Forza Horizon 2 is a beautiful game. It runs at 1080p and at a particularly smooth and solid 30 frames per second, with the only noticeable frame slowdown coming, somewhat peculiarly, on non-interactive loading screens. It also ensures that the stars of the show – the 210 cars – are all stunningly reproduced. There’s a level of fidelity that is as yet unrivalled on consoles, but with a couple of hot prospects in racing arriving on console very soon, does Horizon 2 do enough to remain at the head of the pack?
There are going to be endless visual comparisons over coming months and in plenty of areas, I suspect that Forza will come up marginally short. The dynamic weather and day/night cycle could be a little more gradual in their changes, for example. Some of the textures in scenery aren’t ideal, either. There could be a little more variation in the kinds of cosmetic damage done to cars and some of the spot lighting, although generally very good, occasionally looks a little separated from the rest of the world when at its brightest. But all of that is dressing and 99 percent of the time, in the things you’ll notice during gameplay, Horizon 2 generally excels.
That gameplay, of course, is what really matters the most. We’re returned to the open world system of Horizon 2’s predecessor, away from the sometimes self-serious nature of its track-bound sibling. This time, though, Horizon is having its festival of racing in Southern Europe. That means a condensed version of an area around the Italian border with France plays host to a wide range of races and challenges this time around, as well as the ongoing bass-heavy parties with their seemingly endless supply of fireworks that serve as your hub in each location on the road trip.
The presentation relies heavily on Ben, the host of the Horizon Festival. Played by Meet the Spartans’ Sean Maguire, I found his little chats mildly irritating without ever feeling too inspired to pay him much attention. He’s basically playing every flyer-waving club promoter you’ve ever tried not to make eye contact with in the shopping centre though, so perhaps I’m doing the actor a disservice when I suggest his performance is a little too smug for my liking. It’s ultimately unimportant though, since his role essentially comes down to that of audible tooltip when you pick a new menu item or need to do a new mission to progress.
The game tracks everything you do and presents key stats during the very reasonable load times, as well as at the end of races. You earn skill points for just about everything you can think of, from drifting to drafting, clean racing to trading paint and wrecking scenery – it all gives you a little numbers boost that can be chained into combos for higher scores and all goes into increasing your skill level. When you fill your skill meter, you earn a skill point that can be used to unlock one of 25 perks that help you earn skill points, credits, store discounts and attain XP more quickly.
Winning races will earn credits to spend on upgrades and new cars as well as award you with plenty of XP. There’s a little bonus if you’ve turned the game’s assist levels down and increased the difficulty too. XP fills a meter and levels you up which, in turn, increases your access to the Horizon festival via a coloured wristband system. Each time you level up, you’ll also get a chance to spin the wheel of fate and win a random prize. Sometimes this is only a few thousand credits but occasionally you might win a car worth hundreds of thousands.
You’ll also be gifted cars for a handful of specific showcase events in the game, like the one that had you race the aerobatic display team in the demo. These introduce a great bit of variation and fun to the standard formula of having you drive to a location, take part in a race (be it sprint or improvised track) and repeat. That’s something Horizon 2 manages quite successfully to achieve: it keeps things interesting. In truth, you’re always simply trying to get from one point to another before the other cars in the pack, but with off-road sections, or even wholly off-road races and championships, as well as other traffic (albeit very light) on the road, there’s never a chance to get bored.
The handling of each car is also different enough to keep things interesting. Whichever car you choose will influence the championships you can take part in (there are 168) and the game does a great job of gently trying to nudge you in the direction of trying new things, driving new kinds of car and developing your own driving skills. You might have just completed a championship in a 4WD rally car from the 1990s when the game recommends a trio of championships ranging from hot hatches to classic muscle cars. You’ll constantly be encouraged to experience different handling in order to keep the racing fresh and challenging.
The events in each championship are often chosen to compliment the vehicles, but they’re equally as likely to be purposefully awkward in order to demonstrate a point about the cars and test your driving skills to the fullest degree. One notable instance from a championship I chose fairly early on was being forced to tease a RWD muscle car around an incredibly twisty and slippery off-road course. It was one race in a championship which otherwise consisted of traditional sprints on tarmac and was clearly aimed at getting me to think about throttle control and pre-race tuning setups in a way which was mercifully unobtrusive.
The online elements of the game consist mainly of a Freeroam mode and Online Road Trips, a reflection of the single player game that has you driving between events and competing in various game modes from standard races – off-road, track and all in between, to a kind of zombie-inspired tag mode. It’s by far the fastest way of earning XP, and the credit bonuses it dishes out at the end of each series of events is also quite hefty. You’ll carry that XP back with you into the single player game too so a spot of online play is always a good idea.
Of course, all of your stats are also collected and presented in detailed leaderboards against all of your friends too. You can compare just about anything in the game, from how many of the collectible barn finds you’ve located and renovated to the number of smashable XP-awarding or fast travel boards you’ve driven through. The latter offers you a small discount on the game’s fast travel tax for each one you’ve discovered. Basically, rather than drive through the open world to get to the next event’s start location, you can fast travel to any location you’ve already driven to for a sizeable (to begin with) fee.
The roads are also filled with returning Drivatars that you can choose to ignore or to challenge for impromptu head to head races that earn you extra credits and XP. Your friends will make up the majority of these soulless, swerving symbols of opposition but there are plenty of filler names in there too, so even if you’re short of online buddies, there’s always going to be opposition to bump into.
Speaking of bumping into things, the Drivatars and traffic that act as obstacles during freeroam and racing don’t react particularly well when you hit them. It’s unreasonable to expect Burnout levels of crash physics, but they’re stubborn if you hit them side-to-side and almost comically listless if you hit them head on. You won’t lose an alarming amount of time in a race through hitting another vehicle – it’s much more costly to hit a tree or wall – but they do slow you down enough that they can lose you plenty of places, so there’s more than simply a skill bonus to think about when you’re weighing up whether to use your competitors as low-tech steering aids.
You’ll be encouraged to re-run races when you finish them, prompted to beat the next closest rival for a handful of credits, as well as there being plenty of pop ups on screen to let you know who you’re chasing in all aspects of the game’s progression. It’s fairly standard stuff for modern racers, but there’s a nice range of things you can choose to care about and some variation to the skills required to excel at each thing. You might not be fastest through the speed traps, for example, but you could explore more carefully and find more of the smashable boards.
All the usual painting and vinyl livery options are in the game, although they can’t be imported from earlier games. There are also the usual ways to profit from your painting and tuning skills by selling to other racers for in-game credits or buying from them, if you need to supplement your own visual or mechanical deficiencies.
Clubs allow you gather likeminded people together into an online community of players based around whatever you want. You can dedicate your club to a specific interest, like in-game photography, drifting or livery creation or you can simply use it as a way of organising online Road Trip meet ups. You can compete for position on a weekly club ladder and your club competes with others on a global leaderboard, too.
Forza Horizon 2 is first past the post for this year’s flagship racing games and that means that it has the advantage of being novel but also the responsibility of being used to measure the rest of the pack. While it does cut a few low-priority corners to make everything run smoothly, racing at 1080p and at a rock solid 30 frames per second is great and the cars are beautifully modelled with handling that seems faithful to reality but with just a dash of arcade-style fun that makes it an unrelenting joy.
Horizon 2 gets the basics right: It’s a great core driving experience with plenty of variation to the events, a respectable catalogue of cars and a large map to explore, but there’s significantly more to it than that. The online system, friendlist leaderboards and clubs system are all relatively unobtrusive if you don’t want to use them but impressively powerful when you do and, although they still go big on the DLC car packs, the return to a lack of micro transactions is very welcome too.