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The Forza Motorsport franchise has done a pretty fine job of establishing itself firmly as one of the go-to games for racing fans wanting a fix on console hardware. While the PC has always had a plethora of much more in-depth, hardcore offerings available, the console offering is much more slim, and in real terms the car enthusiast’s choice now comes down to one between the first party offerings between Microsoft and Sony.

With Sony’s offering now upped to two with a new-generation Gran Turismo on the way and Driveclub now out, Microsoft are seeking to keep up with that with Forza Horizon 2, a sequel to the successful and well-liked 360 title that took the basic scaffolding that held up Forza Motorsport 4 and rebuilt an entirely new type of game around it.

Off-road racing is now a big part of the game, even in cars not necessarily designed for it.
Off-road racing is now a big part of the game, even in cars not necessarily designed for it.

The same has been done for the sequel, with the version we tested – the Xbox One version – instead using the framework from the newer fifth main Forza game instead. The core concept is the same – where Forza is a track-based game about more stuffy, traditional racing, Horizon is about a crazy festival where speed freaks go to race fast cars through beautiful locations.

It’s this change of attitude that actually ends up making the Forza Horizon spin-off series a far more interesting proposition to me. I love myself some Forza or Gran Turismo, but I quickly find myself getting tired of the same familiar tracks race after race, game after game. The realistic physics modelling and other work that goes into capturing the vehicles is something I very much appreciate, however, and so experiencing it in a different setting – one that is altogether more approachable – is something I embrace with open arms.

That’s what Forza Horizon is. It’s the casual energy that drives titles like Need for Speed mixed with the physics and simulation that the team at Turn 10 have built. Like the first game, this combination turns out to be an utter treat for those who like cars but don’t always like the particularly linear setting ‘serious’ racing games tend to have.

Horizon 2 essentially continues on from everything the first game offered – there’s an open world, a wide range of races for different classes of vehicles, a plethora of cars to zip around in, and a pretty great contemporary soundtrack that provides the backdrop for the Horizon Festival, the event which serves to justify why tons of ridiculous racers in some of the world’s best cars have taken over a significant swathe of modern Europe.

Horizon 2's Southern European setting is both varied for gameplay and lovely to look at.
Horizon 2’s Southern European setting is both varied for gameplay and lovely to look at.

While the European setting has a greater breadth of environments available than the American open world of the previous entry, something about it doesn’t feel quite as interesting. The additional power on offer by the Xbox One helps to make this open world a lot more truly open, however, with many fences smashable anbd few invisible walls keeping you from driving off-road. Further, a series of off-road race events have been designed specifically with that type of action in mind.

When off-road, the basics of racing are kept intact and cheating prevented by well-spaced checkpoints that the player must pass through. If you miss one, or otherwise screw a race up, the rewind feature that’s now a staple of most major racers is available here. The rewind is one of many assist options that can be turned off if you want a more simulation-based experience, with bonus credits in it for players who turning more of those helpers off.

Credits are used to buy cars, and is one of two major currencies in the game, the other being experience points that are gained for stylish racing. The system is reminiscent of Kudos in Project Gotham Racing, with stylish and dangerous moves that are performed without crashing actually the most efficient way to rack them up after winning races.

EXP determines your player level, which in turn allows you to unlock RPG-style perks as you play and also displays your player level to other players in their single-player adventures in the form of your drivatar, the AI that is based on the game’s collected data on how you drive. Most of the other drivers you see in the world of Horizon 2 are based off other real players, and you can challenge the AI based on the more experienced racers for bonus EXP to a short, free-form race while free roaming if you want.

As you plough through events, there’s other tasks to complete including a suite of abandoned classic cars that can be ‘rescued’ and restored (including a classic VW van) and collectables to pick up in the form of billboards you drive through to smash. It’s all satisfying and addictive.

Every one of the game's many vehicles has a full interior modelled if you prefer that perspective.
Every one of the game’s many vehicles has a full interior modelled if you prefer that perspective.

The game sets a grand goal of completing a certain number of championships to reach the ‘Horizon Finale’, but there are so many cars and so many different events in which to drive them you could continue long after this – and that’s before even touching on the game’s online component which drops a bunch of players into the open world and has them race from location to location, completing events at each for EXP and glory.

The cars, mostly using Forza 5’s models, look great, as does the game world, which stretches across a not-to-scale segment of France and Italy. The only major negative for me visually ended up being the crowds of the Horizon Festival, low-poly horrors with warped faces that look like they’d be more suited to a survival horror game – though thankfully you spend most of your time ripping past them at high speed.

The rain in particular looks quite impressive – even if it makes handling something of a nightmare – and in a nice touch the generic linkers between songs on the radio are vague enough that they can play one talking about how it’s raining before any song – meaning the radio often feels more contemporary with the world than in many other games. All of Forza’s ridiculous visual customization is here, too, though in a strange touch decals can’t be imported from Forza 5.

Horizon 2 is the type of experience I couldn’t quite put down. I got a great deal of enjoyment out of it before even touching the equally compelling online part of the game. While the default settings push it more towards arcade racer territory, a few settings tweaks gave me back something a little closer to simulation, a fun middle ground that wouldn’t be possible without Forza’s technology driving it underneath.

The racing genre is about to move from fairly barren to quite packed on the newly-released consoles with a slew of incoming triple-A racers, but Forza Horizon 2 marks out territory for Microsoft’s in-house racing series incredibly strongly, surpassing its predecessor in most – if sadly not all – areas. The first game was an interesting spin-off, but with Horizon 2 the format has been cemented as one that is as worthy of success and the time of players as the core Forza series.

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Forza Horizon 2’s Xbox One version was developed by Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios, and produced by Microsoft Game Studios. It’s available for purchase now. A downloadable copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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