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Forza Horizon 2

Platform(s): Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Turn 10 Studios
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014


Xbox One Review - 'Forza Horizon 2'

by Adam Pavlacka on Sept. 30, 2014 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Forza Horizon 2 is taking racing fans some places the series has never gone before: off the track, through the rain, and around the diverse landscapes of Southern Europe.

Buy Forza Horizon 2

Built on a modified version of the Forza Motosport 5 game engine, Forza Horizon 2 revisits the same open-world racing that defined the original Forza Horizon. For the second iteration, the world is larger, but the underlying concept is the same. Get in a car, race, and have a blast while you're doing it.

Forza Horizon 2 starts out with a standard introduction that highlights the basic controls before offering you a choice of one of three cars. As soon as you make your selection, it's time to start driving. Unlike the more structured progression system of its predecessor, Forza Horizon 2 allows for maximum flexibility on the part of the player. The championship races you select in each city are based on the car that you want to drive. Feel like switching it up at every location? Go right ahead. Want to play the entire game in a BMW? You can pretty much do that (with some specific exceptions).

The flexibility of choice is perhaps Forza Horizon 2's biggest strength because it allows you to play the game the way you want to play. With roughly 200 cars available from the outset (sadly, the Tesla Model S is only available if you purchase the VIP membership for an additional $20), there are bound to be at least a few vehicles that strike your fancy. All cars have to be purchased with in-game credits before use; however, if you do purchase a DLC pack, you are granted one free copy of each car in the pack. Additional copies have to be purchased with in-game credits, just like "normal" cars.

Although Forza Horizon 2 defaults to an arcade handling mode, there is a full simulation running under the hood, and it is very easy to switch off the assists and run the game with full realism. The latter is only recommended for skilled players with a wheel and pedal setup, as full simulation doesn't allow for many mistakes. For most players, the default arcade mode (AKA "make me awesome" mode) is the way to go. It still offers enough simulation elements to provide a challenge but integrates subtle assists so you don't have to worry about missing a turn because you were half-a-foot off the racing line.

Having an appropriate level of challenge is a necessity in a racing game, and Forza Horizon 2 excels in that regard. Every mistake feels legitimate, and the challenge presented by the AI drivers is real. Forza Horizon 2 uses the same Drivatar technology as Forza 5, and it does an excellent job of making the single-player races feel alive. Drivatar works by taking a base AI skill level and then applying custom behavior based on how a specific player drives when actually playing the game. This means that AI cars don't just toe the racing line. Some drive aggressively. Some play it safe. Some look for shortcuts, and some aren't afraid to trade paint if needed. Because the Drivatar tech is the same between the games, it means that anyone who played Forza 5 already has a Drivatar running around in Forza Horizon 2. While playing the game, I was constantly running across Tony's (author of our Forza 5 review) Drivatar in the open world and within races. One side benefit to having a virtual "you" running around is that your Drivatar can earn you in-game money. It's not much, but it is a nice bonus.

Visually, Forza Horizon 2 is stunning. The open world is covered in detail, from fences to foliage. Draw distances are immense, with no real noticeable pop-in. There are some detail changes if you know what to look for, but if you're focusing on your driving, you'll never see them.

The day-and-night cycle makes for some impressive vistas, but what really stands out is the dynamic weather. All of the weather particles are fully modeled, so if you race into a rainstorm, you immediately feel the difference in traction. It forces you to change up your driving style to compensate, lest you lose control and fall back in the pack.

All of this happens at 1080p with a solid 30 frames-per-second refresh rate. It's not quite the 60 fps that Forza 5 delivered, but it does match the 30 fps of Forza Horizon. Given the open-world nature of the game, sacrificing frame rate for increased draw distance is an acceptable trade-off. The only time I ever saw the frame rate hiccup was right after a loading screen, and even then, it was just for a split second. During actual gameplay, the frame rate never dropped, and there was no noticeable visual tearing. In short, Forza Horizon 2 looks good.

In addition to the championship races, Forza Horizon 2 also includes bucket list challenges, hidden barn cars, showcases, speed traps, speed zones and bonus boards. Bucket list challenges are short challenges that require the use of a specific car. To give them a go, you must first find the car somewhere in the world. Hop in to start the challenge, which can be anything from "achieve a top speed" to "race to point X in a certain amount of time." You don't get to keep the car if you win a bucket list challenge, but the challenges are recorded on the leaderboards, so you can play for bragging rights.

Now the barn cars, those you get to keep — once you've found them, that is. Barn cars have been put in storage and forgotten about. They don't show up on the map until you've discovered them, and they can be in some pretty out-of-the-way places. Finding one requires plenty of off-road exploring, but the rewards are worthwhile. Searching out the barn cars was one of my favorite parts of Forza Horizon 2 because it was like searching for buried treasure.

Showcases appeared in Forza Horizon. These races pit you and your car against an unlikely opponent, such as a train or a squadron of jets. The idea is that your opponents may have more raw power, but you have better maneuverability. These races may sound absurd, but they're a blast, and they're also balanced to be fair. It's not unusual for mere tenths of a second to differentiate finishing times. Speed traps record your top speed as you pass by, while speed zones require you to maintain a high average speed across a certain distance.

Bonus boards are also hidden, though not nearly as well. They're advertising boards that either contain an XP value or a fast travel discount. You just drive through one to collect it.

Smashing bonus boards is one way to collect XP, but it's not the only way. The majority of your XP is earned through racing. Collect enough XP, and you level up. After every level increase, you get a bonus "wheelspin," which can grant anything from in-game credits to a free car. Aside from the XP, there are also skill points, which can be used to unlock bonus perks. Unlike XP, skill points can only be earned by driving with style. Much like "kudos" in the Project Gotham Racing series, skill points are banked so long as you're executing a continuous combo of cool moves. Stop the moves, and the points are banked. Screw up and hit a wall? All the non-banked points are lost. Going for a high skill score is something of a balancing act in and of itself because the longer your combo chain, the bigger the multiplier. Do you risk adding on just one more move?

If all it offered was the single-player experience, Forza Horizon 2 would already be the best available racing game on current-generation consoles, but it also offers up a bevy of multiplayer options. You can race against other players, explore online freeroam, check out other players' rides at the car meet locations, and join (or form) a racing club. Players who join clubs are eligible for bonus credits, so there is an incentive to be social.

Going online also offers you an opportunity to show off any custom creations that you have applied to your car. Forza Horizon 2 includes a detailed car customizer, which is more or less limited by your creativity. If you're not the creative type, you can download designs that were uploaded by others. A perfect example is the Jurassic Park Land Rover in my collection.

Finally, there is the audio. The sound effects work deserves a mention, but it is the soundtrack that really stands out. Instead of just going with a generic EDM soundtrack (to continue the dance festival theme established by Forza Horizon), Forza Horizon 2 features a full mix of licensed songs across multiple genres. You'll hear CHVRCHES, Nero, and even classical music. Racing through a cornfield and across a shallow riverbed in the middle of the night while classical music is blasting may sound weird, but it works.

Forza Horizon 2 may not break new ground, but it excels at what it does due to a high level of polish and a laser focus on fun. Whether you want to play for five minutes or five hours, the game has something to offer. Who cares if the premise borders on the absurd? If you want to race, this is the game get.

Score: 9.0/10

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