Forza Horizon 2 Review
Come on down to the Horizon Festival, where the cars are hot and the sky is pretty
Released two years ago, Forza Horizon was a surprise hit. Expected by some to be little more than an arcade spinoff from the sim racing franchise, made to compete with Need for Speed, the game instead delivered a fun, atmospheric title with great racing and robust multiplayer. It turned out to be the best racing game released that year, and easily one of the most enjoyable experiences overall. So, it’s with a mix of cautious optimism and the burden of high expectations that players will enter the world of Forza Horizon 2. And while it's fair to say that this sequel is treading water – at least it’s the striking, clear and warm water off the beautiful coast of Southern Europe.
The original game was all about the freedom of the open road in a fictionalized version of Colorado, so the sequel builds on this by letting players race and cruise around an area of Southern Europe. As before, the locale is an inspiration for the game rather than an actual geographic location. There are real city names, but they serve only as small urban hubs rather than any attempts at recreating landmarks or actual locations. You arrive in this area as a new driver, hoping to leave a mark on the Horizon Festival with your racing skills.
As fans might expect, you’re given a choice of cars to start with, and from then on you partake in a number of championships. Campaign is structured around completing within various championships, with four race events in each. One new aspect are the Road Trips, as the game guides players between various cities (hubs) before actually revealing the starting locations of the races. These trips are all about driving and enjoying the scenery, and thus aren’t even a race. At first, this seems a brilliant idea – gently guiding the players through the big open world, letting them drive between hubs as they explore the map for the first time. But, as it turns out, the whole career mode is structured around these Road Trips. So after each location has been visited, the game will still monotonously force you to drive between hubs just to kick off the next championship. What at first seemed to be a perfect complement to the game’s easy going nature turns out to be fairly repetitive.
Aside from a few in-game cutscenes, the narrative doesn’t attempt to present any notable characters or personalities, as the first game did. Sure, it may have been silly, but it was better than what feels like simply grinding races in Horizon 2. And when you finally make it to the finale, it’s a very underwhelming event and certainly not memorable in any way. Because players can pick and choose what championships they partake it, by choosing what car they wish to drive, there’s little sense of progression. The game will suggest new event categories that will require new car purchases, but doesn’t force anything on the players, so you could finish the campaign just using the same two or three cars. You have to create your own variety, per say, by buying new vehicles that can race in various disciplines.
So while street and circuit racing will get a little repetitive, players can always mix things up by choosing rally and off-road vehicles. Forza Horizon 2 offers a much more accessible open world compared to its predecessor. No longer are you tied to roads that the developers have carved out, and in fact many gameplay elements rely on taking risks and shortcuts. Off-road races, likely inspired by the Rally DLC for the first Horizon, are absolutely exhilarating. They take place across open fields and dirt paths, small forested areas and rolling hills, as you and your opponents race at breakneck speeds, pull off huge drifts, and smash fences and any vegetation that stands in the way. But while you land huge jumps and smash through a lot of stuff, the damage model is set to be visual only by default, so you don’t need to worry about impacting your car’s performance. The visual toll of racing damage on your car’s body is limited, and though you’ll occasionally see pieces flying off, most of the cars just deform a little. Should you happen to flip, the physics get a little bit awkward as the car attempts to steer itself back onto four wheels, and just flops around upside down if it cannot.
The game allows players to drive pretty much everywhere, making the world feel much bigger than the original title, even though the actual size doesn’t seem much different. Players that own a Kinect for their Xbox One can also use voice commands with the Navigation Assistant in the game. Saying ANNA brings up a menu of possible questions to ask, such as what event to attempt next, and so forth. Aside from off-road racing, the title also contains elements that encourage exploration, such as the hidden car barns, XP and Cash boards to break, and speed cameras to beat. And while there are limitations (trees and completely unexplained barriers in the middle of nowhere will become your worst enemy), the world of Forza Horizon 2 is a joy to explore.
Other events include the Showcases, where you experience the thrill of racing against much faster opponents such as airplanes or a high-speed train. These are fewer in number, and no longer offer free cars as a reward (except for the debut showcase), but are still exciting to complete. Outpost events have been rebranded into the Bucket List, where racers must perform feats with specific cars. Though all of the activities in Forza Horizon 2 are fun and remain unique to the franchise, they are quite the same as what the first Horizon offered, and thus the novelty will be diminished a bit for returning players. On the whole however, racing fans will love the variety and freedom of the new open world.
One cool addition is the introduction of car meets. These instanced locations in the game world let drivers come together and look at each other’s cars, liveries, and even upgrades. The game matchmakes a bunch of drivers together, and with the press of a button, you can scroll through all the player cars currently at the meet (and even rev the engine!), buy the same car, or download their livery or tune. It’s a great indirect social interaction feature. You can even start showdown races with anyone at the meet who chooses to participate.
Forza Horizon 2 definitely steps up in the vehicle selection. Over 200 cars are on display here, from manufacturers across the globe and throughout different time eras. From a 1981 BMW M1, 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, to the cover toy 2014 Lamborghini Huracán LP 610-4 and 2013 McLaren P1, gearheads will have no shortage of options to pick from. All of the cars have wonderfully unique handling, as the trademark Forza simulation engine continues to work behind the scenes while presenting players with a more arcade style of gameplay. Hardcore fans will also be able to fully tweak and upgrade their rides, more so than the first Horizon, and easily customize them with user created liveries and paint jobs. However, given Horizon’s more relaxed approach to racing, players will only need to worry about major upgrades to bring their car in line with the performance class. While the in-depth options such as custom transmission timings, tire pressure and more are available, you never need to touch them; the game is much more about the fun than it is simulation or hardcore competition.
In comparison to the disappointing economy in Forza Motorsport 5, Forza Horizon 2 handles its car and cash offerings well. On the one hand, players will only get two completely free cars during the whole campaign. And although that’s quite abysmal, there is a flip side. The car token system isn’t in the game at all (for now), and there’s only a couple of car packs available to purchase with real cash. In fact, there’s a free DLC offering that contains 8 free cars for players at launch. And while that will help expand your collection, you’ll probably want more. No problem – the cars that can be purchased at the Horizon Festival are priced very fairly, and the game is rather generous with its payouts. You’ll be always earning nearly 10k credits per winning a race, plus the Horizon Wheelspin will drip more profits. There is also a new Horizon Promo gameplay mechanic, whereas the game asks players to photograph every car in the game. With 1k payment per unique car, and bonuses every 20, it’s another solid income source. Over the course of 8 to 10 hours of play and having completed the Horizon Finale, we easily amassed over 2 million in credits balance, plus had a collection of over 50 tuned rides. So, leave your microtransaction fears in the dust.
The points-based multiplier driving system is back, as you earn points with every drift, well executed pass, drafting, and many other skillful maneuvers. Earning enough points bumps you to the next profile level, and earns you either a Horizon Wheelspin (a random reward, either free coins or even a new car) or a skill point. A perk system has been implemented, where players will redeem their earned skill points to gain passive advantages, everything from bigger payouts, increased score multipliers, or cheaper car parts. It’s a neat system and given that you level up infrequently, there’s some planning needed to choose perks that best fit your particular style of play.
Perhaps one of the reasons for a lack of characters in the campaign is due to the addition of Drivatars. Introduced last Fall in Forza Motorsport 5, these AI drivers base their skills and habits on how real folks drive. So every event will involve the virtual representations of drivers on your friends list, as well as other players who own the game. This adds some diversity to the game, as these virtual drivers will presumably handle themselves similarly to their respective owners. However, it’s tough to judge the effectiveness and accuracy of Drivatars’ portrayal of real players. Unlike Forza 5, Horizon 2 doesn’t offer any indication of how much your Drivatar has learned about your habits or what cars you prefer. Instead, the simplest benefit of Drivatars is to make the career experience less lonely, as you see drivers exploring the open fields and forests just as real players would. Plus, like in Forza 5, as they appear in other players’ worlds, they will bring back daily profit winnings.
This brings us nicely to the online components of Forza Horizon 2. Jumping between online and single player is seamless, as there are no lobbies, and the game will perform matchmaking in the background and simply let you know when a session is ready. As before, your profile is shared between singleplayer and multiplayer, thus your XP, perks, and level all function the same way. There are two major modes – online road trip, and online free roam. The former is essentially an endless replica of the career mode. Players vote on their road trip destination, cruise there, then participate in 4 competitive races, and vote for the next road trip destination. You earn XP and coins for participating, and there are bonuses not just for coming in first during the championship, but also being the most skillful driver (earning the most points from your skills multiplier). Online road trip can be enjoyable, and there are two playground modes – King of the Hill and Infected – to help alleviate the repetitiveness.
In online free roam, the game becomes more entertaining. Not bound by a road trip or a championship to complete, players can cruise at their leisure, discover new shortcuts, break bonus boards, find car barns, and simply roam the open fields. Or, they can choose to complete on-off events such as races or cooperative bucket lists. Free roam is where the spirit of Forza Horizon 2 continues to shine, and with the right set of friends (or even strangers), it can be a fun and rewarding experience. Regardless of how you're racing, the game still seems prone to opponents' cars sometimes clipping and behaving erratically, thus causing some potential crashes. Nevertheless, it doesn't affect all participants and your own view of the race is always smooth.
There are also car clubs, which can contain up to 1000 members and offer more localized leaderboards and ways to meet new players. As a member of a club, you compete against other club members on the Club Ladder to earn the most XP. If you manage to move up through the tiers, you will get a credits bonus, but the ladder resets each week so players need to keep active in order to get the most out of it. After every completed event, the game will present players with their Rival – a player (random or club member) that has got a better result than you on this event. Like in Forza 5, you can ignore this message, or choose to challenge the rival by attempting to race again and beating their time, and scoring a coin bonus. Most of the time however, the rivals payouts seem rather small and not really worth doing.
Forza Horizon managed to create an atmosphere, something very few other racing games achieve, and the sequel follows firmly in its path. The music festival once again plays as the central theme to the game, with various festival hubs helping put players into the party atmosphere no matter where they are. An expanded soundtrack hits all the right notes, though focuses mostly on dance and techno tunes across seven radio stations. It doesn’t feature quite the same amount of memorable hits, but the newly added stations make up for that with their variety. Blasting through a crop field at night, with friends, as Ride of the Valkyries plays, elicits such strong feelings of immersion and enjoyment that no other racing game can hope to match.
Visually, Forza Horizon 2 impresses. All of the cars’ interiors and exteriors look fantastic, but that’s a given with the franchise pedigree. The world often feels alive too, with spectators on the sidelines, and a music stage in every urban location, plus random Drivatars always roaming the game world. The color palette is bright and varied, helping offset some of the feelings of fakeness that Forza 5 extruded. Beautiful sunsets and changing weather conditions immerse players in the world, as distant vistas are made more impressive thanks to the players’ ability to actually drive to them. Rain is introduced for the first time in the Forza franchise, though it is mostly a visual effect that helps the game look more impressive with minimal affects on handling. What’s not so impressive is the draw distance, with textures, shadows, and objects often popping-in noticeably the faster you drive. But at least, the game never misses a frame, even as you break 300km/h in a Bugatti.
Forza Horizon 2, for all intents and purposes, is a superior sequel. The addition of a truly open world is fantastic, and produces some exhilarating racing. Most of the structured content, from the Bucket Lists to the Showcase events and smashing XP boards while keeping the score multiplier up, has been carried over from the original game without much alteration, but it’s still just as fun. The car selection is very good, and despite the game not giving many rides away, coins come quick and easy, so affording the car of your dreams won’t require a huge time commitment. This sequel manages to maintain the unique party atmosphere that still works, and the expanded multiplayer options will keep players and clubs busy for a while. On the whole, Forza Horizon 2 comes easily recommended to any arcade racing fans.