We were allowed to actually run this review last week when embargo lifted, but something kept getting in the way of us publishing it -- I was stuck in the bloody driver’s seat and couldn’t steer myself away.
Forza Horizon 2 is fantastic.
In fact it’s more than fantastic, it’s something of a racing revelation (to those of us who may have missed the first one) by way of its merging, not just hardcore sim stuff with open-world arcade fun, but in its barrier of entry. No matter your history with driving cars in games, Forza Horizon 2 constantly and consistently rewards you for the basics -- acceleration, breaking and steering. The open-world is an added bonus to this because you’re unbound to any rules. The game has a structure, and races and events require you to colour inside the lines, but that’s only if you choose to do them. You can, if you like, just drive. Anywhere. And the game will reward you for doing so.
What’s important about Forza Horizon 2’s reward system is it slowly draws you in, even if you’re not really a car person. You’re always earning money or points, unlocking new events and cars; radio stations and unique challenges. If you best any one of your friends, the game offers you a chance to check the Leaderboards for comparison sake, and based on your performance in races, it will dynamically elect you a rival based on someone’s time that was better than yours, so you can attempt to beat them and move on to your next rival. You also earn XP just for driving, and you can gain XP multipliers by driving well and linking various skills together without an impact or lengthy break between them. So maintaining a solid race line, coupled with a sweet drift around a corner, followed by a skilful near miss of another vehicle and then getting some hang time off a riser will net you a much bigger reward than just driving in a straight line. You also go up in levels through said XP and earn either Skill Points to fill out a
Skill Grid, or spin a lucky rewards wheel with money and cars up for grabs.
Second to its ease on rules and rigid driving, is the world in which you drift. The game takes a slice of France and Italy with all the glorious countryside in between, along with Europe’s famous, winding roads. You can drive through vineyards, or farm fields; through tight brush and dense bush, or just out on the open road and through towns and cities. You can do this alone, or you can do it with friends, and even if you do choose the former, Forza’s revolutionary Drivatar system means the game is never empty or vacuous, with each Drivatar-powered vehicle behaving in unique and interesting ways.
The game runs off Turn 10’s gorgeous Forza 5 game engine, but Playground Games has kicked it up another notch, bam. The basic pitch is that they’ve added a day and night cycle, as well as dynamic weather. While driving along the coast on a sunny day is one of the most impressive-looking visuals to emerge from next-gen, it’s the rainy days and nights that really stand-out for me. Cockpit view means you’ll see water collect on your windscreen through your wipers, and disappear if you enter a tunnel, only to come back in force once you’re out driving in the rain again. It’s procedural, so it reacts and looks natural, as opposed to just being a canned effect or animation. Moreover, taking the camera out to third-person view highlights just how impressive this simple addition to the game is. The water hits the car (and environment) with stunning realism, and builds wonderfully off the engine’s incredible lighting system. Honestly, if I had my way, it would be raining all the time in Forza Horizon 2. Cars also handle very differently in the wet, so when it rains, it becomes a drifting-fan’s wet
The endgame directive here is to win your way to the Horizon Festival’s championship race, but it hardly seems like an accelerated goal. You’ll take on a few easy-as-you-do early events to get you into the mode of how things work around here, but by and large it’s never force-fed. Horizon 2’s greatest strength lies in its freedom and reward system, which keeps you progressing even when you’re not trying to. It also sports a robust online component that will maintain its life beyond clearing out that final event and includes, alongside obligatory races, car meets where you can show off any of your favourite vehicles as well as an online Road Trip with friends (effectively just cruising from point A to B with all the friendly shenanigans you can fit in, in between).
Between the game’s intro and solo closer, though, there’s more than enough to bite into with varying race categories ranging from Classic Rally to Modern Muscle, and everything in between. Once a category is selected, you have a handful of races to choose from, in any order, and when you beat these you can move onto the next, but it’s all really loose and player-driven on how you decide to go about each event.
Most range from three to four races per event, where you’ll accrue podium points based on where you finished in each. At the end, your total is tallied and compared to the field that has been racing you that entire event, and you’ll earn rewards based on how you finish overall (you will need to come first, second or third to properly progress though).
Racing and race events are really just one part of the game though -- there’s also a lot of exploration to be done, with plenty of hidden content out in Horizon 2’s vast play-space. New to the series is Bucket List Challenges. These are littered about the game-world and feature crazy, unique cars (some often ridiculously fast) with equally unique rules. Examples come in the form of showing that the Maclaren P1 still “has it” by hitting a set of speed cameras at a top-line speed, but only after navigating some windy roads within a time-limit to even make the marker. Drifting, top speeds, skill chains, near misses and more flesh out these and there’s a very good chance the developer will continue to bolster them post-release, as I can see them becoming a heavy fan favourite.
Other off-race directives also include seeking out old cars in hidden barns strewn about the game-world. Usually you’ll get a clue from your in-game buddies that there are “rumours” of such and such a vehicle somewhere in a broad vicinity. Find these and you automatically unlock the car (after it’s restored) where it sits in a special “Barn Finds” section of your Garage. Naturally then, with all the rewards you gather throughout, you’ll build a heady Leno-esque lot of cars you can upgrade and customise to your heart’s content. As soon as I was able to, I bought the 69 Charger the Dukes of Hazard drove and immediately found a downloadable skin so that it was an exact replica. Like Forza 5 (and others before it), this stuff is bolstered and shared on by the community, which is a huge social factor for the game, and one of its other key elements. In many ways, Forza Horizon 2 is now the benchmark for in-game community-building just through its dynamic and natural ease of it all. Where games like this used to feel out-of-reach for the average non uber car-loving person, Horizon 2 not only closes the gap, it opens all the doors.
There’s also not a lot to complain about. I’d suggest that maybe putting the camera button on RB was a mistake (LB would just work better), or that including the Ford Escort RS1800 instead of the RS2000 was a massive slight against me (it was the second car I ever owned, and I loved it), but so far that’s as far as any issues I’ve come across go. It’s an absolutely gorgeous game that handles better than anything else in the market. It caters to the truly hardcore and the average Sunday driver in equal measure without taking away from either. It has one of the best presentations of any game in-market right now and continually rewards players for the simple, little things. It has a huge social component alongside co-op and competitive multiplayer as well as the brilliant Drivatar system that emergently challenges you, even if you don’t have many friends to play with. The year’s not over yet, but this is the best game I’ve played in 2014 so far, and I’m not even a huge car person. Well, I wasn’t before.
An absolute must-own.