Sequels are inherently difficult. Trying to find the correct balance between reconstituting what worked in the past and inventing entirely new mechanics and ideas is an immensely difficult undertaking that often leads to developers failing to hit the mark. Following up on their critically acclaimed Forza Horizon, Playground Games seeks recreate the vibrant, festival atmosphere of the first title, whilst taking full advantage of what the new generation of consoles has to offer.
The 2014 Horizon Festival has moved abroad, leaving the craggy landscape of Colorado in its wake and setting its sights on southern Europe. A celebration of live music as much as fast cars, participants in the racing festival travel across Italy and France on multi-legged road trips, completing races and proving their mettle against their competitors. As an entrant in the Festival this year, you are tasked with completing fifteen of these championships, in order to qualify for the Horizon Finale and potentially become the Horizon Champion.
Each championship is usually around four races long, and comprises of a complement of both on and off-road racing. Traditional street circuits, checkpoint races and sprints are muddled with off-road equivalents, forcing players to throw their $200,000 supercars through some mud. Cross Country races are particularly fun, taking advantage of the massive, fully explorable world of Horizon 2. With very little in the way of barriers preventing the player from going off-road across the vast fields and forests in between the highways and dirt tracks that constitute southern Europe, a series of checkpoint races are created that take place almost entirely off road. While there is a loose driving line for the racers to follow, it’s tremendously satisfying the see a myriad of flying vehicles descending on the same checkpoint from three or four different directions. The cross-country circuit ensures that fence posts and small bushes are flying over the rooves of cars at all times, creating a manic, arcade-style driving experience in a relatively-realistic game and engine. Watching 11 other Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s screaming through a lavender field, leaving waves of purple detritus in their wake is a truly original and enjoyable experience.
At the end of each race, points are awarded to players based on positions, which are tallied up at the end of the championship, crowning a winner. The player is then instructed to select a new championship, and then the road trip continues to the next city.
One of the strongest traits of the Forza series has been ensuring that the player decides what they want to do and what they want to race. Rather than forcing the driver to follow a specific progression of vehicles, the driver is given the opportunity to select what type of championship they feel like racing in next. Whether they feel like driving off road through French forests or doing tight circuit racing in American muscle cars, each festival location offers ten different styles of racing. This goes into even more detail to ensure that every driver gets to experience exactly what they feel like racing. Each championship style opens up to two or three different championships, based on subsets of the cars available: maybe that off road race takes place in giant American style utes, or $100,000 SUV’s. Horizon 2 goes to great length to detail exactly what championships you already own cars to compete with in, and what championships you can afford to purchase new cars to compete in. It’s a simple, clear and concise way of detailing to the player exactly what they have available at their fingertips without making the decision for them.
After completing each race, the player is put back wherever they are in Europe and left to their own devices as to what to do next. The race events for the current championship are highlighted on the world map, but why not stop and have some fun on the drive over? Just as it was in the original Horizon, the world is strongly populated with a large variety of activities and racing opportunities. Smashable billboards, high speed cameras, unique racing opportunities and other cars careening around in their own races positively litter the environment, meaning that a new challenge is never far away. Smashing billboards earns bonuses, such as experience and currency to be spent on new cars. Each speed camera you bellow past remembers your highest speed, and instantly compares it against that of your friends list. Other drivers can be challenged in a short, head-to-head race for a bounty based on how skilled they are. Particularly high bounties are marked on your world map and pay huge dividends for completing. The greatest problem any open world game can have is a lack of content or variety to the gameplay. With over 150 championships, 300 roads, 150 billboards and 30 unique, Bucket List races to complete, there is content waiting around every bend.
The Forza Motorsport series has always been at the bleeding edge of what is graphically possible in a video game, and Horizon 2 is no exception. Striking a keen balance between the cool, clinical beauty of Forza Motorsport 5 and the brighter, more jovial Horizon, Horizon 2 is a visual tour-de-force unlike anything seen on modern consoles to date. Whilst it’s millimetric precision in rendering each of the over 200 cars is remarkable, it is the sheer beauty of the rest of the world that overwhelms the most. Each location looks and feels unique. The stark contrast between the beautiful, 18th century villas and vineyards against the vibrancy and modernity of the festival stages and supercars is remarkable both in its elegance and highly synchronous nature. There is a strong cohesion between the worlds, creating a realistic sense of place. Make no mistake: Forza Horizon 2 is the best looking video game I have ever played, and easily the best looking title available for modern consoles.
Tying in with the strong visuals is the excellent soundtrack. Consisting mostly of electronic style festival music, the soundtrack does feature a number of other stations with some more alternative music for differing tastes. Perhaps the best, however, is the classical music channel: presented entirely in Italian, the mix of symphony and opera with engine roar and supercharger whine is a wonderfully dichotomous racing experience. In a stroke of soundtrack-related genius, at the start of every race, each radio channel selects a specific song to enhance the experience, so that the song being played fits as well as possible. It creates a more cinematic racing style and is used particularly well in the unique race events. Look for a classic song by The Clash to feature prominently during a race against a train...
As with seemingly every title released for the new generation, Playground Games have tied the single and multiplayer aspects of Horizon 2 together in strong fashion. Players can start and compete in online road trips from their single player menus, even beginning matchmaking whilst completing other single player races. These online road trips are a mixture of racing, orienteering challenges and car-based challenge games, like Tag or King. Similarly, car customization and tuning has been re-worked to include multiplayer elements. Car designs and tuning setups, still as complex and crazy as ever, are much more discoverable and easy to download. Each car has its own specific storefront full of designs and tuning setups. The customization options are as wild as ever, but when paired with a great multiplayer experience, their effect is profound.
Perhaps the most constant multiplayer inclusion in the world is the implementation of the Drivatar system from Forza Motorsport 5. Boasting the power of the cloud and the Xbox One, Drivatars analyse the racing styles and habits of your friends, which is aggregated and added to their virtual driver in your racing world. Their original paint jobs and tuning setups carry over as well, leading to a much more unique experience. Drivatars are definitely more nuanced than they were in Forza Motorsport 5 (they no longer crash at the first corner), but their overall value is limited. Their intelligence seems no greater than traditional bots, so their implementation is relatively useless.
Forza Horizon 2 is a title truly filled to the brim with as much racing related content as anybody could want. With hundreds of cars and racing opportunities packed into a beautiful, realistic feeling world, there is no doubt that Horizon 2 is an instant classic. Most importantly of all, however, it continues the fine Forza tradition of playing magnificently. By pairing the best handling driving model in racing today with highly adjustable difficulties based on your own skill level, the player is given all the power to be in competitive, highly enjoyable races from start to finish. Playground Games have not just created one of the best racers ever made, but easily the best game available for modern consoles today.