Forza Horizon 2 is a game I've grown to love. Not that things started out particularly badly. Far from it. It's just that to fully appreciate Playground Games' faster, furiouser, and indeed friendlier twist on Turn 10's renowned Forza series, I had to put in some serious hours. And the reason for that was mostly preconception.
I'd twice spent time with the game before a finished copy was drip-fed to my Xbox One in a downloading marathon that made me wonder if my bandwidth was more baud than megabit. Each experience with the game had been generally positive, but both times I left harboring some nagging doubts.
The first time I saw Forza was E3, where a fairly basic demo showcased the game's handling, general presentation, and visual quality. I walked away quite impressed, but I wasn't completely convinced. I had a concern that stemmed from a private demo I'd been given of the game in which I was given a presentation that made me feel like the developers involved had been brainwashed by Xbox marketing folk and turned into their very own pocket sock puppets.
Every time a feature was mentioned, it was somehow delivered by, unlocked thanks to, facilitated with the technology of, or made exclusively available by the power of … Xbox One. I had questions about the off-roading/cross country aspect of the game, but they weren't answered. The unfortunate lead sock puppet had to stay on script, and not address my observations about how driving a Lamborghini Hurracan across several cornfields and through a couple of fences before rejoining the road unscathed seemed a little incongruous.
It was a great example of why marketing people really need to not seed developers with blatantly obvious, disingenuous-sounding marketing lines, and instead give them some guidelines, but afford them some freedom to talk candidly about the game they're making to people whose job it is to report on them.
There was also a whiff of marketing sock puppetry in my second encounter with Forza Horizon 2, but fortunately this time it was far less heavy handed. The presenter rattled through his script at top speed because he wanted us to spend as much time as possible actually playing the game. This was a good thing.
Again, I had a great time playing through the initial activities and races, but once again I walked away with some worries. This time it was about… well, I just have to go straight to the point, and that's the douchiness of the in-game presenter. I played the first hour of the game, and he was a constant presence who came across as excruciatingly patronizing. So much so, that I expected that any time soon, he was going to pull his index fingers out of his pockets and shoot imaginary pistols at the assembled crowd while shouting, "heeeeeeeeeeeey." Oh, and then blowing the imaginary smoke off the ends of them.
Too much of that, I thought, and I'll have a difficult time not putting my fist through the TV. No matter how good the racing.
I was also worried about the whole rave-car-show-woooo-aren't-we-having-a-good-time-wooooooo-yeah vibe that was also a consistent presence in the early parts of the games. It gave me hideous flashbacks to the Fast and Furious-era Need For Speed games, which I loathed with a passion. But then, they were generally crappy games anyway, so they deserved to be ignored. Forza Horizon 2, on the other hand, packs some excellent gameplay, and I really hated the idea of it being marred by similar kinds of painfully manufactured good time-ness.
However – and you know what's coming because I've already told you I ended up loving this game – all this ended up not being too much of a bugbear at all.
Yes, the people in this game do look like someone in Microsoft's marketing department went through an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog and said, "make me these models," and yes, the rave-event backdrop is painfully artificial. Fortunately, though, while it is laid on a bit thick initially, the deeper you drive into the game, the less you have to deal with it. And to be perfectly honest, much of what's said is actually useful. Mr. Douche and his Abercrombie and Fitch Crew guide you through the game really well, telling you just about everything you to know about where to go, or what to do next. It's just a shame it's all so… obnoxious. I'm also a little disappointed that it's a male avatar experience only. I'm sure there are female players out there, or indeed people who like to be women in-game (like me) that would appreciate the opportunity to choose who they want to be. But it's a minor quibble.
The other concern I had was the incongruity of driving a supercar over hill, over dale while nary garnering a ding, and it potentially breaking the suspension of disbelief. It is silly, no matter how you cut it, and it does make the game completely unrealistic. But, in the grand scheme of things, it just never bothered me like I thought it would.
Here's why. I drive like an utter arse in most racing games, cutting corners and driving through sand traps and chicanes so I can gain an advantage while the rest of the AI racers have play it straight and follow the rules. Forza Horizon 2 simply embraces the cheatin' bastard ethic and accepts that if there are corners to be cut, and fields to be driven across to shave seconds off your race time, you're going to do it. So screw it, let's just make that part of the game.
And that's what you do. While you're racing, you're constantly looking for ways to "cheat," but you're not really cheating. You're playing the game as it's supposed to be played – and if you don't, you're doing to be the sucker playing it straight while the AI laughs its digital ass off as it drives through a fence and across several vineyards so it can take a whopper cheaty-looking shortcut.
That's not to say the game is a festival of cheating. Most races have strictly gated checkpoints that corral the racers reasonably well and minimize super-cheese driving, but even so, between those checkpoints, there are often liberties to be taken – but finding them is a really fun aspect of the game.
What it all adds up to is extremely fun and creative racing, whose openness varies from race to race. Sometimes you race on the road with little room for shortcuts, while at other times there are huge gaps between checkpoints, and you're encouraged to find your own route. Indeed, one of the very few criticisms I have of the game is that it would be nice to be able to more clearly see the checkpoint beyond the next upcoming one, so that you can plan your racing line, or cross-country shortcut a little more ahead of time. However, it's a minor criticism that's more of a nice-to-have than a must-have.
At this point I feel I need to apologize for this somewhat ass-backwards evaluation. I started it by addressing the two main issues that I was concerned about coming into this review, but as I've explained, they both turned out to be non-issues. So that means I can finally get to the review proper, and wax lyrical about the rest of the game, which is all top-tier splendiferousness.
For starters, the game packs a wonderful, double ton plus array of motors. I'd be shocked to the core, and indeed would accuse you of not being a car lover if you can't find at least several cars on the roster that won't get your automotive heart a-fluttering. There are also ten barn find cars, most of which I was extremely excited to find. No spoilers here, because I'm not ruining what I think is one of the coolest parts of the game, and that's tooling around the countryside trying to find barns, inside which reside some of the tastiest, lust-worthy four-wheeled stunners I've ever had the privilege to drive in any game.
These barns are spread across the map, which essentially represents a miniaturized southern France and northern Italy. Also on the map are hubs, which take the form of a car show/rave where you can buy and modify cars in typical Forza style, engage in social racing, and - most importantly - participate in a four-race championship. Once the championship is over, you move onto the next destination, and the next set of races.
What I love about all this is that while each championship is set in terms of the type of races (scramble, on and off-road, and autocross), the choice of vehicle isn't. It's up to the player to decide which vehicle he or she wants to race, and the game creates a competitive field of cars tuned to match it. Maybe you're in the mood for caning a hot hatch. Perhaps you might want to race extreme off-roaders? Or JDM machines. Whatever it is you want to race, that's what you race. You can win the entire game with just one car if you want. It's fantastic, because you don't ever have to drive a vehicle you don't want to - at least, not when it comes to the driving events.
The only time you're "forced" to drive a specific car is if you participate in either a bucket list or special event. The former is a single race where you need drive an exotic car and attempt to hit a specific goal - such as a certain speed on a specific road. The latter is a straight-up race – not against other cars, but planes and a train. All are top fun, but the train race was the outstanding event for me. It's very well choreographed, and even if you run a perfect race, you still have times when you're racing alongside the train and it feels neck-and-neck. Truly awesome stuff.
"Awesome" is also a word I'm happy to use to describe the game's appearance. Lighting and atmospheric effects play a huge part in making Forza Horizon 2 look rich and sumptuous. While there are some rare conditions of overly-stark sunshine that make the cars look a little too crisp and hyperreal, most of the time the game looks dead-on real. Especially when it's raining. It's not often that I sit and stare at a game in wonder, but I've done that on more than a few occasions here. The way the rain sits in puddles on the road, the realistic reflections, and the light mist that softens the environment makes the game look as real as any racer I've seen. It really is quite jaw-dropping.
Not only does the game look good – it also captures the essence of the real-world locations upon which it's based. Having stayed in the area that comprises half the game's maps (the French part) on several occasions, I can personally attest to its astonishing accuracy. It's certainly not a brick-by-brick, field-by-field recreation, but the way the countryside looks, the trees, the buildings, the architectural styling, ambient cues, and the lighting all work together to capture this romantic part of Europe in an exceptional way. I think it sets a new benchmark for open-world racing games – and indeed racing games in general.
The cars models are terrific too. That's not surprising considering that there's an obvious high degree of overlap between this and Forza Motorsport 5, but even so, the way they blend into the environment is terrific. The fact that after a few minutes, you simply take what you're looking at for granted because your brain is fooled into thinking that it's real is a testament to just how good a job Playground Games' visual artists have done.
Oh, and not forgetting the audio guys too. I loathe and detest most games' soundtracks, but I was quite shocked to find myself listening to Forza's almost the entire time I played. Of course, your mileage may vary, because it does have a very heavy European dance/rock bent, but then what do you expect? During the game, you're bouncing from rave to rave, so Radio Polka Minnesota would probably feel a bit out of place. Oh, speaking of out of place, there's a hidden Classical station to find too, and while I'm sure some people will hate it, I actually found it really charming. There's nothing quite like fishtailing down an old dirt track way out in the boonies while listening to a movement from Carmen.
The only thing left for me to talk about is how Forza Horizon 2 plays, and all I really need to do here is trot out the old cliché, "I'm saving the best until last." The game is tuned to flatter the player, and while you can still spin or crash if you overdo it, it's largely to control, but has plenty of scope for adept players to perform all sorts of outrageous and lurid drifts and slides. What I particularly like is that there's a cumulative bonus system that lets you rack up points and xp by executing stunts and other crazy maneuvers. However, crash into something and you lose everything you've built up, creating this really interesting game of brinksmanship. Do you go for yet another crazy drift, or do you go conservative, bank the points and then start over? It's just another neat little Forza Horizon 2 touch that helps maintain top-level engagement and make the racing utterly riveting.
I've already poured many, many hours into Forza Horizon 2, and I finished the main championship last night. But that won't be the end of my involvement in the game – not by a long shot. Nosireebob. I can't wait to sink my teeth into the multiplayer online community and car club aspects of the game. They essentially form an endgame that I know I'll be playing for months to come. Like everything else in the game, it's very well thought through, and packs all sorts of peer-to-peer challenges and activities. I simply cannot see why the game won't garner a vibrant and engaged community that'll be active for the foreseeable future.
Forza Horizon 2 is a truly brilliant game. How much do I like it? Put it this way: if I didn't already have an Xbox One, I'd be buying one just so I could play it. Yep. To me, this is a killer app – and one of the greatest racing games yet seen.
Superb. Forza Horizon 2's high quality graphics capture the essence of southern France/northern Italy, and the cars look absolutely stunning.
Surprisingly good. An eclectic soundtrack suits the environment perfectly. There's even classical music for drivers to enjoy.
The game's visual and aural presentation set a benchmark other racers now need to meet.
A host of community racing features will doubtlessly turn Forza Horizon 2 into a full-time gaming obsession for many race game fans.
A meticulously crafted, marvelous-looking and superbly designed racer that dishes up an absolute feast of automotive madness and mayhem. Sheer brilliance through and through.