Platforms: Xbox 360 | Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Forza Horizon 2 is the most fun I've had on four wheels since BurnOut Paradise.
It's not really a racing game, but there's certainly no shortage of races. More than 700 events and dozens of championships are scattered over a gorgeous open swathe of idealised European countryside, a playground for two hundred cars rendered in the series' fetishistic attention to detail. You'll challenge capable Drivatar AI to ad hoc showdowns with a single button, thrash monstrous off-roaders across vineyards, chase down an aerial stunt team in a Ferrari, form online clubs and get together with your friends for virtual multi-event road trips, all while trying to make your way to the Horizon Festival's grand finale.
But at its core, Forza Horizon 2 isn't about memorising apices and placing first. It's the primal yet powerful joy that comes from simply driving beautiful machines around stunning scenery. It's the thrill of sliding a 1969 Ferrari Dino around a perilous mountain road to The Marriage Of Figaro. The heart-stopping roar of your Lamborghini Diablo perfectly setting off the William Tell Overture as you cruise over a sun-baked hill, or getting air in a VW Camper Van during a midnight thunderstorm as fireworks explode in the distance. A thousand beautiful, personal, perfect automotive moments.
Oh, and I just smashed a Bentley through a greenhouse for a laugh. The races may be intense, but Forza Horizon 2 comes alive when you're just driving for the sheer sake of it.
Following its success in the first Forza Horizon, the Horizon Festival has now expanded to Europe, inviting the world's best drivers to ply their trade around an enormous microcosm of France, Spain and Italy to delight a baying crowd of partygoing hipsters. It's vastly streamlined and cuts out much of the intrusive baggage of the original, though the festival and its immature too-cool-for-school-so-hip-it-hurts atmosphere still looms large over the early game like a trendy tarantula.
You're still forced to listen to two hateful companions (your main contact is a false-faced slimy PR officer who's too well-observed for his own good!) and idiotic yet blessedly optional radio pundits, who continually invite you to "put your hands up" and "start the party" at events you never actually attend. Worse, despite the welcome absence of an overarching story, we're cast as a gormless mute sporting well-groomed face fuzz and immersion badly suffers as a result. We're not really the star of our own automotive fantasy. Why is a random lad in a tight shirt driving my cars?!
Get a clue, Playground Games. You don't need to give me a new face and you definitely don't have to give me a stupid excuse to drive stunning supercars around eyepopping scenery. I already want to do that. I'd do it all day if I could.
Thankfully, Forza Horizon 2 lets me.
The open world is expansive without becoming too barren and listless: a tract of small dense towns, sweeping hills, vineyards, lakes and mesas, with events and experience-granting optional billboards scattered liberally across it. New dynamic weather introduces rain showers, storms and day/night transitions, changing the handling model while making the setting feel alive and unpredictable. Driving around this sundrenched playground is an utter joy whether you stick to the roads or blaze a trail across country and through fences, wonderfully accompanied by a classical music radio station that you should seek out as soon as possible, but it would have been overwhelming if introduced all at once. This is where the Horizon Festival totally redeems itself by adding a solid structure to the proceedings.
Each themed championship (from rally monsters to rare cult classics, modern hypercars and everything in between - the choice is yours) begins with a Road Trip: a leisure drive to one of the hub towns that lets you familiarise yourself with your car of choice and experience the joy of driving in a stress-free way, letting you roam without losing direction and focus. Once you arrive, the relevant races then spawn in at convenient locations in relatively close proximity, allowing you to approach them at your own pace and even navigate there using a genuinely helpful Kinect-enabled Sat Nav. Or just tool off in search of ramps and arable farmland to terrorise.
The range of championship events are pleasingly diverse; though all point-to-point races, they'll often take you off-road, over hill, down dale or fully-fledged rally stages that encourage you to cut corners and take ridiculous shortcuts. Turn 10's 'Drivatar' system once again boils down to tough aggressive AI that makes realistic moves and mistakes, and that apes the same lines and shortcuts as their real-life drivers, leading to some tense scrambles and last-second showdowns. Though the courses could be more helpfully marked out (it's a little too tempting to just follow a full racing line), they're genuinely great fun to participate in. In a pleasing move, you can tune your car directly before each race begins, picking from a dizzying range of potential tweaks and upgrades to eke out an extra centimetre per second or a smoother ride.
Crash physics still prove to be hilariously bouncy, a familiar Forza foible, but at least it doesn't matter so much here. It'd be tough to enjoy the thrill of driving if your Huayra wrapped around every tree.
Championships are the crux of the game, but there's plenty more to do when you venture from the beaten track. Drivatars constantly roam throughout the world, driving off road and often pointing you towards hidden experience billboards, each of which can be challenged for an impromptu race. Of course, your digital doppelgänger is out doing the same. Bucket List events challenge you to complete ridiculous objectives, usually involving driving very expensive cars incredibly recklessly (and yes, they provide the cars). Speed traps encourage you to smash your friends' records. Five crazy signature events throw you up against planes, trains and even hot air balloons, though more would have been nice.
On the social side of things, clubs, leagues, downloadable liveries and even laidback car meet-and-greest are also freely accessible, so be sure to show your colours by downloading our "Dealspwn D" vinyl group! A lack of lobbies keeps things and seamless as possible beyond the odd loading screen, whether meeting up for some skill games or just a bit of a runaround.
Forza Horizon 2 certainly lacks the focus of a dedicated track racer, to the extent where multiplayer sessions are sprawling road trips where players drive to and vote on events rather than skip to them directly, whilst fast travelling carries a steep currency cost until you seek out hidden discount tokens ferreted throughout the world. The whole game is designed around driving, not winning, built specifically to cater to gamers who enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.
Rolling scenery, impressive 1080p visuals, the dramatic weather, superb handling and the cars themselves all conspire to make the very act of driving between events (or just in a random direction) engaging and rewarding in and of itself. The skill system seals the deal by rewarding slides, jumps, clean racing and skilful manoeuvres with a constant flow of experience, meaning that finishing in last place can reward you as heavily as a win. As mentioned, you'll simply enjoy the ride, which provides a constant stream of unique and genuinely uplifting automotive moments.
On the other hand, this means that Forza Horizon 2 is absolutely not for competitive racing purists unless you want a change of pace. If you'd rather leap straight into real-world circuits and spend hours painstakingly perfecting your lines, I'd suggest that Project Cars or Forza 5 might be more your speed.
Let's talk cars. As always , your roster of machines span numerous classes from runabouts and trucks to track toys and drool-inducing hypercars, each vehicle treated with the same reverence and respect as automotive icons in their own right. Detailed inside and out, they all look and feel unique, due to Forza's trademark handling model that can be scaled to your own specifications. Horizon 2's open world pretensions mean that you'll probably activate a few more assists than you would in Forza Motorsport 5, as you'll have to make more moment-to-moment decisions, but the raw connection between your thumbs and the road feels great regardless of whether you lean more towards simulation or arcadey handling.
Learning a few lessons from Forza Motorsport 5, however, Forza Horizon 2 is much more generous with its machines. Microtransactions? What microtransactions? Everything you do earns credits and experience, factoring into a range of perks and increasing your racing level. You'll accrue vast sums of money for participating in races and events, enough to purchase a range of reasonable if not superb cars scant hours into the proceedings, while each new level reached also lets you spin a roulette wheel with varying prizes. Usually you'll earn a sizeable cash lump sum (often enough to buy a decent car outright), while you'll even win brand new cars to drive straight away. Not just clunkers, as even my beloved Dino was handed to me after only an hour and a half.
It feels fair, as if you're constantly being rewarded for driving awesome cars with... more awesome cars to drive. The system works.
A few nits need picking. The 1080p visuals are gorgeous, but the fine detail can be lacking. Sumptuous cars and weather effects throw the spotlight on boxy building geometry and awkwardly animated human models -- not limited to your character, the cast and recycled crowds that occasionally levitate off the ground when you get your eye in. These uncanny robots pull you out of the experience whenever they appear in a cutscene that should have been cut, not seen [You're fired - Ed]. You'll still encounter some empty space crying out for ramps, challenges or a wider variety of collectibles, or at least a little more close-up curation. More experienced genre fans may balk at how easy it is to 'game' some Drivatars or clinch a win by taking straight-line offroad shortcuts.
And even after the embarrassingly trendy festival fades into the background, I personally can't forgive Forza Horizon 2 for stealing my identity and forcing me out of my own fantasy, making us all play as an unnamed-yet-omnipresent goon. It would have been so easy to offer several character models (some of which probably could have been... you know... girls?), provide a basic character creator, let us wear a customisable helmet or even kept all cutscenes in first person, but no. I'm not allowed to be the star of my own game even though our avatar serves no real purpose at all. The nits may be small, but when piled up they're heavy enough to tip the score as per our rating criteria.
But the quality of the gameplay and experience wins out, or more accurately the way you'll feel behind the wheel. When driving to an event feels like an event, you've got a serious contender on your hands; never mind the small stuff.
- Beautiful and plentiful cars are always a joy to drive
- Visually arresting scenery to roam around; dramatic dynamic weather
- Varied events, races, challenges and events
- Nails the thrill of driving, not just competing
- Horizon Festival adds structure and is less intrusive than before...
- ...but is still painfully stupid and pushes two obnoxious characters
- Why are we not the star of our own automotive fantasy?!
- Bouncy crash physics and uncanny human character models
- Some empty spaces cry out for more varied collectibles
The Short Version: Any track racer can make overtaking feel exciting, but Forza Horizon 2 also makes driving an absolute joy in and of itself. Superb cars, gorgeous scenery and a generous economy make up for a few missteps, meaning that the first big automotive release of the season will also be one of the best of the year.