Forza Horizon 2 Review

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.

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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.

What’s Good:

  • Cars look fantastic, and there’s enough of them.
  • Handling is a joy – just the right mix of realism and fun.
  • Fairly large open world to race in and explore.
  • Well designed progress system encourages variation.
  • Plenty of interaction with friends and online players.
  • The music is universally fantastic.

What’s Bad:

  • Mildly irritating voice overs.
  • Traffic is perhaps a little sparse.
  • Collisions aren’t meaningful enough.

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.

Score: 8/10

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16 Comments

  1. I think I’ll be getting this then. On a side note I challenge anyone to find a last gen review that starts and ends with the resolution and frame rate being discussed.

    • That’s because last gen felt like a huge leap forward where graphics are concerned and this gen feels like a small step. You didn’t need to discuss frame rate or resolution last gen because you were too busy talking about how great the games looked. I actually think the games look great this gen but I haven’t been blown away (yet). Plus, I do think it makes a difference. The Last of Us looked much better in 60fps than it did when I dropped it to 30fps. It wouldn’t stop me from buying a game but I do appreciate it when the frame rate/resolution is higher.

      • Yep. Plus not many people had ‘Full’ HD TVs so whether a game ran at 720p or 1080p wasn’t as relevant where as now you can pick up a Full HD TV for next to nothing. My old TV was HD Ready (720p) so it didn’t really effect me.

        On the frame rate issue, I was amazed what a difference it makes when you swap between the 2 in TLOU. I didn’t think I’d notice at first but it’s blatant. The cutscenes in 60fps look far better too.

        I turned on my PS3 and put BFBC2 on the other day for a bit of a nostalgia buzz seeming I loved it so much but I found it near unplayable due to the frame rate. Admittedly I remember it not being too smooth, but after playing BF4 at 60fps it seemed horrendous!

  2. Congratulations on the tag line, one of my favourites in recent memory, well done!
    Sounds good, just the kind of thing ps4 needs. Shame I don’t have an xboxone!

    • Driveclub is out soon and will destroy this.

      The physics in this look really bad in the videos I have seen.

      • How can games on separate formats “destroy” the other? And even playstationers admit driveclub looked less than impressive in the beta.

      • Give it a rest you two.

  3. Good review. My playing of the demo really is agreeing with your down points. Apart from liveries as that’s not really there but that McGuire chap needs wiping out of it. He’s very annoying. I’m glad I got this preorder.

  4. The demo is one of the best demo’s thst has ever been made, the intro movie was amazing I thought, and I nearly decided to buy the game on that. Music seems great as well.

    Handling is probably as responsive as you can expect from a 30fps title.

    I thought the race against the planes was quite far fetched and suspicioisly scripted, but tolerable.

    My main concern was the variety. It seemed like there were two possible environments: Coastal roads, and driving through fields/wastelands. I know it was only part of the map but looking at the full map suggests its just more of the same.

    If it wasn’t for driveclub releasing at the same time I would probably have preordered this.

    • I’m curious about the planes as well. I purposefully slowed down towards the end the second time I played the demo and actually lost, but this was after I saw they came in for the final swoop. I did win/lose different checkpoints the two times though, but I’ll give it a third go today and drive at half pace to see what happens.

    • Right, I drove 80 percent of the race at half throttle. About 80mph on average. Meaning, I was only pressing the trigger about halfway in and taking it nice and slow in the corners.

      The planes just managed to beat me at every checkpoint, but once Id passed the last I opened the floodgates and rushed to the finishline. I won, despite taking ages to get there.

      So clearly they’re simply animations triggered at certain points of the track. Kinda disappointed.

  5. @starman…off top of my head, last gen reviews were a lot of reviewers seemed (sadly) to get very moist about OMG it’s not running in HD in terms of if it’s not 720P burn it with fire…type attitudes i give you Halo 3 (resolution traded off again’st wide open areas or something, Alan Wake which was 540P but looked stunning and superb use of lighting….

    On flipside you had Lair on PS3, which was 1080P but by god played like a dog, generation before that? you’ve MGS 2 on Xbox, frame rate reduced to a crawl on tanker section when rain effects were on (poor port) or look at early SNES reviews with chronic slowdown as CPU slower than MD, coders getting used to hardware.

    This generation however seems obsessed with this 1080P/60 FPS benchmark, long before game even hits review stage, said it so many times, if your looking for those 2 benchmarks above all else, your looking at gaming on a PC, not a console, if you want the stability, affordable hardware that’s a media device as well as gaming device and your after the exclusive to console stuff, XB1 or PS4 will suit you far better.

    Burnout Paradise was 60 FPS was’nt it? but bugger all ‘fun’ compared to the earlier games, i had to buy the DLC to get any joy from it.

    As long as Forza 2 makes great use of host hardware, delivers fun in bloody spades, i’m not going to give a rates ass about resolution or fact it’s only running at 30 FPS.Same for Club Drive.

  6. I have a pretty good feeling this’ll be the best racing game of the year (after Mario Kart). And it sounds like it’s living up to expectations too.

    Of note is that it somehow uses 2x MSAA on its full HD framebuffer, which is impressive for the so-called eSRAM-challenged system.

    Framedrops during loading shouldn’t be any surprise, that’s perfectly natural as the hardware loads in new stuff. I noticed some during the demo, but since gameplay is rock solid its all gravy.

    Could you shed some light on the arcade/simulation options and how they affect the game/difficulty/online? Seems like it could unbalance things.

    • Basically, whatever assistance you turn off will increase the difficulty of the game – and give you a bonus on your payouts at the end of an event. I think it’s always 5% increments with each degree of difficulty (so steering assist on, normal and simulation increases it by 0%, 5% and 10% respectively). It’s all fairly standard stuff and it all makes noticeable difference to the driving.

      As far as I can tell, you’re racing people with their own settings selected when you’re online so they might have full assists on but they’ll get lower payouts than you do with them all off. So yeah, it kind of does unbalance things, if you mean winning/losing (although the more assists you switch off, the faster you’ll be able to get) but that’s not the thing you’re racing for, really. You want the XP/Credits that scale up/down with the settings.

      • I see, thanks. That’s exactly what I wanted to know. :-) The only thing that’s worried me about the game is how that system would work in an online environment, seems it’ll be hitting a good balance of fairness then. Or, at least as good as can be expected.

        Playing the demo I’ve found a nice balance where it still feels arcadey, but gives you more control by turning down/off assists. I’ve never played a racer offering such a breadth of physics before.

  7. 2x MSAA? So that’s why the cars look softer and smoother, compared to forza 5.

    They paid for that with the half framerate I think.

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