It would be an understatement to say that the Forza brand hasn’t made the transition to the Xbox One that either Microsoft or Turn 10 Studios would have hoped for. After Forza Motorsport 5 delivered a visually stunning and technically impressive next-gen simulation racer – marred by microtransactions – the reputation of the series’ name falls to an unlikely candidate: Forza Horizon 2, the former newcomer viewed as a long shot prior to its own release.
The developers at Playground Games got the last laugh, with the first Horizon spinoff silencing critics and taking the spirit of the racing franchise into an open world, and infusing it with some music-fused fun. Thankfully, the sequel keeps that same philosophy, and the studio’s commitment to do away with microtransactions or pay gates makes Horizon 2 a more than worthy (and much-needed) addition to the series.
Terms like ‘series fiction’ or ‘evolving game design’ aren’t usually used when discussing racing games, but those were the talking points for Playground back when a Forza spinoff was announced. Their goal, as they explained at the time, was to take the emotion and passion behind the Forza brand – something that distinguished it from competing, ‘hardcore sims’ – and place it into a different corner of street racing culture. Before fans knew just what to expect from Horizon, the primary concern was that Microsoft was chasing after the Need For Speed/arcade fans, and using the weight of the Forza name to do it. For a large part, that truly is the case with Forza Horizon 2. Fortunately, it seems like the spun-off franchise has earned that departure. Regardless, it definitely feels like it has.
From the game’s opening live-action cinematic (of which glimpses could be seen in the recent extended trailer), it’s clear that the team has doubled down on their fictional ‘Horizon’ music festival. Shifting to the European backdrop of southern France and northern Italy, the sprawling roadways, varying countryside, and coastal highways are a dream come true for any motoring enthusiast.
Those who disliked the emphasis on the music festival or overall ‘festival’ culture emphasized in the previous game are in for another dose, but the shift to Xbox One brings some refinements both in and out of the player’s garage. Car Meets are an admittedly surface-level attempt to recreate the sharing of paint schemes and rare models practiced by car fans around the world, but the ever-present crowd of vocal supporters does wonders to help conceal the fact that Horizon 2 is, at its core, simply a racing game.
It’s simplest to simply call the game a logical sequel to its predecessor, not attempting to fix what wasn’t broken, and simply capitalizing on what did – and didn’t – work already. Sitting behind the steering wheel of your new Lamborghini or Pagani, watching rain spatter your windshield and soak the pavement – effects missing from Forza 5, but keeping Horizon 2 locked at 30 fps, not 60 – the game feels familiar. Until you and your fellow racers take their first turn off of the highway, and headlong into a sprawling vineyard.
Purists will scoff at the notion of supercars going offroading, and they wouldn’t be wrong; but there’s no denying that the experience comes as a surprise that rarely gets old, and with the changing weather and day/night cycles baked into the game’s progressive events, the blend of asphalt and gravel roads won’t wear out its welcome any time soon.
And for that, the game has its foundation of Forza-level driving, tuning, and physics. Seasoned players will take some time fine-tuning their own vehicles and difficulty settings, but the core driving engine of both Forza Motorsport and Horizon has distinguished itself as one of the best, as well as one of the most welcoming to newcomers.
Thankfully, the developers have also spent some time addressing one of the biggest issues that emerged with Forza 5: the Drivatars. Like Forza 5, Horizon 2 does away with traditional opponent AI, instead populating the field of racers with avatars constructed out of unique players’ habits and driving styles. And we are delighted to say that even off road, the all-out carnage and ‘destruction derby’ mentality is nowhere near as frequent.
That isn’t to say that the developers have left out lunacy altogether. Players looking for some online action can hop into a number of Online Road Trips scattered throughout the map, immediately forming a pool of players set to tackle team races, circuits, sprints, or some game modes encouraging… less conventional gameplay.
It wasn’t long after we played through our second round of ‘Infection’ – a game mode pitting one ‘infected’ racer against a field of opponents – tearing around an in-game golf course, launching over top of sand traps trying to avoid our pursuer that the real identity of Horzion 2 started to congeal. Whether succeeding in evading infection, or joining our infected brethren in hunting the last survivors, a thought suddenly sprung up: this is Forza.
Again, it’s the foundation that shines through even the desire to engage in oddball multiplayer modes, or patrol the streets looking for high-ranked Drivatars to race for cash. The variety of assists can make the experience as easy as possible, or the throttle and steering response can be increased to inch the Xbox One controller ever closer to that of a steering wheel. The harder the Drivatars, events, or opponents, the bigger the payout.
Thankfully, the finance and progression side of the game has been simplified as well. Microtransactions aren’t thrust into the players’ faces going about the standard game (as promised), and the progression itself is limited to two different streams: Credits, and XP. Driving, discovering new roads, completing events, and crossing rare cars (and their unique challenges) off the players’ Bucket List all gains XP and Credits, with each new level achieved winning the player a Wheelspin; a random chance at a lump of cash, or even top-end cars.
There’s no saying what long term plans the developer or publisher have, but with a system clearly designed to keep things straightforward, and a wildly diverse offering of vehicles available already, many concerns due to Forza 5‘s controversial model can be set aside. Additional cars, Car Clubs, and the catalogue of vehicle classes and upgrades will keep experienced players tuning for hours, but unfortunately, the game doesn’t help the inexperienced wade their way into the system as some might hope.
It goes without saying that the world of Horizon 2 is an impressively large and varied one, and the increased emphasis on ‘arcade-esque’ events and challenges, as well a social competition and interaction distinguished the game further from the core Motorsport line. That may be good news or bad depending on the player, but this sequel seems poised to intrigue players as much as its predecessor, if not completely win them over.
Despite its namesake, Horizon 2 seems to fit alongside competition like Need For Speed: Rivals – with its next-gen visuals and features also preparing a head-to-head bout with Ubisoft’s The Crew. But as outlandish as the action may get, the strength of the Forza tradition provides a link for simulation fans to hold onto.
Whether they will or not is anyone’s guess, but those who felt that Horizon earned the right to take some risks and continue to craft their own brand have most certainly gotten their wish with Forza Horizon 2 on next-gen.
Forza Horizon 2 releases September 30 for Xbox 360 and Xbox One. We played the Xbox One version.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.