With Forza Horizon 2 Microsoft Studios finally injects some life into their flagship new-gen racing franchise.
Whilst I love Forza 5 it is a bit dry. Even the PS3’s Gran Turismo 6 – not exactly a party animal in itself – has more soul than the Xbox One’s launch-day racing game. Forza 5 is a nice game, but a bit on the dull side.
Enter UK outfit Playground Games who have built upon Turn 10’s excellent racing technology to bring us Forza Horizon 2.
As before, the game is set around the fictional Horizon racing festival. For this outing the scenery has shifted from the rugged landscape of Colorado to the far more picturesque countryside along the border of southern France and northern Italy.
And it looks beautiful.
Exploring quaint old European towns, villages and the odd vineyard is made all the more fulfilling by that fact that you can do it at breakneck speed in a range of cars from a 60s VW camper to a 2015 Ford Mustang GT.
With over 200 cars and using the same awesome physics system, Forza Horizon 2 is like Forza 5’s missing campaign mode. The cars still handle themselves very realistically, but this time the circuits are more frantic and a darn sight more exciting.
The game also sees the return of the unfortunately-named Drivertar AI. As with Forza 5 as you play the game it creates your own Drivertar, which is an AI racer based on your driving style.
Drivertars from Forza 5 also populate the world, so expect to see some familiar Gamertags when to switch the game on. Whilst you are away from the game your Drivertar will be entering races and earning you credits, which are collected when you log back in.
Players progress within the game by entering a series of racing championships. Each championship is set around one of six different festival hubs. Each hub has a number of different racing categories based on a class of cars eligible, for instance hot hatches, American classics and 90s rally.
After choosing the championship and selecting a car, either from your garage or buying a new one, you embark on a road trip to the championship’s hub location. Whilst not exactly a race, it is timed, the reward being an XP boost.
Whilst you only need to win fifteen championships to enter the Horizon Finale, the game boasts 168 championships made up from 700 individual events. That’s a lot of races.
But, Forza Horizon 2 is about more than just winning races, it’s also about looking good whilst you are winning. Stylish driving earns XP, chaining skilful driving manoeuvres together earns even more XP. You gain XP for drifting, near misses, smashing street furniture and even doing donuts.
Obtain enough XP and you’ll level up, giving you a change to earn extra cash or a prize car via a pokie-style Horizon Wheelspin. On a spin of the wheel you can win anything from a few thousand credits to a super-car worth a hundred-thousand credits.
It’s not all circuits and point-to-point racing. There are five Showcases in the game, offering exhilarating distractions as they put players up against unlikely racing opponents. Driver have to race against a team of exhibition jet planes, a steam locomotive, 37 hot air balloons- floating so low overhead that they are practically touching your roof, a crop duster and a transport plane. Each Showcase in a nail-biting affair with the result usually right down to the wire.
After each Showcase, and similarly after every other event, the race gets unlocked and becomes a challenge event for players to race against their rivals.
As players progress through the game you earn skill points to spend on perks. These unlock things like XP multipliers for certain events, extra credits and discounts on new cars. It’s a nice way for a player to tune the game’s reward system to their particular play-style.
Horizon 2 is not short on things to do. The beautiful Mediterranean countryside is littered with collectables and side missions. You can waste hours just hooning around breaking the randomly placed XP and fast travel boards.
Prestigious cars are parked up all over the map, each one offering a special bucket list challenge- like driving a McLaren F1 though a speed trap.
Just like Forza 5, the game caters for all levels of driving skill. There a whole host of setting like ABS, racing lines and damage that can be adjusted to suit players’ abilities. The more assists engaged the less of a credit bonus per race.
As is becoming the norm in racing games these days, one of the settings is a rewind function. This allows a do-over if it all goes wrong with a quick press of the Y button, rewinding the race to a safe point to try things again. Purest may decry it, but personally I think it avoid a lot of the frustration that you would ordinarily get if you lost a race due to a lapse of concentration at the 99% mark.
Unlike 2012’s Forza Horizon, there are very few fences in the game that you can’t smash right through. This means drivers can pretty-much drive where they want, ripping though fields and along dirt shortcuts. This opens the map up even more, especially considering it’s about three times the size of the last game anyway.
As much fun as it is smashing through fences and driving off-road through vineyards, there is a downside. Although it was premium DLC addition to the first Forza Horizon, the rally mode was a fully-fledged rally championship, almost up there with Codemasters’ Dirt games. In Forza Horizon 2 the rally championships are nothing more than a hooning romp across the countryside racing against the other Drivertars. It would’ve been nice to see a proper staged rally championship thrown in similar to the excellent mode added to the first game.
Whilst it looks glorious most of the time, Forza Horizon 2 is still a bit of a mixed bag in the visuals department. During the day the graphics range from very, very nice to jaw-dropping. At night though, the superb ambient daylight is replaced by some less impressive textures lit by some very fake-looking lights. To be fair, it’s more about the daytime lighting looking so nice rather than the night-time lighting looking so bad.
The beautiful landscape, that looks so inviting in the bright sunshine, take a more dramatic turn when the weather changes. The game’s dynamic weather ranges from light spitting, though to torrential downpours and fog.
Each of the cars has a number of internal and external camera views, with working windscreen wipers when it rains. It’s worth noting that using the dashboard or bonnet view whilst going off-road can put you at a major disadvantage when you drive though tall vegetation that blocks your view.
Forza Horizon 2 pours a bit of “awesome” into the mix, as we swap the dad-friendly Top Gear antics of Forza 5 for some pulse-pounding radio stations. Whilst it’s cool to hear the DJs reference the events that you’ve just completed, the radio stations are not going to be for everyone. If you thought EA’s in-game radio stations were grating, steel yourself for those in Forza Horizons 2.
Having an open-world populated Drivertars, which are effectively AI ghost cars, is a little odd and perhaps a step backwards. Games like Test Drive Unlimited and even the recent Need for Speed: Rivals have given players a similar environment, but populated it with real players. Whilst there is an option for online open world, I’m surprised in this day and age that this isn’t the default and the offline mode the optional.
The game does have a raft of social features, such as the car club. Whilst it was difficult to really appreciate during my review sessions, with only a small amount of players online. I did join a few online road trips and have some fun partaking in online championships.
Forza Horizon 2 is a joy to play. Playground Games have taken Turn 10s technically excellent Forza 5 and made it into one of the most varied and enjoyable racing experiences I’ve ever played. Not as “online” as it could be, the game still features enough social integration to accommodate players keen to get bragging rights over there mates.
I can’t recommend this game enough, I loved it and I’m pretty sure most Xbox One owners will love it as well.