Forza Horizon 2 Review – Xbox One

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When it comes to open-world racing games nobody does it better than the Forza Horizon franchise – assuming two games constitutes a “franchise”, and I can safely make that claim at least until Driveclub and The Crew arrive later this year. But for now, rest assured that if you own an Xbox One you won’t find a more enjoyable racing (or even a casual driving) experience than the new Forza Horizon 2.   How enjoyable?  Enough that my review is three days late because every time I sat down to record game footage or make notes I would end up playing for 2-3 hours minimum; often going for as long as 5-6 hours.

The game is massive and not just in the map size and total mileage of roads; paved and otherwise. There are nearly 800 events that make up the Forza Horizon 2 experience; all set within the stunningly beautiful backdrop of a fictional hodgepodge of France and Italy that takes you from the winding mountain roads to the rolling hillside vineyards to the gorgeous coastal highways.   I was duly impressed with the Colorado setting from the first game, but my jaw found a permanent home on the floor as I explored all 315 discoverable roads on my European tour.

Fans of the original will find a lot of similarities in design and content. Once again you are taking part in the Forza Festival, only this time, rather than a single hub location you also have six destinations, each serving as its own mini-hub and host to its own series of events.   You’ll embark on numerous Road Trips to reach these destinations, but in a stroke of genius you actually get to pick the type (car class) of event you’ll be racing before you leave.  This allows you to choose your next car from a list of more than 200 and get some drive time with your new ride in a non-challenging casual drive.

There are 15 championship events you’ll need to conquer as you climb the ladder to reach the Horizon Finale.   You’ll be earning plenty of credits along the way to purchase all sorts of cars and upgrades as well as earning XP by winning races and pulling of skill combos like drifting, near misses, and air time.  The more skills you can string together the higher your multiplier and the bigger your score.  Each event features four races that are a mix of circuit racing, street racing, and cross country.  The latter is my personal favorite as these off-road races don’t necessarily require you to have a rally car, so you might find yourself crushing your path through a dense vineyard or kangaroo jumping over hillsides in a million dollar Lamborghini rather than a Dodge Ram.  There are also a few specialty events that will have you racing planes, trains, and even hot air balloons.

With each increase in level you earn a Wheelspin that randomly rewards you with cash or maybe a car. Additionally, as you earn skill points you will also unlock Perk points that can be used to unlock any of numerous perks that will grant you bonuses like additional credits or XP.  My favorite perk was the one that puts a camera icon over the cars you need to complete the photo challenge – more on that later.

The controls and car physics are as dreamy as the exotic rides you’ll be driving when you hit the S1 and S2 car classes. Despite the game only running at 30fps, I had no issues with steering or control as long as I was driving from the cockpit, hood, or bumper cam.   The near and far chase views had some wonky oversteering issues, but I have never been able to drive well from behind the car in ANY racing game.  As expected there are plenty of assists that you can toggle and the more difficult you make the game the more XP you can earn for each race.   You can make Forza Horizon 2 as casual as you want or as sim-like as you want right down to a comprehensive pre-race tuning mode where you can tweak every facet of your vehicle and save you favorite presets.

Rather than going up against random AI opponents you’ll be racing the Drivatars of other human players. For those new to the Forza games, Drivatars are these continually evolving AI representations of real-life people playing the game; and not just this game.  I was playing Forza Horizon 2 prior to street date and was facing off against many of my friends’ Drivatars from Forza 5.  One nice perk is that your own Drivatar is out there competing even when you aren’t playing the game, so each day when you start up the game you’ll find a nice deposit of credits that your AI earned for you while you slept.

Between Championships or even between race events you can break away and explore the vast countryside that exists between the six core cities of Sisteron, Nice Massena, Saint-Martin, Castelletto, Montellino, and San Giovanni.   If I had to sum up Forza Horizon 2 in one word that word would be “discovery”. In addition to the 315 roads that get painted in on the map as you drive on them; you’ll also have ten very special cars hidden in barns that require some painstaking searching off the beaten path.  There are hundreds of boards scattered about the map that need to be smashed to earn XP and lower the cost of the Fast Travel system – although using fast travel in a game this beautiful is criminal.  You have 30 Speed Traps and 15 Speed Zones, each with their own leaderboards, and 30 Bucket List challenges that will put you behind the wheel of some exotic ride and ask you to complete a challenge that exploits a feature of that vehicle.  And there are six car meets spread about where you can meet up with other online players to admire their rides or complete Showdown events.

Forza Horizon 2 perpetuates the illusion that you are racing in a real-time MMO game when in fact all of those names above the other cars you are seeing are actually Drivatars. When you are ready for some true online competition or just a shared road trip with friends you can head to the Online Road Trip or Online Free Roam modes and link up with others in real-time.  This is where the game’s strong social aspects come into play that can be as simple as a Rival Challenge or as deep as forming your own Car Club where you invite members and appoint officers.  Car Clubs have their own XP and are ranked on their own leaderboards against other Car Clubs forming yet another rivalry.   Playing online is a fun mix of challenging and oddly relaxing gameplay where you can all vote on your next road trip destination then race or play fun events like Infected (bumper tag) when you get there.

Forza Horizon 2 is everything you could want from a next-gen racer when it comes to graphics and sound, and I’m going to make a bold statement and say that, as of this release, Forza Horizon 2 is the most beautiful and technically proficient game on the Xbox One.  Everything from the scenery to the meticulously detailed car models with cosmetic car damage (that can also be toggle to performance-degrading damage) is jaw dropping. Every car has a detailed interior cockpit view that was reason enough to drive a few miles from that view just to appreciate the instruments and the real-time mirror reflections, but I always fell back to my standard hood cam, which also served up ample reflections as well as raindrops when the game’s real-time weather system sent clouds rolling in.  There is even a night and day cycle that creates some of the more challenging moments in the game thanks to realistic lighting and the blinding effects of oncoming headlights.

The focus is definitely on the cars and you are free to paint them any color you choose or limit yourself to manufacturer-approved colors or you can choose from a massive (and growing) library of livery designs created by the developers and the Forza community.   Some of these designs are quite impressive and you can even “like” your favorites and follow your favorite designers.  Forza Horizon 2 also has a fantastic photo mode that allows you to not only snap your own shots of exciting moments from your racing career but also serves as its own little mini-game in where you are rewarded for snapping photos of all the cars in the game, earning 1000 credits per pic and a special bonus for every 20 shots.

Forza Horizon 2 also features a robust soundtrack with more than 150 songs spread across seven stations that are slowly unlocked as you explore the map. Interestingly enough I haven’t found a song I didn’t like which is a rarity these days.  I particularly enjoyed a few of the events like racing hot air balloon and one of the coastal Bucket List challenges that chose some classical Beethoven and Tchaikovsky tracks for me.  And of course you have the various rambling of the DJ’s that will keep you up to date on the festival events and alert you to nearby Barn Finds.

For those of you with a Kinect you will find ANNA an invaluable tool, as she allows you to simply speak a few basic commands to plot your GPS path to pretty much any destination or event you would care to reach. She will even make intelligent recommendations based on where you are in a current challenge or your proximity to a barn or a board that needs smashing.  It’s nothing you couldn’t do from the map screen, but there is a guilty pleasure of laziness you get by speaking your commands as anyone who uses their Kinect to control their TV viewing will admit.

Forza Horizon 2 is massive with so many events and discoverable items that I estimate a solid 100 hours to fully complete, and that’s not taking into account any of the time you’ll spend online with friends and car club members.   I was hooked after the first hour and now, after more than 30 hours in, I can say this has become an obsession. I simultaneously look forward to and dread the day I do complete the game.

So for any race fans out there with an Xbox One the question for you isn’t IF you should buy Forza Horizon 2, but which version should you get? You can jump into the Day One Edition for $60 or go for the Deluxe Edition for $80 that tacks on the VIP Membership.  This gives you access to six additional cars as well as exclusive tournaments and a 2x multiplier on your Wheelspin rewards.  Or you can go for the $100 Ultimate Edition that includes the VIP and the Car Pass that will get you six months of car DLC (31 cars).  The latter is a tough sell, because unlike Forza 5 that was all about the cars, this game is all about the content, and once you complete the game the desire to replay it with different cars may not be that strong – especially six months down the road.  I did opt for the VIP DLC, mostly for the cash rewards, but rest assured, even the Day One edition is going to offer nearly unlimited potential.

As far as negatives, there were a couple of days just after launch where the servers were flaking out and I was unable to do any Car Club stuff or access livery designs on new car purchases.   I’m guessing those were growing pains with the initial burst of new players after launch.  As of a few hours prior to writing this review everything seems to be sorted out and the livery designs are loading a bit faster than before.  But everything else about the game has been pure joy and as close to perfection as I have experience on the Xbox One system since its launch.

Forza Horizon 2 not only met my expectations, it surpassed my dreams of what an open-world racing game could actually accomplish. While I’m not normally one to get all “social” in these games, I really enjoyed the car club aspects of the game and I particularly enjoyed the illusion of an MMO by seeing real gamer tags above most of the cars in the game world.  It really personalized the game, especially when I actually knew the person (or his Drivatar). There is a great sense of competition and rivalry, even in the smallest stuff like trying to have the top speed on a particular speed trap camera, and everything you do is immediately compared to somebody on your friend’s list who is playing the game.  The true online racing and driving modes are just as enjoyable as the solo game and provide a great social interaction with your friends.

So if you never got to backpack across Europe between high school and college now is your chance to do just that, and all from the thrilling comfort of a $4.8 million dollar Lamborghini Aventador at 200+mph or maybe just a relaxing coastal drive in a freshly restore Army jeep.   The only problem is once you get there you may never want to come home.

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