I'll always have a massive soft spot for the down under delights of Forza Horizon 3, but open-world racing has never looked as good as it does in Forza Horizon 4. It combines a beautiful world that's really four hugely distinct maps in one with a constantly rewarding and self-renewing racing experience and I really can't tear myself away from it. Playground Games hasn't just upped the ante once again; it's blown the bloody doors off.
The improvements to F1 2018 since the already-impressive F1 2017 are largely incremental and often very subtle – and there are still a few areas where it's openly coasting on previous efforts – but F1 2018 features the finest handling and force feedback for a dedicated F1 game to date, some welcome visual improvements, and a career mode that does a better job than ever at capturing the nuances of the world's most-popular motorsport.
The Crew 2 is big, confident, and stuffed with arcade racing action – land, sea, and air. There's undoubtedly something still charming about a racing game that lets us drive an F1 car across the Golden Gate bridge, fly a Spitfire through the Grand Canyon, and crash a monster truck through Central Park, but its uneven presentation, lack of events that use its best features, and absent PvP is a bummer.
Gravel is a game displaced. It's a competent and occasionally pretty pick-up-and-play arcade racing game at its core, but it has the whiff of a game released in the wrong era – a scent it just can't shake. A 2018 rendition of '90s ambition. Gravel certainly channels the spirit and straightforward simplicity of Milestone's own 1997 arcade off-roader Screamer Rally but it has no unique hook for today's audience; no over-the-top arcade pizazz that folks will still be discussing 10 or 15 years down the track. It's functional and fun enough in small bursts, but arcade racers have come a long way over the past two decades and Gravel doesn't bring any new ideas to the paddock.
Need for Speed Payback is a big, competent, and confident arcade racer but it's really let down by its linear cop chases, its overwrought and insidious upgrade system, its dreadful dialogue, and its superficial action sequences. It feels fine and it looks flashy, but Payback really went all-in on its direct-to-DVD revenge tale and it was a bust for me.
In many ways, GT Sport is the most polished Gran Turismo game in over a decade. It looks great, feels great, and what's here has been carefully and well executed. However, while I can forgive the sprinkling of eccentric nonsense, the lack of car and track content really hurts, and the online-only nature of the vast majority of it is worrying. Overall it just isn't as complete as its key competitors.
Microsoft pitched Forza Motorsport 7 as the ultimate automotive playset, and it's hard to argue otherwise. With enough cars to fill a dozen museums and the most generous selection of tracks to date in the series, the amount of driving, experimenting, and racing here is absolutely mammoth. Accessible as always for beginners but crammed with content targeted at lifelong car junkies, Forza Motorsport 7 is Turn 10's finest love letter to speed and style this generation, no matter what language you speak.
Project CARS 2 plays like a pumped-up version of the classic TOCA Race Driver 3 from 2006, redressing many of the complaints levelled at the original. The handling has been tuned to a T, the content is excellently curated, and the amount of variety and racing available in it is delightfully daunting.
F1 2017 isn't light years ahead of the already very good F1 2016 but the new cars, retro content, and the juiced-up career mode make a very strong case for the upgrade, and I really appreciated the enhanced force feedback on a wheel. Rich with details and faithful to just about everything that makes contemporary F1 tick, F1 2017 is about as good a simulation of a single, modern motorsport as you can get.
Back in 2011, pro racer, stunt driver, and X-Games gold medallist Travis Pastrana successfully launched his Team Hot Wheels trophy truck further than any other four-wheeled vehicle in history. He did it from a giant jump assembled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built to appear like a life-sized length of bright orange Hot Wheels track. Forza Horizon 3: Hot Wheels is Pastrana's enormous toy ramp surrounded by a city-sized network of equally insane stunt tracks: a bedroom floor on an unlimited budget. What's not to love? A delightful, daring, and different expansion that reinforces Forza Horizon 3's reputation as one of the best racing games ever made.
FlatOut 4: Total Insanity is better than I'd feared but not as good as I'd hoped. Kylotonn has dredged this near-forgotten racing rebel from the very bottom of the barrel and fashioned it into a basic but fun, stunt-filled speedster, but I found myself regularly frustrated with its repetitive career mode, its stingy economy and nebulous unlockables, its superficial demolition derby events, and its uneven difficulty. A respectable franchise rescue mission but one that still needs some fine tuning and some extra grunt.
Small in size compared to the full map, Forza Horizon 3: Blizzard Mountain nonetheless packs in a huge pile of fresh races and challenges. It’s kept me busy for days already, and I’ve already played Forza Horizon 3 more than any other game this year. Boasting an absolutely gorgeous environment, terrific snow effects, and just about everything else that’s made Forza Horizon 3 the best racing game this generation, Blizzard Mountain should be a compulsory stopover for anyone looking to expand the Forza Horizon 3 experience, or seeking a good reason to dive back in. The weather outside is frightful, but this game is so delightful.
Hitman Episode 6: Hokkaido is one of the best levels this season and a great mission to end the year on. The map itself is very good, the atmosphere is excellent, and the hits are challenging. Tricky and more than a little James Bond-esque (the snowed-in private clinic has a real SPECTRE / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service vibe to it), Hokkaido is vintage Hitman at its most creative.