I like Forza Horizon 2 more than I like Forza Motorsport.

I know, it’s all sorts of high treason, but the team at Playground Games have captured the type of game that I want to play more than Turn 10’s masterful racing titles have.  Forza Horizon 2 may have racing at it’s roots, but this is a driving game at heart.

Forza Horizon 2, like its predecessor, focuses on a fictional event called the Horizon Festival.   The original Horizon event was set in Colorado, but this time the team at Playground Games have set their sights on more exotic locations across Europe.  Don’t think Forza Horizon 2 is just a location change, though — there is so much more to this title than that.

The Aston Martin Zagato

The Aston Martin Zagato

The game kicks off with a roar.  As your supercars leave the ferry, host Ben (played by Sean Maguire) thanks you for helping him get his rides to the Horizon celebration for what he calls “the summer of our lives”.   Driving the new quarter-million dollar Lamborghini Huracán LP 610-4 through the winding Italian roads, it was very clear that Horizon 2 has a mood it’s trying to set, and I was excited to be a part of it.

You aren’t the only racer in town for this event, and Ben has devised a system to see who’s best.  With 15 championship events, culminating in the Horizon finale, each racer will earn points in their race brackets, levelling up with earned XP, and picking up colored wrist bands for event wins.  It’s what it does outside of this that makes Horizon 2 special.

When I said that Horizon 2 is a driving title at its heart, it’s the way the open world is absolutely full of things other than racing that brings it to life.  Ben’s Horizon Festival is a neon-colored cross between Electric Daisy Carnival and an international auto show, complete with fireworks, cars to buy, and events galore.  Starting off with decent, if basic cars, Ben will enroll you in your first race series.

There are ten race types in Horizon 2, but that isn’t to say that is all you’ll be doing.  Classic Muscle will put you in Charger R/Ts and the Regal GNX, whereas Modern Muscle will put you in vehicles like the Corvette ZR1 or Dodge Charger SRT8.   The Ford SVT Raptor is your ticket to rally racing, alongside the Bowler EXR S, and Ram Runner. From modern exotic super cars to track-only exotic toys like the Ariel Atom and the Donkervoort D8 GTO, Forza Horizon 2’s cast of 200 cars is wildly diverse.  The handling is vastly different in each vehicle – an incredibly important feature often ignored in racing titles.

The BMW M1-WM

The BMW M1-WM

If there is a feature that may seem like a cheat, but isn’t, it’s the rewind feature.  Obviously aimed at taking some of the frustration out of racing, the rewind feature allows you to back up time with the Y button, allowing you another shot at that tough corner or accidental oversteer.  You would imagine it would make everything entirely too easy as you can retry as many times as you’d like, but surprisingly it doesn’t.  Instead, it takes out the “Ugh, I ALWAYS lose on that last corner!” frustration that makes racers stop playing.  By simply taking out the “you must be perfect at all time” aspect, the game is immediately more accessible, albeit no less challenging.

Wheel…of…Mustangs!

Horizon features a full XP, skill, and credit system.  Drifting, narrow escapes, trading paint, crushing street signs, getting air, and other skillful driving earns you points that in turn earns you perks.  Chaining these driving techniques gives an obvious nod to games like Tony Hawk, providing a compelling risk/reward incentive. There are 25 perks to earn in Horizon, starting from the middle of a 5×5 board.  Unlocking the center is a freebie, opening up the option of the four adjacent ones.  Where you go from there is your choice, but all perks are permanent and persist both online and off.  These can increase rewards for certain types of skill chains like driving cleanly for a period of time, earning 10% more credits for beating a rival, or bumping up your score for near misses as examples.

When you race you’ll earn XP as well as credits.  Every level up gives you a pull on a slot machine that has payoffs for in-game money, or even a chance to nab some of the cars in the game.  There’s even a perk that gives fate a nudge for a better chance at higher rewards.  Just like customizing your car, you can even customize your rewards.

Decals will yield awesome side art, for sure

Decals will yield awesome side art, for sure

“Can I get my Lamborghini Countach in a dark rich mahogany, please?”

The level of customization in Turn 10’s Forza Motorsports was absolutely staggering.  Horizons 2 looks to ease off the gas a bit on the gearhead business, though it still offers an incredible wealth of tinkering possibility.  You can also go with pre-packaged mods that are a single button press to take your vehicle to the next performance tier.  It offers a good balance between hardcore simulation and high-speed race action – a theme carried throughout Forza Horizons 2.

For those who have the talent to turn a handful of simple shapes into masterpieces, you’ll be happy to hear that the full decal system has returned.  In addition to a massive array of colors (yes, including a deep wood grain mahogany or a light pine if you fancy pretending your Corvette is a pinewood derby car) you can build decals just like you could in Forza Motorsports.  If you aren’t the creative type, you are also welcome to rate and download the work of others, giving you a sleek and awesome custom look without a whole lot of effort.

If you ever watch Top Gear (either shore, really) you’ll eventually hear them lament about “civilian” options like Traction Control and Automatic gearboxes.  In Forza Horizon 2 you can turn all driver assist options off, or mix and match to up the difficulty.  Not just personal victory, you also get additional XP and credits for the added challenge.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but it does show you exactly how powerful these road monsters really are when you take the leash off.

Graphically, this is the most beautiful game on the system.  The vehicles are picture perfect, the damage modelling is fantastic (and can be impactful or cosmetic at player discretion), and it all runs at an incredible 1080p color-rich eye opening resolution.  Sure you might see some janky plants when zoomed, or the odd strange shadow when stopped, but this is a racer – what are you doing sitting around?

This is called a Rally Fighter.  I want one.

This is called a Rally Fighter. I want one.

“The summer of our lives”

When Ben tells you that this race will be the summer of your lives, he probably should have also told you that it’ll take you till next summer to beat this game.  There are a total of six locations in the game – Sisteron, Nice Massena, Saint-Martin, Castelletto, Montellino, and San Giovanni.  Each of these have 28 championship events to complete comprised of four races per event.  For those who don’t want to take off their shoes to do the math, that’s 112 races per area for a grand total of 672 races in all (each roughly 4 minutes in length).  Add in five speciality races (e.g. racing against a jet demonstration team as seen below) to hit 117, then toss in 30 “Bucket List” races which have you performing skill challenges, speed exhibitions, or ignoring the road and using your offroad skills.  Ten more secret cars tucked away, 150 boards to smash for unlocking fast travel or XP rewards, and six car meets to find will give you easily 180 hours of content, if not more.  And all of that is before you even head online.

After every race you’ll be given the chance to face off against a rival’s Drivatar.  Interestingly enough, despite a few races against Turn 10 and Playground Games folks, as well as a few press members, the game decided that Fencer Musashi, my Lead Editor David Roberts, would most often be my rival.  Racing a rival gives you another opportunity at XP, credits, and earning skills, but they are entirely optional.

Joining friends for a road trip online, or engaging in a race is drop-dead simple in Horizons 2.  Simply select between Online Road Trip, Online Free Roam, and Solo.  Racing to the start location, you’ll join up with a friend, but other racers can also join in between events.  You’ll earn XP, cash, and skills while racing with your friends, and you can even form a club for additional social options and bonuses.  You’ll do more than racing online, though.  There are side events, with the most entertaining example being a mode called Infected that has one player as “it” with their job being to tag and infect others with a quick bumper tap.  They then chase down the remaining uninfected, with the person who remains ‘healthy’ longest getting the largest slice of rewards.  Like the Showcase events in solo play, they are a fantastic distraction.

Forza - coast

Hospital Records Radio!

BBC Radio DJ Rob da Bank rejoins the team for Forza Horizon 2, and it shows.  There are roughly 150 tracks across seven stations – twice the size of its predecessor.  Jane’s Addiction, The Clash, Nero, Chromeo, Cut Copy, and Duck Sauce are mixed in with Metrik, De Lux, and even Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to create a soundtrack that pushes players while remaining in the background.  If you are an EDM fan, you’ll absolutely find something to love here, but with seven DJs bringing their own unique flair to each channel, there is always something to listen to.

Talking with a friend who played the original Horizon, his immediate complaint was about ANNA – your GPS companion that helps you navigate the world and its challenges.  I don’t know how bad it was in the original, but I can say that ANNA is a silent passenger in Horizon 2.   She is, however, very responsive.  She’ll set a path to the nearest event, suggest your next move (when prompted), and much more.  I’d say ANNA has about a 85% success rate, which is a huge step up for a Kinect voice-prompt system.  Everything can be done via menus and the map, so those without the Kinect need not worry.

See that thing up top?  You'll be racing against it...

See that thing up top? You’ll be racing against it…

Paywalls and skyboxes

There are a few hiccups present in Horizon 2, but I’m going to be up front that they are simply nitpicks.  During one incredible jump I ran into an invisible skybox that turned my car into a missile towards the ground, ending my awesome streak.  There are also occasional hiccups where the game momentarily pauses during solo play while saving.   Thankfully these are in non-race moments.

I did get to experience the dual operating systems of the Xbox One as I did have one hard lockup with Forza Horizon 2.  I purchased a car and the game froze during the save process, which is as terrifying as it sounds.  Thankfully my save was safe, popping me back into the world at one of the car meetups – a place where you can view other people’s rides.

There is one thing that I think everyone is going to latch onto as a negative – the VIP Membership.  Tucked behind a $19.99 paywall are six additional cars including the Lamborghini Urus and Tesla Model S.  While it’s obvious these were held back as a very small carrot for DLC, there are 200 cars and more content in this game than any racer I’ve ever seen.  If you want to pick up the new bucket lists (there is an empty slide just waiting for it), extra cars, and whatever goodies are coming this season, knock yourself out, but there is so much here without it.