Forza Horizon 2 Review – An Eloquent Love Letter to Cars and Car Culture

Forza Horizon 2 cars

Forza got off to a great start this generation with Turn 10’s fifth entry in the Motorsport series, accompanying the Xbox One in its launch earlier this year. Now, it’s Playground Games’ turn to once again to get behind the wheel and attempt to steer the long-running Xbox-exclusive racing franchise to even greater heights.

Does the UK-based studio’s latest open-track approach to Forza top the performance of both its closed-track predecessor and its earlier 2012 prequel on the Xbox 360? Their debut entry in the series that first spun Forza off into an open-world design didn’t do too shabby, after all, receiving heavy praise for its more relaxed and fun-filled nature and for offering a ton of content to boot.

Horizon 2 builds off of the original’s success, taking Forza on a road trip from the mountainous American state of Colorado to the romantic regions of Southern France and Northern Italy. It’s truly a perfect setting for the globe-trotting Horizon Festival whose sole purpose is to celebrate cars and car culture. The winding roads along the coasts of Castelleto and Nice beg to be driven at aggressive speeds while the the scenic views from atop San Giovanni are best witnessed on a leisurely ride in a classic Italian car.

Horizon 2’s world may not appear that much bigger than the original Horizon’s at first glance, but once you start veering off-road and into the golden fields and dense forests of Southern Europe, you’ll begin to realize just how much there is to explore in this rich offering of real estate. Unlike the original, you and your vehicle aren’t tied to the road. There are things to see beyond the white and yellow lines, including smash-able XP and travel discount boards, as well as car barns that house some of Horizon 2’s most antique and rare vehicles. In total, there are 150 XP boards, 50 travel discount boards, and 10 barns to find, giving you plenty to keep your hands tied during down time. If that’s not enough, there are always the 315 roads, 30 speed traps, and 14 speed zones to discover.

Luckily, Drivatars, a returning and successful Xbox Live feature that debuted in Forza Motorsport 5, will not only drive the way your friends and rivals drive, but also where they drive. That means that following one off the beaten path will often clue you in to some of those hidden rewards. Meanwhile, your own Drivatar participates in races and earns you credits while you’re offline, which you can cash in the next time you log on.

Like last year’s entry, Drivatars also make for much more exciting races as they exhibit more human behaviors. In addition, any Drivatar that you meet in the open-world can be challenged to an impromptu race at the press of a button. The higher the skill level of the Drivatar, the bigger your reward will be if you manage to score a win. Pro-level Drivatars in your area, the toughest ones to beat, will be called-out by your Automated Natural Navigation Assistant (ANNA) which you can interact with using voice commands. She’ll also direct you to the nearest event or suggest what to do if you’re a bit lost in between events.

Speaking of which, Horizon 2 boasts a mind-boggling 700+ events, when all is said and done, that will take you a upwards of 100 hours to finish if you intend to earn a 100% completion rate. 10 hours in and I’ve only checked off about 12% off of the content Horizon 2 has to offer, according to my stats.

Forza Horizon 2

Having arrived at the Horizon Festival in a beautiful 2014 Lamborghini Huracán, you begin your Career and the climb to the Horizon Finale by participating in over a dozen Championships connected by a series of Road Trips to new locations. Each Championship is made up of roughly three to four races ranging from Circuit events to point-to-point and cross-country Sprints. Which championship you end up participating in while visiting any of Horizon 2’s six destinations is entirely dependant on the class of car you choose to drive. There are a total of 28 Championships spread across 10 different categories, including super cars, sports cars, off-road, muscle, and classics. The wide selection makes for a totally customizable play-through, so you’re not completely tied down to what the game is telling you to do. If you can’t quite decide on a Championship, however, recommendations will be made based on cars in your Garage or vehicles that you can afford in the Showroom.

In your Career, you’re free to tackle each Championship at any pace you like. In between races, don’t hesitate to roam the open road, search for those collectibles, or participate in any of Horizon 2’s Bucket List challenges. These special events ask you to step inside a pre-determined vehicle and complete a very specific and often exhilarating task like reaching blazing speeds in head-on traffic or barrelling down a hill covered in trees in the dead of night. These were easily some of the most fun events I had the pleasure of participating in during my play-through. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them.

You can also kill time in between races by visiting any of the various festival Hubs to Tune or Upgrade your current car to your precise liking, throw on a new paint job, find new designs, or create your own. Upgrades and Tuning really let you get down and dirty with specific tweaks, just like the more technical Motorsport entries in the franchise. Personally, I found it a little overwhelming, as I’m not a huge car buff, but veterans and fans of Motorsport will definitely enjoy the control over performance and behavior Horizon now offers. Of course, you can also always auto-upgrade everything, if you like. Upgrades and tweaks can also be made before each race, so you don’t always have to visit a Hub.

The same level of customization also carries over to livery design. You can create your own, upload it, and even earn credits every time someone else downloads it. So, where does one show off their creations? Head to any Car Meet to join a virtual lobby of drivers where you can check out others’ rides, start a showdown race or an online session, snag a particular design or tuning that catches your eye, or straight up buy the car you like. I liked how Meets are brought to life with small but much appreciated details like avatars gawking at super cars, chatting with each other, or snapping pictures with their phones.

After each race in a Championship, you’ll be presented with a chance to take on the ghost of your rival. Your rival is simply the next racer in your friends list above you in terms of completion time. If you want, you can keep accepting challenge after challenge until you’re on top of the leaderboards, but, really, Rival races simply provide a quick an easy way to earn an extra bit of credits with the added bonus of leaving your friends in the dust. After some Championships, you’ll be invited to a special Showcase Event, a more unconventional race that pits you against unexpected opponents, like a squad of stunt planes or a locomotive train. Again, these events are just a nice way to mix things up a little and to break up the grind to the Horizon Finale.

Throughout your Career, you’ll earn new ranks and experience points. Every rank earned gives you a shot at the Wheel Spin, a random roll that either nets you extra credits or a brand new car. Every so often, you’ll also earn a Skill Point. These can be spent on any of Horizon 2’s 25 Perks that help you out in an assortment of different ways, including XP bonuses at the end of races, discounts, or the ability to fast travel anywhere. Some of the more useful ones cost more than others, however, so you may have to bank a few for later.

Luckily, everything you do in Horizon 2 earns you experiences points. Like, seriously. Everything. Smash a fence? Get XP. Drive clean? Get XP. Catch some air? You get the idea. Driving skillfully starts off a Skill Chain that builds and builds as long as you perform skillful actions, earning you more XP. In races, a more skillful second-place driver could even out-score a first-place winner on the leaderboards if his or her skill chain earned more XP. So, it’s not always about crossing the finish line first.

Forza Horizon 2

Switching between Horizon 2’s solo and online worlds and hopping in an Online Road Trip or an Online Freeroam session is a mere button press away in the main menu. There are no lobbies or server browsers to sit through.

Starting up an Online Road Trip with friends or strangers in either a private or public session takes you and your ensemble through a series of Championship events in different locations, similar to the way Career mode plays out. It’s the most straightforward way to ignite the action and start feeding your rivals with dirt. After each Championship, players vote on the next location that their road trip will take them, and if you like getting your way, there’s even a perk that doubles your destination vote so that it counts for two. Also note that there’s a handful of bonus XP awaiting the first to arrive at your new destination.

When it’s time to turn up the fun, you’ll definitely want to move to Online Freeroam with some of your pals. Again, you can go public and party with other strangers, but mic-ing up with your mates and getting in a private session together feels like the right way to go when you’re out to have a good laugh or smack talk. Once you’re all synced up, anyone designated as the leader can set a group waypoint to any location on the map. Use this to point out breakable signs and Barn Finds or to meet up at Bucket List challenges to tackle co-operatively. When it’s time to get a little more organized, the leader — or anyone in a public Freeroam session — can boot up any event that the World Map has to offer while selecting the class of car, time of day, and weather. Other players can participate if they wish once invited, or can simply to continue along their way freely.

Forza Horizon 2

In addition to the standard Sprint, Cross-Country, and Circuit modes, there is also a handful of game types that don’t involve a start and finish line. Giving you a great excuse to ram full speed into your friend’s $6.5 million Ferrari ’62 250 GTO in a closed-off arena are modes like Infected and King. The former puts you in a run for your life as you attempt to avoid being smashed or bumped by an infected player. If you can’t quite manage it and turn into an infected yourself, then it’s your goal to take everyone else down with you. The last survivor standing wins. The latter is a lot like revers tag in that whoever’s ‘it’ will want to stay ‘it’ for as long as possible. Should your paint meet another’s, they’ll steal your crown and become King. Whoever can stay King the longest within the time limit wins.

Supplementing Horizon 2’s online experience is the ability to join or create a Club that can accommodate up to 1000 players. The feature is an added layer contributing to the social atmosphere Playground Games has tried to formulate, though it doesn’t appear to have much functionality beyond allowing members to earn extra XP. There are no Club-specific events, nor are there any options to customize emblems or banners. I think a little more attention paid in this facet of Horizon 2 could have helped it reach greater heights in the social space.

Bringing up the Online Freeroam world map, you’ll notice just how densely packed it is with things to do, and considering that most races can be entered with any class of car, it’s dangerously easy to get lost in the content-rich world of Horizon 2. If it’s not the mountain of activities that you’ll spend hours upon hours sinking your teeth into, Horizon 2’s breathtaking visuals will do just as good of a job sucking you into a world that’s already so easy to get lost in. In all conditions — rain, sunshine, day, or night — Horizon 2 really feels like its own living, breathing world enwrapped in a convincingly realistic simulated atmosphere. Driving at night in the pouring rain is a particularly impressive sight, as are the highly detailed beads of water droplets that remain on your vehicle’s even more highly detailed body paint afterwards.

Despite the massive size of Horizon 2’s game world, you won’t find any loading screens separating different regions. You will, however, notice a second or two of awkward pause every so often as you travel, which I can only assume occurs when the game needs to do a bit of thinking. And, while gone are the embarrassingly 2D trees that plagued Forza Motorsport 5’s tracks, Horizon 2’s lush foliage, pristine detail, and far-reaching draw distances are only accomplished at 30 frames per second, which is half of what last year’s entry ran at. Surprisingly, I found it only hard on the eyes when turning the camera or sliding through the main menu. Otherwise, even at high speeds, racing remains smooth and responsive. While a 60fps frame rate would ideal, Horizon 2 is still as pleasurable to look at as it is to drive on its roads.

It’s true that car handling in the Horizon series is a tad more forgiving than its Motorsport counterpart, though the feel of cornering never swerves into realm of arcade racing. It’s still imperative that you watch your speed and hit those apex’s in order to get ahead. You’ll need to exercise a little more caution when cross-country racing off-road or when the roads get soaked in rain water, however. Settings and assists can be managed to tune the difficulty of driving to your exact liking as well, but at its default position, I think Horizon 2 strikes a perfect balance that should appeal to both hardcore and casual racers. That said, the more assists you do turn off, the bigger your payout will be after races.

Accompanying every race or cruise to a new destination is a satisfying assortment of nearly 150 tunes spread across seven different radio stations, my favorites being Hospital Record’s drum and bass tracks for those intense races and Radio Levante’s classical pieces for those even more intense races, but also leisurely drives. There’s something hysterically comical about off-roading to Mozart. Though it can turned off completely, Horizon 2’s music serves the game’s festive vibe appropriately, but also makes it a pleasure to sit down and unwind to some scenic driving in the seductive South of Europe.

Forza Horizon 2

I see multiplayer modes like Online Freeroam becoming one of Horizon 2’s main strengths over time, once gamers have wrapped things up in Career mode. Though, with over 200 cars, 700 activities, and miles and miles of open road, completionists will certainly have their hands full in solo modes for quite some time.

I also get the feeling that Horizon 2 will speak to a lot of different gamers, racing fans or not, as it emits a very welcoming, relaxed, and celebratory aura that says, ‘We don’t care if you don’t know the difference between standard and automatic. Grab your dream and tear it up on the open, unrestricted road while having as much fun as you possibly can with or without friends.’

Playground Games has a clear and passionate love for car culture and Forza Horizon 2 is the perfect way to share that love with others.

4.5 / 5

By far, Forza Horizon 2 is the most fun I’ve had in a racer since I can remember. Playground Games seems to have fulfilled a lot of promises, though I think the studio could have hit a few higher notes when it comes to Clubs and social interactivity.

A 60fps frame rate would have also been ideal, especially for a racer, but responsive controls and an exceptionally smooth driving experience has been retained regardless. It’s also a fair trade off for some of the best visuals that the Xbox One has to offer and that does proper justice to the charming locales and unpredictable weather conditions that the game takes place in.

As far as open-world racers go, Forza Horizon 2 is the top rival to beat.

This review was based on an early digital review copy of Forza Horizon 2 for Xbox One, courtesy of Microsoft. Forza Horizon 2 launches on Xbox One (by Playground Games) and Xbox 360 (by Sumo Digital) on September 30 in North America.

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