Within my first hour of Forza Horizon 2, I had raced a handful of beautifully detailed circuits, sought out a vintage rally car hidden in a barn, tuned my vehicle with a plethora of tweaks and then used it plough through a vineyard at top speed on my way to showcase it at a community meet. If Forza 5 is the sensible family hatchback, then Forza Horizon 2 is the nippy little sports number that, whilst being a tad inefficient in places, makes this European road trip an absolute joy to traverse.
Game: Forza Horizon 2
Developer: Playground Games
Moving away from the Colorado setting of the first game, Forza Horizon 2 places you in a patch sitting on the borders between France and Italy. The featured fictional Horizon Festival is the backdrop and motivation to all the driving, but you’ll find less of the stereotypical cast that held the original back a little. Instead, you’re lightly prodded in the right direction by a trend set of Festival organisers, and you’ll find friend’s gamertags running up against you in the form of the much deliberated AI ‘Drivatars’.
The lack of narrative both helps and hinders. At times you’ll feel like you want a little more incentive in the way of direction and investment, the same kind that comes with a great story and a hard earned victory to win the day against the odds. However, for the most part you’ll enjoy the freedom and nondescript nature of your place in the Festival far more this time round. That’s because you won’t be plagued by poorly written dialogues from cheesey antagonists looking to goad you before every encounter; instead you’ll just savour the heavy musically influenced vibe and surroundings, which as it happens are really, really pretty.
You won’t be able to enjoy the 60fps of Forza 5, but the 30fps lock is far from negating. Infact, asides from some noticeably pixelated shadows the visuals are gorgeous throughout. Especially when tackling the coastal winding roads of southeastern Europe that manage to feel like a great Top Gear challenge with the added glee of euphoric festival atmosphere buzzing and weaving all around you – the location is paramount for this type of game and Playground Games have hit it on the head. Also, for the first time in a Forza title there’s a dynamic weather system to compliment the day/night changes, too. Cruising those cliffside roads during a sunset or busting through dirt roads during a stormy night setting really takes the experience to another level that’ll have you drooling over the in game photo mode for long periods of time.
Horizon 2’s gameplay hasn’t ventured too far from the formula it created in the first game. Settings and car assists are tailored for the casual gamer, but if you’re like me and enjoy a more authentic driving experience then options to switch off automatic gearing, traction control and the likes are easily changed in the menus. Doing so is very much a matter of preference, but you’ll reap better rewards for tackling the harder settings. Then there’s the popularity mechanic that makes a welcome return in the form of the ‘skill system’ and rewards for near misses, drafting, drifting – essentially driving with a little more pizzazz than normal. Perks, however, are something completely new for the series and act as an RPG-like leveling grid, offering boosts to points earned and other driving orientated unlocks.
The map itself is more open than the last game meaning you’ll be able to travel between the 6 areas that create the hubs of championships and side challenges without too much restriction. Whilst a little cutscene here and there will link new scenarios and hubs, it does lack a little direction at times, perhaps being a little too reliant on the player’s initiative to hunt out another task or race. It’s best to think of Horizon 2 as a playground rather than a career ladder. There’s a great deal to find and do, but you’ll inevitably get out of it what you want to put into it in the first place; in essence, you won’t be ushered to the ending credits by the hand, and for some it might grow tiresome after a while.
That’s possibly where the game’s biggest problem lies. Whilst progression is obvious to see once you’ve found it, you’ll never feel like there’s any curve to difficulty from the start of the game to the end. Each race feels familiar and because of that ‘drivatar’ opponents feel repetitive in execution, sitting somewhere between ruthless/lackadaisical rather than good/bad – ie. they’ll roughly plough through you or just end up sitting in a ditch somewhere down the road. But even with all that in mind, the AI isn’t too dumb to be a worthy opponent and you will often feel them adjusting to combat your own style, so races aren’t shallow by any means.
Thinking your way through a race is even more necessary when it comes to off-road circuits that can be a genuine challenge. The change in terrain mixed in with rain, trees and air jumps really show off the games physics engine and allow for very little error at their most difficult times. Let’s get this straight: driving a sports car at blistering speed through shrubbery isn’t as accurately represented as it could be, but moving from tarmac to grass is noticeably different and demands you to develop an entirely new skill set. This creates variety and at the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun.
One of my favourite additions that was a disappointment not to see last time round was tweaking and upgrading of individual parts. You can get as deep into setting up your differentials and brake pads as you wish, or for those who just like hitting the accelerator there’s an auto-upgrade button to let the mechanic do what they thinks best. You can do this for pretty much all of the 200 plus cars from muscle, supercars and of course, the extreme off-road additions – it’s a great selection, too, each with detail that you’d expect from true car enthusiasts.
The main ‘Road Trip’ career mode entails four events that reward points towards a championship table. Win 15 championships and you’ll be ready for the main event but there’s so many hidden collectibles to find like bucket list challenges, billboards to smash, barns with vintage cars to acquire, car meets to show off your ride etc, that you’ll be playing for hours before you even contemplate heading for that goal. Multiplayer has also been refined allowing instant online free roam, which itself holds races, team modes and online bucket list challenges to compete in.
Just as with 2012’s Forza Horizon, Playground Games have set out to build a bridge between the simulation and arcade genre types and continue to do it with seemingly great ease and confidence. With enough depth to tuning and the car line-up, enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy here, but the real boon is not the game’s technical features, it’s the ability it has to make you see driving in the same way as you did as a kid; with wide-open eyes and a gleeful smile. There’s a host of rival titles on their way to compete this winter, but they’ll do well to get anywhere near Horizon’s continued high standards.