STAFF REVIEW of Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One)

Thursday, September 25, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

Forza Horizon 2 Box art These days, new console generations are a lot like birthdays; it takes nearly a year before you can actually tell you really are a year older, and about the same amount of time with a new console before you finally experience that special game that convinces you that a new generation of gaming has truly arrived. With Xbox One, that moment came when I played the final retail version of Forza Horizon 2 at Microsoft Canada's X14 event in Toronto earlier this month. It was the instant during the first race in which my Lamborghini Huracan LP610-4 and the rest of the pack left the road, burst through a fence, and raced through a hill-ridden wheat field for almost a solid minute, with each racer carving out their own path to the next checkpoint, including myself. Since then, I've wrecked hundreds more fences, drifted on rain-slicked mountain roads in oncoming torrential rain, gazed for minutes at a time at water beading on the surface of my car's front hood and watched as rays of sunlight broke through the clouds of early dawn while I pulled in to a coastal city, where last night's dance party was still going strong. And I've played online with fellow reviewers, jumping in and out of games while roaming the countryside without having to wait in a single matchmaking lobby. And I've experienced it all in beautiful 30 frames-per-second 1080p. There's no doubt about it for this reviewer: with Forza Horizon 2, "next-gen" has truly arrived on Xbox One, and it's quite glorious.

This time around, the Forza Horizon Festival has settled in Southern Europe, swapping out the familiar rustic peaks and valleys of Colorado for the wider, more scenic backdrops of southern France and Italy. The weather's hotter, the parties livelier, the music on the radio more varied and just about everything is prohibitively expensive, from the real-life price tag of each of the game's 200+ cars you'll be able to drive to the extensive property damage that you'll be able to cause across the European countryside. Unlike the venue, the basics of the Horizon Festival haven't changed all that much though: players participate in racing and driving skill competitions in order to earn coloured wristbands, which based on the colour will grant them access to championship events of increasing challenge and difficulty. Completing 15 championship events (each one comprised of several races) will unlock the Horizon Festival Finale, where players will race to become ultimate champion.

As the saying goes however, it's about the journey, not the destination, and developer Playground Games has painstakingly designed its follow-up to Horizon 1 to encourage players to drink in the beauty of the new world they've created. For instance, each championship takes place in a different real-world city such as Nice or Sisteron, and upon completion of a championship event players are invited on a Road Trip to the next destination along with several other racers rather than having to drive their alone, but are free to go at their own pace and take in the sights as they wish. In addition, at the start of each Road Trip, players are encouraged to choose a new class of car for the trip as well as a corresponding championship to enter once they reach the destination, allowing them to mix things up a bit gameplay-wise and get a feel for their new ride before they compete in it. In keeping with this more decentralized approach, each championship-designated city in the game has its own Horizon Festival Hub where players can paint and tune their cars at the garage, sell or buy new cars at the Forza Horizon Showcase or switch their Championship selection.

Of course, there are several events and other diversions outside of the Championship events to keep players busy, including a new category called The Bucket List. Bucket List challenges task the player with completing a certain objective while driving a certain car, such as reaching a mountain destination within a certain time limit while at the wheel of the powerful and skittish McLaren P1, or hitting a speed target on an open stretch of road with the Koenigsegg Agera. These challenges are fun but are far from easy, demanding players' full attention as well as well their skill (and/or liberal use of the rewind button feature).

Among other notable improvements to the franchise is the long-awaited addition of dynamic weather and time of day to the Forza game engine, which as the intro to this review suggests is easily the best implementation of those features that this reviewer has seen in a console racer yet. Thankfully it's not just skin-deep; rain will adversely affect visibility as well as your car's handling and tire grip on the game's various types of terrain. A Project Gotham Kudos-style Perk system has also been introduced which rewards players points and/or cash for just about any skillful thing that they do, which can be respectively rolled into permanent online/offline perks of your choice or used to upgrade and purchase new cars. In addition, each time you level up you earn a spin on a lottery wheel that will reward you with cash or a sweet new ride.

Horizon's signature Showcase Events, which pit the player in a given car against other vehicles that normally would have no right to be in a road race are back and even more ludicrously awesome than before (try racing against an aerial demonstration team), and DJ Rob da Bank has also returned as the game's music curator, infusing the Horizon Festival with his eclectic musical tastes ranging from techno and rock to classical across seven different radio stations players that will unlock over the course of the game.

All the above would be enough to please most Forza Horizon fans and racing fans alike, but the real joy of and satisfaction of playing Horizon 2 however (outside of of driving ridiculously fast, powerful, and not to mention priceless cars on the open roads of Southern Europe) is the full-realization of the open-world gameplay that the original Forza Horizon promised. You can literally drive anywhere, at least, anywhere you could reasonably want to go in a game where the primary focus is racing. There is rarely a picket fence that your car can't bust through, nor a farmer's field or vineyard that you can't recklessly tear across and ravish by pulling donuts in them, leaving the harvested debris in your wake. Guardrails on overpasses and bridges are made of far stronger stuff and will still bounce you back should you attempt to recreate the climactic scene from Thelma and Louise, and the dreaded invisible walls of last generation can still be found in the occasional treeline, but you'll be much harder pressed to find them. This new freedom may seem only evolutionary for a next-gen racer, but it feels revolutionary: once you've roamed free across the vast, pastoral playground that is Horizon 2, you'll have a very difficult time even fathoming going back to the hemmed-in experience that the still excellent Horizon 1 was (by comparison).

However, it's also this near boundless freedom that exposes some of the game's rougher edges. In the original Horizon, the barriers and invisible walls may have betrayed the aging Xbox 360's hardware limitations, but they also saved you from yourself, greatly reducing the instances of getting temporarily stuck on objects in the environment, and making exploration a generally smooth experience. For example, the Horizon billboards that you could seek out and smash for extra experience were often hidden but placed in areas you could easily drive through, allowing players to keep their momentum going. In Horizon 2 however, the game's expanded scope has seemingly forced Playground Games to get craftier with their billboard placement in order to hide them better, so players must now navigate their speed machines in and out of street-side patios, stone-walled gardens and other tight spaces to get to some billboards, which can be about as tedious as parallel parking.

Another seemingly unavoidable drawback is the increased dependence on the Driving Line, the Forza franchise's optional guidance line that helps beginner and amateur drivers know when they are coming into a turn too fast so that they can brake accordingly. In Horizon 2, having this feature active is practically a must now that many of the races tend to veer off the pavement or avoid the road entirely, meaning that there will be times where the Driving Line will be the only way to know for sure where the actual "racetrack" is at all. Naturally there are red flares and floating text markers that signal where the next checkpoint is, but these are easily obscured by objects in the environment, such as the side of the mountain that you are circling, or the tall stalks of wheat you are carelessly plowing through because...well, that's where everyone else is going. It's a great deal of fun to no longer be limited to just the road or an illusion of freedom that ultimately ties you to the road, but these new navigational challenges are the cost, and players will likely find themselves relying on the Driving Line and Rewind feature more than they would like in order to stay competitive and cut down on frustration.

A final niggling concern regarding Horizon 2's truly open world is that the AI controlled Drivatars make use of it far too liberally at present, occasionally to the point where their actions border on blatant and uninspired cheating. For example, on two separate occasions against two different Drivatars (both belonging to friends of mine), I started a race that was supposed to take place across a bridge, followed by a winding country road, only to discover right off the bat that my opponent had driven under the bridge and was tunneling his way through the fields below, making a cheap and lazy beeline towards the finish. Hopefully when more players are in possession of the game and are playing it, their Drivatars will take on more of their actual driving habits, as I find it hard to believe that two of my unrelated friends would resort to the exact same cheap tactic in the exact same race.

Outside of these concerns however, there is little not to love about Forza Horizon 2. Online performance, while not completely seamless (you have to manually select one of the game's online modes from Online Freeroam or Online Road Trip) is excellent and you'll never have to sit in a lobby while you wait for your friends to show up or be connected to a game; you can just keep doing what you're doing. At present the game is still only in the hands of reviewers, so there are not as many players online yet as one would like, but one can only hope that the network will hold up as solidly as it does right now. Ben, your car benefactor and guide throughout the world of Horizon 2 is a bit of an annoyingly smug and spoiled rich kid, but you regularly get to smash his face to pieces over and over as it's plastered on a good number of the game's hidden billboards, so it all washes out in the end.

The gameplay itself still straddles the line between Forza 5 simulation and more arcade-style racers like Project Gotham, and can be tweaked to lean further in either direction by turning assists on or off, and the livery creator has been drastically improved to meet Forza 5-level complexity and is now complimented in every city by a Car Meet area where players can gather asynchronously to exchange designs and customizations. So even die-hard Forza purists, artists and tuners have plenty of reason to give this game a shot. It would have been nice if your driver avatar (not your Drivatar) in the game could be customizable however, as there are likely many male and female Forza players who would like to drive as someone that looks more like themselves, instead of the default white-male “dudebro”.

All minor gripes aside, Forza Horizon 2 should be a no-brainer, day one purchase for any racing fan who owns an Xbox One on September 30th. The game doesn't necessarily reinvent the Forza wheel, but it improves, refines and literally expands upon so many aspects of what made the original successful that it feels like the game Horizon 1 was aiming to be all along. Most importantly, with all due respect to Forza 5, it's the first next-gen racer for Xbox One that truly feels like a complete experience, and sets the bar high for every racing game to follow on the platform.

1) Give us the ability to choose our own Driver Avatar; it's high time that we should be able to race as someone other than a generic white male.

2) Add an option to make other cars in races visible through objects (like in Left 4 Dead), which will help players keep abreast of where the race is headed in moments of low visibility (like driving through a cornfield).

Overall: 9.7 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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