Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One) Review – A Great Open World Next-Gen Racing Game… Rain or Shine

Forza has always been synonymous with sim-oriented racing, from tuning cars to finding that best line to shave off 1/10th of a second of a lap of the track.  Two years ago developer Playground Games broke the traditional Forza gameplay model by introducing open world racing on the Xbox 360.  It was brought to life with the Forza graphics and physics engine.  The game was pretty much all I could have hoped for back then.  Fast forward to present day and Forza Horizon 2 is set to release on the Xbox One.  I won’t lie, I have been anticipating this title for quite some time, as the promise of next-gen hardware combined with the graphics and car-sim engine from Forza 5, I had high hopes for Playground Games next  Xbox exclusive open world racer.  We here at COG have been playing an early copy of the final retail code, and after sitting down over the past week or so I have to say that my expectations were fully met.  Just like a Subaru all-wheel drive Impreza takes off from the line and speeds down the road, nimbly navigating whatever lies in front of it; Forza Horizon 2 is something you should experience.

The story in Forza Horizon is thin, but that’s ok, as the game shines where it should, on the virtual road.  You are a random driver who has been invited to participate in a series of races held during the Forza Horizon Festival in southern Europe.  As you progress you earn coloured wristbands that will eventually give you access to the Horizon Finale.  Yep, it’s that simple.  There are a lot of in-game cinematics that pop up after each championship or road trip to help keep you involved in what is going on.  I found the story, if you can call it that, as well as the cinematics, to be a side dish so to speak as they are just a small morsel of what is offered.

As I ponder how to describe the gameplay, from the game’s features to how many events there are, I am left wondering how much detail to get into, because this is truly one hell of a BIG game.  There is a ton of stuff to do and the area to do it in is HUGE.  Yes, I keep using caps to emphasize this as there is no other way to get the message across.  The Horizon Festival takes place in six different areas of southern Europe.  You’ll travel to various places such as the Italian city of Castello to the beautiful Côte d’Azur, also known as the French Riviera.  Once you see how big the map is for Forza Horizon 2 you’ll realize you have A LOT of ground to cover.  And that is just the start, the amount of championships and events is extremely long, let alone the online play and other stuff…yep, I just said other stuff.

First and foremost, and what is basically the career mode, there are a series of multi-race championships.  You have to win 15 championships in order to take a stab at the Horizon finale.  Each championship contains no less than three races and can be raced in one of five skill levels.  What is really unique about this is that given the open nature of the game and environment there is variety in the racing.   Races are found all over the map and you’ll race on road, off road, through vineyards, over hills, and even through wide open fields.  The range of races is what makes the racing fun, as you don’t know what is next.  Each race championship is also tailored to the car you are in or those you have in your garage.  There are times you are offered to buy new cars for new events, but you don’t worry as it’s not always necessary.  After you finish each race in the championship you can race a “rival” who bettered your time on that specific track if you want to.

Drivatars make their return in Forza Horizon 2, so you won’t be racing against mindless A.I.  Those who unaware of what these are, in a nutshell, it’s when people race and their driving habits and style are saved to the “cloud”.  Once the data is in the “cloud”, and you are racing in Forza Horizon 2, that data is transformed into a digital model and you race against it.  For me personally, I found that the space provided by the open world of Horizon 2 really suited the Drivatars that I raced.  I didn’t feel as I was bumping or grinding nearly as much as when racing on the closed tracks in Forza 5.   Now, I am no technical wizard, but I think that Forza Horizon 2 is currently pulling data from Forza 5 as a lot of my friends who played that game have been populating Forza Horizon 2’s world.  Racing my friends digital representation is always fun and is here too.

As for how cars handle, you’ll notice a difference from an all wheel drive Audi, a front wheel drive Honda and any one of the supercars available (e.g. McLaren P1).  Given that this is a Forza game, the Forza 5 physics and sim-engine is used, so one can expect the cars to handle different from one another.  If anything, I felt the control was tight, and a little bit more forgiving then Forza 5.  That being said, I have never driven a Lamborghini Huracan or Pagani Huayra in a field or through a vineyard, let alone on an asphalt road.

If you don’t feel like doing the career mode all at once, you don’t have to.  There is more enough here to keep you playing for hours upon hours if you choose to do something different.  First off you can just free roam at your own pace, exploring what southern Europe has to offer.  Not only can you stop and race in any championships that you haven’t raced in yet but you can also challenge other Drivatars that you encounter on the road.   You may also come across Pro-level Drivatars that will be marked on the map when you are in the area and you can race them with a press of a button.  Beat them and you get a huge payout.  As you continue to roam you’ll also find a new feature that has been added to Forrza Horizon called Bucket List events.  Playground Games has put cars all around the map for you to complete specific challenges.  I am not going to ruin it for you, as they want you to experience it all on your own, but there are some neat events that can be very hard using some very unique cars.  With all this in mind there are around 700 different events for you to participate in as a whole.  Yep, you heard me, 700 events.  That’s a lot of racing.

If I had any complaint about the single player component it is the accessibility of the “rewind” feature.  Like in Forza 5 you can rewind if you crash or take a wrong turn.  In Forza Horizon 2 there is no penalty for using the rewind feature, and if there is, I can’t see any consequence.  This kind of takes the competitiveness out of it.  Sure, you have the ultimate say in whether you use it or not, but with it always being available there are times you’ll definitely be tempted.

Barn finds and showdowns also make a return.  For those not in the know, barn finds are like a scavenger hunt.  You are given a general location on the map and you must search the area for a hidden barn that houses a car that when found and restored by your mechanic will be added to your collection.  Nothing beats exploring the countryside, and I do mean countryside, as you can head off road to find that one special vehicle.  Showdowns are over the top events where you are placed into a specific vehicle and you participate in a crazy race.  This can include such things as racing an aerobatic squad of jets to racing a locomotive.  If you win the race you may get to keep the car you used.  I found that doing these events were a nice change to just racing other cars.   Nothing beats exploring the countryside, and I do mean countryside, as you can head off road to find that one special vehicle.

Should you want to race online, Forza Horizon 2 has that covered too, and to add some sugar on top of an already sweet game there are two options for online play: Online Road Trip or Online Free Roam.  Online Road Trip is somewhat structured.  It allows you and friends to compete in a series of championship events in different areas.  Whoever has the highest XP at the end is the winner.  Online Free Roam on the other hand allows you and a group of friends to explore the map or go to specific way points.  Whoever is the team leader can kick off a racing event should they wish.  They can choose the car class, time of day and even the weather.  This is more of a casual mode and helps to pass the time. Nothing says fun like exploring the open fields, back roads, and vineyards while avoiding traffic in southern Europe with friends.  I know I didn’t mind it at all.  It’s always enjoyable to race my friends or even those I don’t know, and the online experience was pretty smooth.  It will be interesting to see how things hold up when this game hits the masses.

So that’s it right?  Nope, there is still more.  You can tune your ride as well as customize what it looks like (paints, liveries) too.  And yes, the Auto Tune feature is there for the lazy or those that just don’t know how to tune (I am the latter….don’t judge me!).  There is also a new Car Club and new Car Meet feature too.  You can make Car Club for up to 1,000 people.  Here you can compete against fellow club members as well earn credits for you club as a whole.  As for Car Meets, you can check out other racers cars, their liveries, set-ups, etc., and should you wish, you can download something that catches your fancy.  It’s a neat social feature and a nice way to meet other car nuts or Forza fans.  There is also a new Perk system.  You unlock perks (e.g. higher XP for drifts) as you earn skill points, and the better the perk the more skill points they require.  Of course we also cannot forget the 150 smash boards that are placed throughout the map, including some that need creativity and skill to reach.  These allow you to either get a discount on car parts or save money on fast travel.  Finally, there is also a new way to reward you when you level up asyou are given the chance to spin the Forza wheel.  Here you can win in-game currency and even a car.

Phew, I think I am done, as that is A LOT of stuff.  If I went into any more detail you’d still be reading about the gameplay, but I figure you might want to hear about the visuals and sound too.

Forza Horizon 2 is a pretty game, there is no doubting that, and when you consider that you can virtually go anywhere it is even more of a feat.  The setting of southern Europe is beautiful from the Mediterranean coast to the city-like areas of Nice.  New to the Forza series is rain, and not just one type of rain either as there can be a slight mist in the air, a downpour, or a quick shower.  The way the water beads on the car is amazing, and when you are in the in-car view the wiper/water effect on the window are pretty cool.  The road, which gradually gets wet, like when it really rains, has reflections of cars and buildings, as well as spray from the cars in front of you.  Nighttime also makes a return and the rain-slicked road during the night as you drive through a quaint European village is nothing short of picturesque.  The variety of the southern European environments as a whole really shines.  Driving on a winding mountainous road, through many of the European villages you’ll come across to racing on a gravel road or through, yes I said through, a vineyard or hayfield; it all looks great in glorious HD.  As for the cars, the Forza 5 heritage shows as they use the same visual-engine, so each vehicle is meticulously recreated.  From the most basic of cars to the many supercars and off-road beasts offered, and even a Volkswagon van from the 1960’s, each one looks great inside and out.

For you tech-heads out there the game runs in 1080p at 30fps.  I found that the game did indeed have a sense of speed, especially in the hood view, which I prefer.  I also like to race with the in-car view now and then too, but it felt a bit slower than when using the hood view.  If I had any complaint regarding the visuals it would be that there is the odd texture pop in, but this is not too noticeable.  I also noticed the game would pause ever so briefly when loading part of the area as I was driving in.  These complaints are minor as the game is a looker, plain and simple.

The audio is what I expected, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Environmental effects like thunder from rainclouds, crowds cheering, planes thundering overhead, cars roaring through tunnels and mountainous areas and even the sound of your wheels slipping along the grass of an open field; all of them sound great.  Cars carry over much of the sound from Forza 5 so they sound just as good.  If I was to note anything it was some of the cars sounded a little quieter than they did in Forza 5.  The music of Forza Horizon 2 is a highlight.  With seven music stations and up to 150 tracks, there is a lot of variety, from rock to electronica to classical.  It’s amazing to have this much music available.  I am sure there will be something for everyone and flipping through the stations is as easy as a tap of the d-pad.  Finally, the voice acting of the characters in the story (e.g. festival host) are ok, just not overly memorable.

Playground games have once again met, and even exceeded, my expectations for Forza Horizon 2.  The open world of southern Europe, rain or shine, not only provides a great backdrop, but it is an awesome automotive playground too (did you see what I did there?).  With so much in-game content fans will find themselves racing for many days and nights (not just virtual) and the multiplayer modes add even more playtime for fans.  If you are an Xbox One owner and looking for a racing game that is an open world, fun, and has a lot of replayability while being both accessible to beginners and a challenge racing veterans given the number of gameplay options, then you really shouldn’t look any further then Forza Horizon 2.

The Good


The Bad