Games Review: Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One, 2014)

Racing games, especially the sort that cater to the street racing culture enthusiast, have never been my cup of tea. The boastful, arrogant swagger of the souped up cars themselves always seem to be given a higher priority than decent gameplay. When I loaded up Forza Horizon 2 and it began with a live-action cinematic announcing its intention to fill the European countryside with beautiful, rich, white, preppy car enthusiasts for a touring motor festival, I’ll admit to having had a sinking feeling.

I mention this because I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong so conclusively. Developer Playground Games has worked very hard to defy expectations, and it’s a key factor in why Forza Horizon 2 is one of the best racing games of the year.

The game revolves around the fictional Horizon Festival which is heading to Southern Europe for it’s second outing. It appears that, during the Horizon festival, all laws (of driving, common sense, physics, etc) are cheerfully suspended and punters are invited to hoon about the open-world Franco-Italian countryside to their hearts content in whichever vehicles they can find or afford.

The Horizon Festival’s biggest draw is the Horizon Championship. Players are invited to choose from vehicle specific cups (muscle cars, rally, supercars, classics, etc) and put them to the test against others in the same class in a series of four race types (sprint, circuit, trail, and off-road to name a few) in order to win credits, XP and a chance to race in the Horizon Finale, a winner-takes-all marathon against the best of the best. Off-road and trail races quickly became one of my favourites – it’s thrilling to leave the bitumen at breakneck pace, hurtle through farm land, onto a golf course and crash through a vineyard before screaming back onto the road in a sprint for the finish. Weather will affect your ability to race effectively too – periodic rainstorms will leave the ground slippery, even for a while after the storm has passed and the game’s day/night cycle will see you attempting to navigate tight Italian streets in the dark (trying to hunt down Barn Finds after nightfall is a true test of patience) and even heavy fog will bring the visibility in close.

Whenever you aren’t in a race, the game opens up the rather expansive map for you to scamper about in. One of the most beautiful things about Forza Horizon 2 is that you aren’t limited to just the track. Bought yourself a Bentley for 200,000 hard earned credits and want to drive it through a lavender field at 300km/h? The game isn’t going to stop you – if anything, it wants to encourage the kind shenanigans you might expect from an eccentric billionaire with a deathwish.

And the world is brimming with things to do; there’s Bucket List Challenges which see you helming rare and powerful cars and given a specific challenge to complete, like “Drive a brand new Lamborghini like you stole it” or “Get huge air in a Skyline GTR34”. The map is populated by Drivatar’s, AI-controlled versions of real players, and you can challenge them to head-to-head races for extra cash. There are Barn Finds, rare vehicles abandoned in dilapidated buildings that require you to scour vast tracts of countryside in order to locate them. There’s Car Shows, Speed Traps, rival challenges and a mode where you are paid for every photograph of a unique vehicle you can take. You’ve got your own Drivatar too, and they will bomb around and compete while you’re offline, earning you a bit of extra cash in the process.

Playground Games have gone the extra mile, working with Forza Motorsport devs Turn 10 Studios, to make jumping from car to car noticeably different and, given that there are over 200 vehicles from just about every major manufacturer on the planet to choose from, this is no small feat. AWD vehicles stick to the road like glue and are harder to lose the backend on, rear-wheel drive drift machines like the Mazda RX-7 just want to slide out away from you if you push them too hard and 4WD’s have a command over off-road tracks that other vehicles can only dream of. A lot of work has been put into the game’s controls to reflect this, with no unnecessary bells and whistles. Forza Horizon 2 keeps it’s inputs refreshingly simple – RT accelerates, LT is your footbrake, A is your e-brake and you can change the camera with the right bumper. You steer with the left stick and rotate the camera with the right. This is pick-up-and-play design and I can’t commend the devs highly enough for it.

Don’t expect the game to pelt you with new vehicles to try out just for winning a race or two, though. The trade off for the immense amount of freedom Forza Horizon 2 gives the player is that you must earn each of your rides. Car enthusiasts are going to have their work cut out for them if they want to buy all the cars from the Autoshow and take them for a test drive. In this aspect, it’s especially clear that games like the Project Gotham series (tellingly, Playground Games is home to a large number of former PG devs) and Test Drive Unlimited have been a huge influence.

One thing that really bugged me about buying cars was that there are cars in the Autoshow that you have to buy with real money. Attempting to purchase the Tesla Model S, I was presented with a screen that demanded $20 for a VIP Pass that would give me access to the Tesla and four other high profile cars. Maybe I’m becoming miserly in my old age but the pricing struck me as rather insane. $20 for five cars?! The VIP Pass unlocks bunch of extra content like XP and credit buffs as well, but I just can’t bring myself to part with my money for so little. There is also a Car Pass for $24.99 that claims it will provide players with a further 30 vehicles over the next six months. Your personal desire to have every single car there is will dictate whether this is a worthy purchase to you or not but for this cheapskate, the asking price for both passes is about ten dollars too high. A bizarrely greedy move from a game that is otherwise exceedingly generous.

There’s a vast array of tuning and upgrade options available for the cars that you do have and for the enthusiast tinkerer, there’s an awful lot of fun to be had here. You can adjust your vehicle’s every mechanical component to your liking and upgrades can take even the least competitive vehicle and turn it into a living fear engine. Our entire household had a vested interest in the trials and tribulations of a beat up old VW Kombi I scored from a Barn Find. I spent around 100,000 credits upgrading her with top of the line parts and conversion kits, painted her pearlescent purple, tinted the windows green and even put a boat rack on the roof. We dubbed her The Unicorn and she’s now able to defeat an entire grid of Lamborghini, Bugatti and Ferrari hypercars by a comfortable margin.

However, for all of the game’s tuning options, I found that I could simply buy the best-specced car out the class line up, enter it into competition without changing a thing and flay the every other driver alive with it (even the ones in the same car as me) through a combination of aggressive acceleration and sticking to the green racing line. AI drivers are so unwilling to put up a fight that if you swerve in front of them as they attempt to pass you, they’ll back off by about six car-lengths to avoid taking damage. Additionally, striking walls and barriers as you race doesn’t really hold you back that much outside of a bit of momentary slowdown.

The game also has a Rewind feature, popularised by games like Racedriver GRID, that allows you to wind back the clock a moment or two if you overshoot a corner or miss a checkpoint. By default, you can use the rewind as often as you want, which seems a bit unfair, but there is an option to limit it or even switch it off entirely. This is one of a number of features that can be tweaked in the difficulty menu prior to each race – you can have the game track damage taken and tire wear to force you into being more careful, an automatic or manual transmission, whether to have the racing line on at all times, only for braking or off entirely, you can switch a number of modcons like traction control on or off. The benefit of doing this is twofold – it makes the game far harder and far more enjoyable to play, and you are given substantial credit and XP buffs for stacking the odds against yourself.

You are also rewarded with XP buffs for exciting performance professional conduct during races and freeroam. When pulling off especially epic daredevil moves, jumps and tricks, the game will even do you the favour of automatically recording a game clip of your exploits to show off with later, which I thought was very cool as I would often forget to do it myself.

Having said that, it seems that rather than scaling the game’s difficulty in accordance with your level, Forza Horizon 2’s XP system is largely for show. Levelling up your driver leads to two things – a slot machine game that pays out extra credits or the occasional car and the accrual of Skill Points. Skill points can be spent on perks for your driver, like a permanent 10% discount to any cars purchased from the Autoshow for instance. Sadly, I found many of the perks to be next to useless and really only there to justify having the anemic XP system in the first place. A perfect example of this is fast-travelling anywhere on the map running you an outrageous 9000 credits until you work your way down the skill tree and spend five skill points to unlock a perk that makes it free. It’s grinding for grinding’s sake and it feels really out of place.

But enough with the gripes and niggles – lets bring this review to a close on a positive note. I’d like to take a moment to praise the teams that worked on Forza Horizon 2’s graphics because this is straight up one of the best looking games I think I’ve ever played. Car models have been meticulously recreated inside and out. The level of attention of detail is staggering. Paint and decals are incredibly realistic. Get careless in your driving and your vehicle will be dented and scratched realistically as you crash into things. Cars are also affected by weather and environmental conditions too, not just the tracks. Water beads on the car during a rainstorm and the roads become slick and reflective. Charging through a field will send dirt, dust and mud splattering from the tyres up side of the car (and will be washed off if it rains again). The environments are beautifully detailed with rolling hills, large Mediterranean orchards and lavender fields, dense cities and towns, and scenic driving roads that wind through coastline cliffs, plains and mountain ranges alike. It’s really worth it to stop and take it in every once in a while because it’s harder to appreciate when you’re speeding past it all most of the time. On more than one occasion, I found myself distracted by an especially pretty piece of scenery and end up crashing spectacularly. The sound design is similarly top notch with real world recordings of engine sounds, tyre screeches and environmental effects.

As this review was written pre-release, unfortunately getting into a multiplayer session was all but impossible. I’ll be trying out the multiplayer when the game launches October 2 and will be sure to update this review with my impressions then so please check back for that.

For all the relatively minor problems and nitpicks I had with it, I had an absolute blast with Forza Horizon 2. It’s been an extremely long time since I had this much fun with a racing title and I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time with it post-release. It’s nice to know that there are racing games out there that aren’t just designed to cater to the Fast and Furious crowd and can build an experience that’s rewarding, exciting and a lot of fun for anyone that picks up the controller.

Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Beautiful visuals, clever track design, a souped up Kombi is it’s own reward
Lowlights: Superfluous XP system, overpriced DLC, shy AI
Developer: Playground Games (Xbox One vers.), Sumo Digital (Xbox 360 vers.), Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: October 2
Platform: Xbox One, Xbox 360

Reviewed on Xbox One


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.