Forza Horizon alleviated Turn 10’s series of a disease that similar, successful series oftentimes succumb to: franchise fatigue. Upon handing the Forza Motorsport name to a team of Bizarre Creations, Codemasters, and Criterion veterans, the right marriage of off-road and open-world exploration belted players to their seats for one hell of a ride, into the antsy hours of the morning.
And with a shocking false start from Forza Motorsport 5, Forza Horizon 2’s opulent landscapes and rally-esque racing are just what the doctor ordered. The campaign begins as general Forza entries do, showcasing the latest supercars from Mercedes, McLaren, Aston Martin, and other manufacturers in a fierce scramble to the finish line. Instead of checkered flags, that end point is the Horizon Festival, a southern European shindig that invites motor enthusiasts from around the world to revel in the raving nightlife and hammer on the accelerator at dawn.
I hope this city is ready for a wake-up call.
Forza Horizon 2 basks in car culture, from dazzling photo shoots to the body modding and paint jobs to the steadfast rivalries. Although the narrative seems boilerplate, with towns like Nice and Castelletto constituting championship hubs, I’d take the narrator’s carefree buddy-buddy speak over the sedated dialogue of Forza 5’s commentator – or most anything Forza 5 thought it did well. The series’ debut on the Xbox One became known for cut or curtailed features, such as a skin-and-bones campaign, lack of an auction house, and the inability to sell unwanted vehicles. Forza 5’s rap sheet grew longer by the minute.
One complaint pertained to the soundtrack, which couldn’t settle on the proper tone for a cruise around Road Atlanta, Silverstone, or the Bernese Alps. Forza Horizon 2 rectifies that mismatch. Whether you prefer Eric Prydz’s house techno stylings, the lively thrums of Jane's Addiction, or Mozart’s classical overtures, the music diversity – 150 all-inclusive songs – jibes with the cushy scenery. Playground Games trades the cozy Colorado Rockies for France and Italy’s exquisite freeways, where the baroque architecture and dynamic weather patterns (now including rain!) establish a sense of belonging that Forza Horizon’s blank stretches of asphalt lacked.
Nothing says racing like American engineering and Tchaikovsky symphonies.
My career started as I propelled a 2015 Lamborghini Huracán to its limits along romantic coasts, soaking in the game’s harmonious setlists. The more nail-biting races, however, blazed through dirt-caked hillsides, patchy forests, and vegetable-rich fields, the ethics of which elude me. Why would the agricultural community consent to muscle cars, tuners, SUVs, and exotics tearing up the arable earth? What monster even takes a Ford GT, BMW M3, or Lexus LFA from the gentle pavement to the rough pastures?
It appears the abrupt terrain changes ignite a spark that’s crucial to each race. The circuit and point-to-point courses mark the path with checkpoints, but as long as you pass through those gates, Playground Games permits fits of spontaneity. Forza Horizon’s guardrails felt less like a safety net and more like a prison sealing me from the outside world. Forza Horizon 2 remedies that, tripling the size of the first game’s countryside. With plenty of real estate to spare, you can terrorize humble towns, careen through rolling plains, or find shortcuts that would usually trigger cheating signs.
Screw this fence in particular.
As is commonplace, you can purchase and paint a wealth of iconic vehicles for your virtual showroom. The Aston Martin DB5, Shelby Cobra, Ferrari 458 Italia, and hundreds more – all replicated down to their itsy-bitsy interior details – wait to be broken in. Conquering France’s vineyards in the cockpit of an Audi R8 – dressed in blacked-out rims and blue dragon decals for kicks – is an unorthodox adventure exclusive to Forza Horizon 2, where disabling driver assists molds this sim into an unexpected rallycross experience.
Switching off anti-lock brakes, selecting a manual over an automatic transmission, or opting for simulated rather than cosmetic damage contributes to a bigger payday. The more realistic your ride handles, the more credits you collect. Tuning also returns to the series after its depressing Horizon hiatus. Petrolheads will want to customize cars to their fancy, letting pressure out of the tires to enhance their grip, softening the suspension to counteract understeer, tampering gear ratios to temper acceleration, or minimizing downforce to reduce drag. All that jargon may not mean much to a casual automobile fan, but knowing the ins and outs of a vehicle separates the legends from the wannabes.
Seeing supercars marred by filth is enough to give my inner racing enthusiast a heart attack.
Players that just want the thrills of an open road have something to commemorate, too. Forza Horizon 2 warrants the use of the term "open world." During the tutorial, on the way to the festival’s staging area, you and a few dozen wheelman maestros hold an unofficial sprint to the meet-up. The unsullied pleasure of driving without regard for event standings, money, and pink slips resurrects the raw spirit of a calm Sunday outing. The story dwells on the road trip subject matter. Championships cannot start until you arrive in the next city, but you can always survey less-traveled trails. While exploring, fans might happen across cars rusting away in abandoned barns or rivals locked in their own competitions. I loved uncovering all the game’s secrets.
The world feels like it is inhabited by driving fanatics, seeing as the developers add Drivatars to the Horizon formula, replicating the antics of other online players. Forza 5’s avatars sped into turns like they were demo derbies, shunting people into gravel pits at the cost of their vehicles’ well-being. With Horizon 2’s broader roadways, Drivatars maintain semi-civilized races through empty fields without incessant ramming. The civility speaks to the immersion, especially when friendly gamertags doubled as magnificent nicknames. The 1v1 rival battles meant something if Salient Fool or DJ Subzero stood between me and a credit bonus.
The game does contain fast travel stations, yet I would never skip such a scenic commute.
Multiplayer returns, and Playground Games dedicates arenas to the King and Infected modes designed for destructible shrubbery, barrels, and pallets. Weaving through tree lines to shake pursuers and win the match ranks near the top of my favorite Forza memories. The results humiliate Need for Speed Rivals. The tap of a button places players in an online game – no lobbies, no waiting. Forza Horizon 2 supports sixteen challengers – doubling Forza Horizon’s player count – and sets up new goals for friends to compete and cooperate in. Best of all, any progress made in multiplayer translates to the campaign. That includes cash and experience.
Other means of gaining money exist, encouraging fans to investigate the ends of the world. XP billboards decorate sides of the road, speed cameras watch and record racers one-upping each other in bouts of unparalleled daredevilry, and the novel Bucket List tests your composure in a slew of car-specific challenges. I pitched a Lancia Delta through the woods in the dark, broke multiple speeding laws in a Koenigsegg Agera, and analyzed a Nissan GT-R’s flight capabilities during these brief octane events. I’d pay real dollars for the adrenal highs that Forza Horizon 2 fuels.
Though the Top Gear name is absent, this seems like something Jeremy Clarkson would dream up.
And yet, more excitement awaits in the atypical races. The air versus land battles diverted my attention away from the road; I would marvel at the choreographed stunt planes flying through checkpoints inches above and behind me, or the C-130 I chased down an airstrip. Of course, Forza’s top-tier handling lives on, allowing iotas of arcade madness to creep in. Spinning out on dirt or assessing the strength of concrete homes is not the end of a race or a career as it is for some professionals. The rewind feature stands by, always ready to undo miserable braking or inconvenient fishtailing.
Forza Horizon 2, however, is not above a little recklessness. Playground Games institutes a skill chain system, scoring players for driving the way they want. Racing clean and smooth piles on consistent fame. But infuse your style with chaos and you could bank points for demolishing somebody’s fence, knocking over street signs, catching air, or playing chicken with others. The experience spills into perks that discount car parts, enable fast travel anywhere, or boost your near-miss scores. The rules of the ordinary world rarely apply.
Playground Games toes the line between silly and serious, reawakening a motorsport passion previously smothered by Forza Motorsport 5 and its no-frills sterility. Depicting the pure mania of pinning a vehicle’s throttle to the floor, Forza Horizon 2 is an elegant display of car fetishism that studios spend decades trying to imitate. Why settle for second best?
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Playground Games
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-16 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360
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