you can’t get gold on a certain speed zone in your stock Lamborghini Gallardo, because you can tune it or simply find a more appropriate vehicle to get the job done. Multiple ways to overcome challenging activities, coupled with so many activities that you can focus on what you like best, is what makes this game so enjoyable. Do what you want, without feeling like your progress will be stunted. Or if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy almost every activity available, so the variety level is high and the life of the game is extended long term.
Online Play: 7/10
Playing online in racing games is often a painful, infuriating experience. Griefers who use your bumper as a brake, or push you out of the racing line just for “fun” are among the lowest life forms on the planet. And if you’re online in free roam mode, Forza Horizon 4 will automatically populate your game with other random players. This initially sounds like it could be a disaster, but these drivers are made intangible, so they can’t mess with your experience. However, you can invite them to interact with you at your leisure, and vice versa. It adds to the open world by seeing other real players rip-roaring all over the place, rather than the relatively boring Sunday Drivetars that clog up the roads. And if you truly prefer the solitude of AI-only drivers, you can turn off the online free roam.
LEGO Valley still gets the Forzathon Live events (a series of group cooperative challenges signalled by a the appearance of an overhead blimp) that gets everybody in the area working towards a common goal (cumulative jump distances or speed). All the vibrancy of an online community, with none of the jackassery. It works, at least until you want to compete with other live players directly. And it’s the first step in turning the Forza Horizon sub-series into an MMO experience.
Rivals mode allows for races against another players’ cloud-saved online ghost, representing their best individual lap times for you to beat. LEGO Speed Champions brings you another set of circuits and runs to get your times on record. PR stunts also record your best performances, so you can compete indirectly when running these as well.
If you decide you want to jump into games with other live players where bumper-to-bumper collisions are present, PvP and Adventure modes are the ticket, both of which allow racing and other games in groups. Adventure mode racing is pretty standard stuff, with the body of drivers divided up into red and blue teams (which helps reduce the level of griefing), while PvP is a free-for-all. Playground games are a mixed bag of activities like Capture the Flag, Zombie Tag, and Kingmaker modes. These can be fun in the right car and an active group, but the novelty of these modes can wear off quickly after you play a few rounds. One frustrating aspect of these modes are that you never know exactly what map or area you’ll be running in until after your car selection, so you can be faced with a less than ideal vehicle for the terrain/conditions. Too often here you need to take a multi-purpose vehicle, as opposed to your favorite whip. This seems counter to the overall spirit of the game, which to me means driving what you want, when you want, and while still finding success.
At this point, the Forza Horizon concept is no longer new, so it’s up to the DLC packs to bring something new to each iteration of the base game. Forza Horizon 3 hit the first DLC home run with their hugely successful Hot Wheels Pack. And with LEGO Speed Champions, Forza Horizon 4 found a new way to be different from the more standard formula of “here’s a new place to drive”. And while LEGO video games themselves are hardly unique (pick nearly any major franchise in pop culture, and there’s a LEGO game for it), a dedicated racing title hasn’t been done since the NINTENDO64 days (LEGO Racers).
Combining the LEGO Speed Champions toy line with the video game world of Forza Horizon is a natural, if obvious, fit. Much like the Forza Horizon 3 Hot Wheels pack, the LEGO Speed Champions DLC stands out because it’s such a different place to explore and drive than just another island. At first glance, it appears to be just a skin deep change from photorealism to LEGO, but play for a while, and you find yourself chugging around LEGO Valley and smashing into stuff more often than you would in the British Isles (if for no other reason than to see what will break and what won’t). It changes the way you’d normally play. As you get deeper into the various activities, you’ll find yourself sucked into the alternate versions to get more bricks. You’re playing for these bricks in new ways to get rewards and see what new LEGO structure gets built or what happens after you track down all those alien UFO orbs. More carrots on the stick dangled in front of us but still making the game feel a little different at the same time.
The only thing that feels missing is some kind of build-a-car that allows you to custom build your own Frankenstein’s monster of a car using components scavenged off different vehicles. A LEGO hybrid ambulance made from a GMC panel van and a BWM X6 would be a capital thing.
As with all previous Forza Horizon games, they’re designed with maximum accessibility in mind. LEGO Speed Champions is no different. Even if you bought Forza Horizon 4 and it sat on your shelf for months after you bought it, you could pick up this DLC and start playing without skipping a beat. If your garage is light, they give you so many ways to earn cash and win cars you’ll have more rides than you know what to do with after an hour or two. If a race is too hard, just adjust your driver aids and AI difficulty. If you don’t know what to do next, just do whatever feels fun, even if that’s running the same event over and over (you’ll still progress). Dive in, start driving (anywhere), and good things will happen. It really is that simple and accommodating.
It’s probably pretty clear by now that there’s a lot to do in LEGO Speed Champions. And there are a lot little mcguffins to keep you driving and racing. Once you finish all the odds and ends, there are seasonal objectives that cycle through weekly. Get through that, and there are new cars to save your cash for, friends’ records to break, and online adventures to be had. This all adds up to almost unprecedented replay value. The only thing keeping this review parameter from hitting a perfect 10 here is that there just aren’t enough LEGO specific cars to experience (yet anyways).
My Personal Score: 9/10
I’ve logged over 230 hours in Forza Horizon 4, and about 15 of those are from the opening week of LEGO Speed Champions, and I’m still playing on a nightly basis. I like to believe that I don’t sink that kind of time into a game that isn’t of the highest caliber. This latest expansion has re-engaged me fully, not only to the new content, but to go back to the base game and go back to running stuff I finished months ago. Why? Because this whole package plays every bit as good as it looks. I can spend one night running off-road cross-country races and smashing fences in a Lamborghini Urus, the next running high speed track runs in a Koenigsegg Agera on a track made of LEGOs. The variety keeps me engaged and the shiny bricks are eye candy wrapped around a tried and tuned racing engine. If you enjoy driving games even a little and own an Xbox, you’ve probably already played Forza Horizon 4. If you’ve got an fondness at all for LEGO, this DLC is a must buy. And honestly, if there’s anybody out there who doesn’t enjoy LEGO in some form, I’m not sure I want to meet them.
Aggregate Score: 8.4
The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room. Racing games are in his blood and shmups are etched on his soul. Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.
Categories: Game Review