Forza Horizon 4 is the best James Bond game in years
In James Bond’s cinematic maiden voyage, Dr No, there is, in fact, a flotilla of first times. Early on is our first glimpse of him in a casino, in the early hours of the morning – the closest he gets to sleeping. As he plays Chemin de fer, the gurgling twang of Monty Norman’s Bond theme echoes, as if down a gun barrel, and builds with lurches of brass. It’s cued up again as Bond drives his Sunbeam Alpine down a dusty mountain road. Later on, it simmers while he walks up to a hotel check-in desk. It’s as if the theme, brandished like a bottle of Bollinger, christens these small scenes as they sail into our memory.
Bond games, on the other hand, have never settled for anything as subtle. The ‘Bond moments’ of games like Everything or Nothing and Nightfire consist chiefly of shooting things – car tyres, explosive barrels, heads. Doing so would summon a sonic explosion, letting you know that, for the briefest of moments, you did it the way the man himself would have. Back in 2000, 007 Racing was similarly fueled by fire, opting for overkill and deflated by Bond’s recurring arch nemesis: plot. But what the music most craves is moments of idling underkill.
Playing Forza Horizon 4 recently, I have begun humming it to myself. I first thought nothing of it; I can’t tell you how many times that tune has injected much-needed espionage into Tesco trips, stretches of inactivity at bus stops, and even ambles to the kitchen for coffee. But this was different. As I crooned, it came to me. I wasn’t livening up dull patches – far from it – I was crowning Bond moments for what they always should have been in games: pockets of quiet splendour that sweep their way into matchless thrill. Forza Horizon 4 was doing what no game has managed: it made me feel as Bond might behind the wheel.
What’s more, it did so with full licence. The Best of Bond car pack, included in the Ultimate Edition of the game, puts ten of his most iconic cars in your garage. The car is the closest thing 007 gets to a tombstone. As the actors come and go, the cars stand parked next to one another like rows in a cemetery, inseparable from their time and their drivers. (It’s no wonder Daniel Craig, climbing into Connery’s Aston Martin DB5, in Skyfall, looked like a boxed bulldog on his way to the vet.) Piloting these machines isn’t about fold-out skis, spring-loaded machine guns, and stinger missiles lurking behind the headlights. (Though, in a stroke of genius, these are available to ogle in Forzavista mode.) It’s about what the rest of Forza Horizon 4 is about: driving, and looking good while doing it.
Cruising through Forza’s damp country in a 1986 Aston Martin V8 Vantage is the closest most of us will come to knowing how Timothy Dalton thinks – you can imagine his crisp features creased with concern as you demolish a dry stone wall. Unlike any other Bond, Dalton’s pain wouldn’t be for the paint on the car; it would be for the farmer left picking up the pieces. As neurotic as it seems, I drove more carefully in the Vantage.
Brosnan, on the other hand, considered a car the way you might a pair of spang new boots – looking forward to it being broken in with bullet holes and rollered with mud. As such, I found myself using the 1999 BMW Z8 for green laning, carving the hillsides into an earthy carcass, looking for barn finds and herding sheep. It’s a far cry from what it was subjected to in The World is Not Enough, in which it gets chewed in two by a rack of buzzsaws.
When it came to the 1977 Lotus Espirit, it felt as if I had gone to another planet: one in which Roger Moore’s avenue-wide lapels were acceptable, in which the imagination flares like his trousers, and each screeching drift is described by the arch of his eyebrow. The Espirit feels riven from the road, fording rivers with a flush of white water. You feel as if you could drive it on Saturn’s rings.
Which isn’t to suggest, for a second, that any of these machines require anything but the most leisurely of hands at the wheel. Indeed, the satisfaction arises because you are undogged by the obstinate objective marker; without an MI6 boffin barking orders in your ear; and free of infernal henchman, who tail you and hail you with gunfire. By all means, go off-road; cut, like a sluice, through a stream; indulge your sweet tooth with the odd popcorn manoeuvre. But feel free to do none of the above. The best fun is to roleplay a secret agent on a Sunday drive, while humming a familiar tune.