With Forza Horizon 2 Microsoft Studios finally injects some life into their flagship Xbox One racing franchise.
Whilst I love Forza 5, it is a bit on the dry side. Even the PS3’s Gran Turismo 6 - not exactly a party animal in itself – has a little more life in it than the Xbox One’s launch-day racing game. Forza 5 is a nice game, but rather dull.
Enter UK outfit Playground Games, who have built upon Turn 10’s excellent racing technology to bring us Forza Horizon 2.
As before, the game is set around the fictional Horizon racing festival.
For this outing the scenery has shifted from the rugged landscape of Colorado to the far more picturesque countryside along the border of southern France and northern Italy.
And it looks beautiful.
Exploring quaint old European towns, villages and the odd vineyard is made all the more fulfilling by that fact that you can do it at breakneck speed in a range of cars from a 60s VW camper to a 2015 Ford Mustang GT.
With over 200 cars and using the same awesome physics system, Forza Horizon 2 is like Forza 5’s missing campaign mode. The cars still handle themselves very realistically, but this time the circuits are more frantic and a darn sight more exciting.
Players progress within the game by entering a series of racing championships. Each championship is set around one of six different festival hubs. Each hub has a number of different racing categories based on a class of cars eligible, for instance hot hatches, American classics and 90s rally.
After choosing the championship and selecting a car, either from your garage or buying a new one, you embark on a road trip to the championship’s hub location. Whilst not exactly a race, it is timed, the reward being an XP boost.
Whilst you only need to win fifteen championships to enter the Horizon Finale, the game boasts 168 championships made up from 700 individual events. That’s a lot of races.
But Forza Horizon 2 is about more than just winning races, it’s also about looking good whilst you are winning. Stylish driving earns XP, chaining skilful driving manoeuvres together earns even more XP. You gain XP for drifting, near misses, smashing street furniture and even doing donuts.
It’s not all circuits and point-to-point racing, either. There are five Showcases in the game, each offering exhilarating distractions as they put players up against unlikely racing opponents. Drivers partake in outlandish races against a team of exhibition jet planes, a steam locomotive, 37 hot air balloons- floating so low overhead that they are practically touching your roof, a crop duster and a transport plane.
Unlike 2012’s Forza Horizon, there are very few fences in the game that you can’t smash right through. This means drivers can pretty-much drive where they want, ripping though fields and along dirt shortcuts. This opens the map up even more, especially considering it’s about three times the size of the last game, anyway.
Whilst it looks gorgeous most of the time, Forza Horizon 2 is still can be a bit of a mixed bag in the visuals department. During the day the graphics range from very, very nice to jaw-droppingly realistic. At night, though, the superb ambient daylight is replaced by some less impressive textures lit by some very fake-looking lights.
The beautiful landscape, that looks so inviting in the bright sunshine, take a more dramatic turn when the weather changes. The game’s dynamic weather ranges from light spitting, though to torrential downpours and fog.
Each of the cars has a number of internal and external camera views, with working windscreen wipers when it rains. It’s worth noting that using the dashboard or bonnet view whilst going off-road can put you at a major disadvantage when you drive though tall vegetation that blocks your view.
Having an open-world populated with user-generated Drivertars, which are effectively AI ghost cars, is a little odd and perhaps a step backwards. Games like Test Drive Unlimited and even the recent Need for Speed: Rivals have given players a similar environment, but populated it with real players. Whilst there is an option for online open world, I’m surprised in this day and age that this isn’t the default and the offline mode optional.
But the game does have a raft of social features, such as the car club, on top of the online racing options. Whilst it was difficult to really appreciate during my review sessions, with only a small amount of players online, I did join a few online road trips and had some fun with the online championships.
Forza Horizon 2 is a joy to play. Playground Games have taken Turn 10s technically excellent Forza 5 and made it into one of the most varied and enjoyable racing experiences I’ve ever played. It’s not as “online” as it could be, but the game still features enough social integration to accommodate players keen to get bragging rights over their mates.
I can’t recommend this game enough. I loved it and I’m pretty sure most Xbox One owners will love it, also.