Forza Horizon 2 – Does it deliver or stall at the lights? (Xbox One)

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image0037After initial concerns that it would dilute the hardcore spirit of the game too much, we unexpectedly fell head over heels with the original Forza Horizon on Xbox 360. That meant expectations were high for the sequel, particularly considering its access to the turbo-charged power of a next-gen console.

While it uses the same graphics engine and Drivatar tech as Forza Motorsport 5, Horizon 2 is a very different game to its track-oriented teammate. For starters, it only forces you to drive around in an underpowered coupé for a handful of races before handing you the keys to a Ferrari, glistening in the mediterranean sun.

FESTIVAL SHRIEK

Forza H2 1The Horizon of its name is a huge festival held in the middle of the Franco-Italian countryside, from which the racing events you participate in are operated. A bit like the FIA if it were run by a bunch of ravers. In truth the festival is at odds with the surroundings in which you drive. It’s all lasers, whooping and EDM, dropped jarringly amid rolling hills dotted with vineyards, delicate farm cottages and quaint little market towns with piazzas at the centre.

Apart from your irritating host, Ben, a man who’s about as likeable as a wannabe Top Gear presenter, it’s actually pretty easy to ignore the festival side of things. Turn off the radio (it’s usually better to hear the sound of your engine anyway) and you can almost forget the festival exists. That’s because each tournament takes place away from the site itself, in one of many geographically distinct regions.

NEW CAR SMELL

To get to each one you must embark on a road trip, usually in a new car you’ve just bought specifically for that championship, meaning you get a chance to familiarise yourself with your new marque on the way. Races are either point-to-point sprints or laps of a makeshift street circuit. You’ll find yourself revisiting places over the course of the game but with so many roads to use there’s an almost endless selection of tracks and routes.

While it feels slightly more structured than the original, in geographical terms Forza Horizon 2 is a significantly larger game thanks to the extra opportunities for free roaming. There are fewer barriers restricting you to the roads, so if you can see a field, chances are you can blast right through the middle of it. We even beat an AI opponent in a head-to-head by driving our Mitsubishi 4×4 straight at the finish line, while his significantly faster Porsche stuck to the asphalt.

LET’S OFF-ROAD

Forza H2 2In fact, off-road events have been completely overhauled. Whereas before they were just regular races on loose surfaces, off-road events are now exactly that. Barrelling through a field of bonnet-high crops at high speed using the in-car view produces some genuinely heart-stopping moments. What before was one of the weaker parts of Forza Horizon has become one of this game’s most thrilling, only really beaten by the championship finales, which see you racing against an aerobatics team along the French riviera in a Ferrari, or sprinting through the countryside in an old rally car in a race to beat an express train.

It’s all of the extra off-road opportunities that add acres to the world. It’s three times larger than the last game, plus there are over 200 drivable cars on the disc, including everything from Ferrari’s 330 P4 to Local Motors’ open-source Rally Fighter. Each handles differently too, with noticeable differences even between equally powered cars.

That’s another benefit of the game’s more developed off-road side; it gives the gnarlier cars a purpose. Before there was no real reason to have one in your garage, but with the added emphasis on cross-country racing those trucks and American muscle cars that nobody really wants can now find a home barging across the landscape before drifting vaguely left at the barnyard like a turbocharged oil tanker.

Forza H2 3Just like any other open-world game the environment is scattered with distractions, challenges and bonuses to encourage exploration. Horizon’s Barn Finds return (and are just as well hidden as before), while new additions include Car Meets (essentially an excuse to sit and rev other people’s motors in a car park – meh) and 30 Bucket List challenges that require you to complete a task in a specific car: a point-to-point through trees in the pitch black behind the wheel of an old Lancia, for example.

IT NEVER RAINS BUT IT POURS

Forza Horizon 2’s weather is dynamic, meaning it can start to pour at any time, but the illusion is spoiled rather if you then begin a race that’s not meant to include a shower and the clouds miraculously disappear as you hit the start line.

Rain only has a minimal effect on the way your car handles (although it does make the road surface look a bit like a sea lion’s back) but for those wondering if Horizon 2 is too ‘My First Forza’ for them, put the steering in simulation mode, turn off traction control and ABS, and you’ve got a racing game that’s perfectly pitched for those who don’t want to powerslide round every corner at 160km/h but also like a bit of a challenge. The tuning menu is there, so those who want to can still tweak tyre pressure, brake balance and the like to their oil-filled heart’s content.

Drivatar-powered opponents can be a bit overly aggressive (OK, we’ll admit we can be too) but seeing your friends’ names over the top of passing cars really does work to ignite the competitive spirit. Despite knowing full well the car in front isn’t really being driven by someone on your friends list, we still can’t help but want to beat it more than if it was just some nameless drone.

Forza Horizon 2 might also be available for Xbox 360 but it’s not quite the same game. There’s no weather or Drivatars and the world is slightly smaller. If you pick up the Xbox One version it’s worth making sure your Kinect is plugged in. Anna, your voice-activated sat-nav, is a genuinely useful feature, responding consistently and accurately to your commands, allowing you to navigate your way around without having to stop to look at a pause menu.

DRIVE CLUBS

Forza H2 4Horizon 2 has also beaten Sony’s Driveclub to the chequered flag when it comes to social gaming with its, er, very similar ‘Clubs’, which you can either start or join with your friends. Each one can take up to 1000 members, which means Playground Games must have a vastly different opinion on what a gamer’s friendship circle looks like to the rest of us. Other club members will even earn you rewards while you’re not playing.

In general it’s not a game that makes it hard to pocket cash. Doing well in races earns you credits and XP and even with the difficulty ramped up it’s not too difficult to regularly finish on the podium. Until the latter stages few of the other drivers are ever consistent enough to give you a real battle in the championship, so anyone looking for more of a challenge should turn off rewinds and switch on full damage.

Each time you level up you’ll get a Horizon Wheelspin – a virtual slot machine that offers prizes of either credits or new cars. Around nine times out of ten it’s the former but when they all go towards buying new wheels anyway, who’s complaining? Your Drivatar will also pocket credits for you even when your Xbox is turned off. It’s clearly a game that wants you to earn, earn, earn so you can spend, spend, spend, although with the very top cars priced into the millions, you’ll have to save significantly in order to get behind the wheel.

VERDICT

Forza Horizon 2 is everything an open-world driving game should be. There’s loads to do and it captures the feeling of driving very fast better than any other game, to the point where it could soon eclipse its older brother once and for all. In fact, right now, if it were a choice between this and Forza 5, we’d pick Horizon 2 every time.

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