Technically superb open world racer, with online and offline thrills, but grating presentation
Available formats: Xbox One
For the first time in minutes I blink, resulting in a bone dry contact lens flicking from my eye, I try to stab the pause button in panic, miss it and my ludicrous supercar smashes into a cliff wall at 200mph as my friends and rivals whip by leaving me in last place.
It’s not the first time this has happened to me in my life, though if you plotted the occurrences of this particular ocular mishaps they would coincide neatly with the early life of each new console generation. This is because driving games always seem to do well on shiny new hardware, exploiting it for shiny new visuals; and such a nice-looking new driving game often reduces my blink rate below the level required to hydrate my contact lenses.
Forza Horizon 2 certainly has both aspects covered, luscious visuals and a pace that rarely allows for even split-second distractions. This sequel transposes the non-stop action from Colorado to the French and Italian Riviera, a change that’s undoubtedly for the better.
The setting is beautiful to behold, there’s a night-day cycle and real-time weather, with rain sweeping in off the coast. It looks stunning by day, with the rolling vineyard-covered hills softening with distance in the hazy sunshine. By night some of the cities look a little harshly lit and brightly textured, but the overall effect is still impressive. Grabbing a retro GT car and sweeping along the coastal roads in glorious 1080p (at a solid 30fps) is a genuine pleasure.
Unfortunately the game soon disabuses you of any suave, sixties european playboy fantasies. The stylish chase sequences from the Italian Job or Bond films are quickly extinguished though by the return of the hateful Horizon Festival.
It’s an event that makes little sense to us, but boils down to a music festival (not that you get to see any of that) attended by attractive young people who like to see flashy cars racing – not that there are any helicopters following your racing progress. This apparently gives you and your mates, who seem to be the chosen ones, carte blanche to wreak havoc on the roads of the riviera without consequence.
Forza Horizon 2 has the painful opening sequence to a game we’ve seen in a long time, a montage of speeding cars, pumping music, youthful flesh and a breathy female voiceover extolling the virtues of living life to the full. Somehow both pretentious and tawdry, it’s all over quickly, thankfully.
But then there’s Ben and he’s not going anywhere. He’s the organiser of the Horizon Festival, and a colossal tool – smug, permanently upbeat, overconfident and full of faux mateyness from the off. In fact, he’s annoying to the point that we tried to run him over repeatedly, but it was like driving into a rock.
THE CAR’S THE STAR
Get past all that, and the cars are the stars here, and haven’t they turned out nice. Rain droplets sparkle off wing mirrors, gleaming supercar haunches are shot with languid flowing cameras. The level of detail, both inside and out is exquisite. And there’s lots of them to choose from.
Over 200 cars are included, divided into 6 performance classes, so to try and keep the racing fair. These are then subdivided into around 30 loose categories: Supercars, Off Road, 90s Rally, Track Toys and Cult Classics to name but a few. There really is something here for everyone, we immediately bought a 1993 Nissan Skyline GT-R and quickly accumulated enough cash from racing to add a Jaguar XKR-S and Volkswagen Beetle to our collection too.
The handling and physics models are lifted from the excellent Forza Motorsport 5 and then tweaked for a slightly more fun and slightly more forgiving ride. It’s a huge success, with the handling feeling technically correct and predictable without being too challenging. You can still tweak and adjust huge numbers of variables if desired, both tuning the cars and turning off the various driving assists. Either way you’ll rack up cash (for cars) and experience points (which unlock special perks) as you drive, and get even more for exciting driving, such as drifts, narrow misses with traffic and getting big air.And there’s lots of driving to do, the single-player mode boils down to a series of road trips where you, and Ben, plus others drive across the sizeable map to a town or city from which you participate in one of numerous championships. Each is based around a specific vehicle type, so you can buy a new car for it or borrow one if you don’t fancy investing. There’s then a handful or races – point-to-point, circuit, road – with points for each place, come top and you win the championship. Very little is locked away, so you’re free to approach things as you wish, an open game for an open world.
As in Forza Motorsport you get a colour-coded line on the road showing you the ‘best’ driving line. Here though things are a little less clear cut, the line provides a highly conservative indication of how much you need to break to get around a corner, and obeying it to the letter will lose you the race. It also doesn’t take account that you can cut corners, or even head across country entirely, with little speed penalty in Horizon, so looking at the mini map and knowing the roads is a huge advantage over simply following the line – no bad thing we think.
A lot of the map is accessible for completely off-road activities and many of the races take full advantage of this, tearing through a vineyard, smashing the vines out the way before leaping a stream and barrelling through the ruins of a church. Heading cross country will also help you find hidden events and goodies, like classic cars mouldering in barns, ready to be restored.
As well as the usual races there’s plenty more to discover. The ‘Horizon Bucket List’ provides you with 30 tougher, one-off challenges to find and complete. Then there’s special Top gear- style events, such as racing against a train across the countryside, or against the Italian version of the red arrows. The TV show has mined out most of the possibilities over the last decade, and though nicely executed, these are largely prettied up races against the clock, as you’re not interacting with the vehicles you’re racing.
Where Horizon’s festival concept starts to make some sense is in its multiplayer. You can switch seamlessly from single player to multiplayer by joining a group on a tour, which then includes numerous events mixed in with casual point-to-point cruising. You can also drive to meet-up points, where you’ll find other players, from here you can chat, look at other people’s cars and launch into quick competitive races.
If you’re playing offline or online you’ll see Drivatars, AI controlled cars that apparently learn their driving style from their associated players. Before launch, we saw Drivatars using our friend’s names but obviously we couldn’t expect them to have learnt anything yet. We’re yet to be convinced by the technology, but have to give it the benefit of the doubt for now.
You can drive up behind any player, be they human or Drivatar, and challenge them to a head-to-head race there and then by simply pressing X. It’s a great way to mix in exploration with competitive gameplay.
One of Forza Horizon 2’s best features isn’t unique to the game, it’s the Xbox One’s resume feature. You can be playing the game, pause it, switch off the Xbox, then come back the next day, power up the box and instantly resume playing where you left off. It works startlingly well in Horizon 2, and hugely increased the amount of playing we did, grabbing quick races in ten minute bursts, much like a mobile game.
It’s the cherry on the icing of what is a technically superb game. It’s a pleasure to race through this sumptuous world in these great looking cars, and if you haven’t tired of racing games yet, or of Top Gear, then you’ll love your time behind the wheel in Horizon 2. There’s not a huge variety in activities here, and the window dressing is deeply aggravating, but the systems behind it all are sound. For those looking to race, be it alone or preferably with friends and rivals, Forza Horizon 2 is a great buy.