Welcome to the Horizon Festival, a racing and music festival set in Western Europe. Think Benicàssim with torque.
Forza Horizon 2 is an open-world racer which delivers a truly next-gen experience that will set your pulse racing and make your eyes bleed. Boasting well over 200 cars to choose from, players compete in class-specific championships across 6 rural regions in Italy, France and Spain. All of the vehicles are recreated in stunning detail, from the ferocious Bugatti Veyron right down to the VW Campervan, and while petrolheads will no doubt be disappointed that their favourite model hasn’t been included in the game, the selection of offer runs the gamut from American Muscle cars to Hypercars, and everything in between.
Obviously all of the cars handle differently, but they all feel natural and realistic – though handling has been tuned to offer a more approachable arcade-like experience, as in it’s predecessor. That said, there’s all the usual tuning refinements you’d expect from a game in the Forza series, with everything from tyre width and wheel height, to weight differentials to be tinkered with, and the difficulty can be customized on multiple criteria if you really want to test the simulation to it’s limits.
Your goal in Horizon 2 is to win enough championships during the festival to earn a spot in the Horizon Finale – a race stretching right across the entire map – for a huge reward. As you work your way around the destinations, you’re asked to choose a championship from a number of randomly-chosen selections, though if you don’t like what the game throws up you can always change your mind and pick something else. Championships consist of circuit races, point-to-point sprints to the finishing line, off-road and scramble (mixed terrain) races, with enough variety on offer in both the events, road layout and the scenery on display to prevent you getting bored.
Interspersed with these championships, there’s a number of bonus challenges involving a race against some pretty unique opponents. These include racing your pre-assigned vehicle against a train, a crop duster and even the Red Arrows display team. They’re great fun, and used sparingly enough to make you want more of them.
I’m sure we’ve all had that experience in open world games like GTA or Saints Row where we have wasted hours just driving around the map, because there are so many little challenges outside of the campaign to keep you occupied. Well, the scenery in Forza is so impressive that you will gladly and willingly spend hours just driving around because simply driving these cars in these environments is that enjoyable.
That’s not to say there aren’t activities to keep you occupied along the way. There are hundreds of advertising boards scattered across the map, which upon destruction will give you either an XP boost or a discount on fast travel credit costs, while a number of perks can be unlocked as you level up and earn skill points. From time to time, you’ll also be made aware of areas on the map where a classic car is rumored to be rotting away in a barn, waiting for you to discover and bring it back to its former glory. But the most enjoyable side missions are to be found on the Bucket List. These preset challenges give you the opportunity to drive legendary cars in scenarios that everyone should get to experience before they die, ranging from setting a speed camera record in a Ferarri, to scoring a high skill points for drifting in a rally car. There’s also the option of completing co-op bucket lists online with your friends.
There’s a real emphasis in Horizon 2 on life being the journey rather than the destination, and there are challenges and achievements to encourage you to go on road trips with your friends online. Expanding on the social aspect is the option to create and join clubs, to earn rewards for your crew as you progress through the game.
As with Xbox One launch title Forza Motorsport 5, your offline career will pit you against the drivatars of your friends and club mates. Not only will you see them on the starting grid, but you’ll also see them cruising about town, and ploughing through some poor farmer’s crops looking for a mystery barn. Even if your friends don’t own the game yet (like basically all of mine, who didn’t have an advance copy), their drivatars still appear in your game if they’ve played FM5.
Make no mistake, Forza Horizon 2 looks incredible on Xbox One, possibly the best-looking game yet seen on the current crop of consoles. Light refracts and bounces off wet surfaces as it would in real life, the draw distance has to be seen to be believed – stretching out for miles in all directions – while textures are detailed and plenty of grass and foliage covers the landscape. It runs at a solid 30 frames per second at full 1080p too, and while some might bemoan the lack of 60fps, to be honest it’s unlikely you’ll notice it during gameplay. Controls are responsive with next to no latency, and the entire experience feels smooth and consistent.
The lighting effects really come into their own thanks to the addition of new weather effects, which are a late but welcome addition. Wet conditions have a genuine influence on a car’s handling, and functional windscreen wipers in the cockpit view just add to the realism.
Playground Games describes the open world as massive, which is an exagerration – but it is significantly larger than the original’s world and also a lot more open, with far fewer boundaries to prevent you from going where you please. The globetrotting finale takes only around 15 minutes to complete though, so although the map spans 3 countries, it’s a particularly condensed version of Europe. That’s pretty small when you compare it to some other open world games, even those on last generation consoles. Perhaps the world feels smaller because some of the regions feel indistinguishable from each other, and sometimes it felt like I’d already driven through the same field three times already, despite it being a new area. I appreciate that this isn’t Burnout, and that the theme here is “Glastonbury on wheels”, but a hustling, bustling cityscape would have gone down a treat at that point. It would have been great to have had the chance to chuck an Aston Martin around the streets of Rome or Paris, but there’s still plenty of more urban locations – they’re just more tranquil towns and seaside tourist areas than heaving metropolises.
Also the soundtrack is not going to be to everyone’s taste. There are different radio station options available to you – unlocked gradually at certain points during the campaign – but the number of them pales in comparison to other in-car radio experiences like GTA, and the variety between one end of the spectrum like the house music station through to the indie music station, is minimal. For a game based at a music festival, I was expecting a lot more music on offer, and it won’t be long before you hear the same tracks repeated. I found myself mainly listening to the classical station, which was extremely enjoyable when cruising through the Italian countryside, but that might just be my age. This is a game crying out for the option to import your own tracks, a feature so many games utilized on the Xbox 360.
To be truthful though, these are minor squabbles. As an arcade racing experience and a successful sequel to what was already a fantastic game, Forza Horizon 2 is almost perfect. Playground Games has managed to prove that the success of the first game wasn’t down to luck and delivered an excellent sequel which progresses the formula more than enough to make it worthy of a purchase. I don’t usually consider myself a fan of racing games, but I now consider myself a big Forza Horizon fan.
If you’ve been waiting for a must-have game to justify the purchase of an Xbox One, your wait is over.