I've always enjoyed the Forza series in general and applauded Turn 10 for the way that they've managed to create a game series for racers and drivers and car aficionados of all capabilities, ensuring that petrolheads come back time and time again thanks to exceptional vehicle modelling, options to tailor the Forza games to one's own specifications in terms of simulation and skill, addictive progression mechanics and rewarding unlocks, and car-porn camerawork that might make the BBC Top Gear team deliver an ovation.
The original Horizon made all of that even more accessible, choosing to target a younger, fresher audience with a Festival concept and a soundtrack curated by Rob Da Bank. It might not have been to everyone's tastes, but it clearly worked. Although Criterion had already busted open-world racing right open with Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Horizon delivered something perhaps a little more cohesive, a little more robust, and a little more diverse.
'People told us that they'd play Forza Horizon to relax,' Playground Games' Ralph Fulton told me at a recent event, and it's not difficult to see why. In my review, I likened the spirit of Forza Horizon to the same spirit that encourages driving fans to take their beloved vehicles out for a Sunday spin. You do it for the love of it, the feel of the car, and the thrill of the open road. It's not about casual or hardcore, it's about capturing that spirit, and Horizon managed to do that in a way that few other games in the genre can come close to boasting.
The dusty tracks of Colorado are abandoned in the sequel for the sweeping coastlines of Southern France and a Northern Italy, on a map that Playground are touting as being three times the size of the original game's. The difference is clear already, and for this European writer at least, enormously welcome. Even in the short demo I breezed through, everything seems a little more vibrant, the vineyards and rolling fields delivering more colour, peppered with quaint Mediterranean villages. The Lamborghini that adorns every shot of Horizon 2's marketing is certainly more at home here - a millionaire's paradise, and a driving fan's dream.
Fulton told me that Beauty is one of the core pillars underpinning Playground's vision for Horizon 2, and it's easy to see why. I always say that one of the key features of open world games is traversal, but if you consider Horizon 2 as a game all about traversal (driving in this case) equally as important is the world out there begging to be explored. The larger world does mean a sacrifice in framerate -- Horizon 2 will run at 1080p and 30FPS rather than the 60FPS boasted by Forza V.
"I think what we did on Horizon was demonstrate that, and this is really important, a locked frame rate that's absolutely solid and never drops is the most important thing for our game," Fulton told IGN back at E3. "30 [fps] actually enables us to realize that experience. [...] I think I remember that's always a hot-button topic, until a game comes out and people go, 'Oh, this actually really works.' But 1080p was an absolute must for us; it's the benchmark for next-gen." In spite of a few concessions made to expand the world, there's something sumptuous about the locale in this game, aided by the dynamic weather systems that seem to be all the rage at the moment in the genre, and extra power of the Xbox One -- hundreds of little visual tidbits and sights that you want to explore. And explore you most certainly can.
Gone are the artificial walls and fences of the first game, with barriers placed far more realistically this time around. If you want to fashion yourself a shortcut in a race, the chances are that you can. If you want to veer off the beaten track and tear up a vineyard, you absolutely can. Wooden fences are there to be smashed in the name of curiosity, the European countryside a canvas on which you can paint a petrol masterpiece. But the roads themselves real natural rather than purposefully crafted , and it's clear that Playground have done their research.
But you won't be the only one.
As hideous a word as Drivatar is, Forza V proved that extrapolating user information to create more dynamic AI systems was well worth the extra effort. As nice as the game looked, and it looked stunning, *this* is what we want to see from next-gen -- improved systems improving gameplay. Instead of random AI challengers populating the streets of Horizon 2, it'll be your friends and Live acquaintances, their personalities and petrolhead predilections roaming the land, waiting for you to challenge them. Speed traps make a return, as do one-button instigations of head-to-head point-to-point battles on the fly in the open world, but there'll be more to come as well. You'll always be earning XP as others take on your Drivatar, and those of others will race in a more human manner, taking the shortcuts and the risks that their owners would take, and making the same mistakes too.
But as Fulton said, it's not just about competition. Playground want to make Horizon 2 a more social space for all involved, and a big part of that will come in the form of new Car Meets. Essentially a virtual multiplayer showroom, this is where you'll be able to meet new friends, check out their vehicles and their custom liveries, lift the ones you like, ignore the ones you don't, and maybe engage in a friendly race or co-operative gameplay. Just like a meet in real life, you'll be able to inspect each and every vehicle there at length, should you wish, download the customisations of others, with a nice little kickback for the creator involved too.
We're told that Skills will return. The Horizon festival once again sits at the heart of things, and RDB is back in charge of the playlist, but Fulton says that it'll be much bigger and far more diverse than before. We're holding out for a large helping classic rock in amongst the pulsating party beats. And maybe a a Radio 3 parody if you set foot in a Bentley. Points can be earned for pretty much anything, and chaining together smooth driving, near misses, sick drift, and wanton destruction will once again pave the path to leaderboard success. If the game felt a little too arcadey in the demo -- the Lamborghini Huracan should not be this easy to drive -- I'm hoping it's because I didn't sit there tailoring the game to my exact benchmark for balancing for an hour. The original Forza Horizon sat nicely between Forza Motorsport and Need For Speed, and this winter Playground will be hoping to provide something a little different to the simulation of Project Cars and the more restrained Driveclub.
But the genre is pretty packed this winter, and Horizon 2's biggest competitor is likely to be The Crew -- an even more expansive game looking to serve up perhaps an even greater degree of seamless multiplayer connectivity. But the aces in the hole are lie behind the Forza name and what it embodies -- the supremely customisable experience, and now the AI benchmark in the genre. If Playground can fill their world with near-endless opportunities, something that's simply impossible to judge from a brief demo, Horizon 2 could well come out on top this winter as the game with the most to offer car fans of any level. One thing is for certain: racing fans are going to be spoiled for choice come Christmas.