Forza Horizon 2 Review: Gaining Traction
Forza Horizon cured Turn 10’s franchise of a disease that similarly successful series periodically succumb to: sequel fatigue. Upon handing the Forza Motorsport name to a team of Criterion, Bizarre Creations, and Codemasters 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, Pagani, Aston Martin, and other manufacturers in a mad 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 night life and hammer on the accelerator at dawn.
Forza Horizon 2 basks in car culture, from gorgeous photo shoots to the body modding and paint jobs to steadfast rivalries. Although the narrative seems boilerplate, with towns like Nice and Castelletto constituting championship hubs, I would take the narrator’s overplayed buddy-buddy speak over the sedated dialogue of Forza 5’s commentator ... or, well, anything Forza 5 thought it did well. The series’ debut on the Xbox One became known for features that were cut or curtailed, such as a bare-bones campaign, no auction house, fewer tracks, the inability to sell unused vehicles, and the multiplayer that only functioned half the time. 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, Laguna Seca, or the Bernese Alps. Forza Horizon 2 rectifies that mismatch. Whether you prefer Eric Prydz’s house techno stylings, the rocking thrums of Jane's Addiction, or Mozart’s classical overtures, the music diversity – a whole 150 songs – conforms to the quaint scenery. Playground Games trades the homely Colorado Rockies for France's and Italy’s unclogged freeways, where the ergonomic architecture and dynamic weather (now including rain!) establish a sense of belonging that Forza Horizon’s blank stretches of road discarded.
My career started as I propelled a 2015 Lamborghini Huracán to its limits along romantic coasts, soaking in the game’s harmonious setlist, yet the truly nail-biting races trail-blazed through dirt-caked hillsides, spotty forests, and vegetable-rich fields, the ethics of which still 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 turns out the hasty terrain changes ignite a crucial spark with each race. The circuit and point-to-point, courses mark the path with checkpoints, but as long as you pass through those gates, how you get there allows certain freedoms. The original Forza Horizon’s guardrails felt less like a safety net and more like a prison gating you from the outside world. Forza Horizon 2 remedies that, allocating plenty of real estate to burn rubber on. Triple the size of Forza Horizon’s countryside, you can terrorize humble towns, careen through rolling plains, or find shortcuts that would usually trigger cheat warnings.
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 (with an unnecessarily large spoiler, blacked-out rims, and blue dragon liveries for the hell of it) is an offbeat adventure exclusive to Forza Horizon 2, where shutting off driver assists turns this sim into an unexpected rally experience.
Switching off anti-lock brakes, selecting a manual over an automatic transmission, or opting for simulated instead of cosmetic damage contributes to a bigger payday; the more realistic your ride handles, the more credits to 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 the casual automobile fan, but knowing the ins and outs of a vehicle, top to bottom, separates the legends from the wannabes.
Players that just want the thrills of the open road have much to get hyped for, 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 dozens of other wheelman maestros hold an unofficial sprint to the meet-up. The unsullied pleasure of driving without care for event standings or whose money and pink slips are up for grabs resurrects the raw spirit of a calm Sunday outing. The story dwells on the road trip subject matter, since a championship cannot start until you arrive in the next city, yet you can always survey less-traveled trails. While exploring, fans happen across cars left to rust in old barns or rivals locked in their own competitions. You have options, and I loved touring the settings to their fullest.
The world feels like it is inhabited by driving fanatics, more so in the wake of the sparsely populated six-player lobbies of Need for Speed Rivals. The developers introduce Drivatars to the Horizon formula, replicating the antics of 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 wider roadways, Drivatars hold semi-civilized races through empty fields without incessant ramming. The civility speaks to the immersion, especially when friendly gamertags doubled as rad-ass nicknames. The 1v1 rival battles meant something if Salient Fool or DJ Subzero stood between me and a credit bonus.
Multiplayer returns, and Playground Games dedicates arenas to the King and Infected modes explicitly designed to show off destructible shrubbery, barrels, and pallets. The panic of weaving through a treeline to elude a dozen pursuers and win the match nears the top of my favorite Forza memories. The results humiliate Need for Speed Rivals. A tap of a button places you 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 instantly translates to the single-player. That includes credits and experience.
Other means of gaining cash exist, encouraging players to search the ends of the world. XP billboards decorate the sides of the road, speed cameras watch and record as racers one-up each other in bouts of unparalleled daredevilry, and the novel Bucket List tests one’s composure in a slew of car-specific challenges. Whether I was drifting a Lancia Delta through the woods in the dark, breaking multiple speeding laws in a Koenigsegg Agera, or testing a Nissan GT-R’s flight capabilities, these brief octane trips – a couple minutes in length, on average – fueled my adrenaline rush.
And yet more excitement waits to be had in the atypical races. The air versus land battles diverted my attention away from the road while I marveled at the choreographed stunt planes flying through checkpoints inches above and behind me, or while I chased a C-130 down an airstrip. Of course the top-tier handling of the Forza series lives on, allowing an iota of arcade madness to creep in. Spinning out on dirt or assessing the strength of concrete homes is not the end of a race, nor a career as it is for some professionals. The rewind feature is always ready to cover up miserable braking or untimely fishtailing.
Forza Horizon is not above a little recklessness, however. Playground Games institutes a skill chain system, scoring players for driving the way they want. Racing clean and straight consistently pours on the fame, but infuse your style with chaos and you will bank points for demolishing someone’s fence, knocking over street signs, catching air, or playing chicken against civilians. The experience spills over into perks that permanently discount parts, enable fast travel anywhere, or boost your near-miss scores. In short, the rules of the ordinary world seldom apply.
Playground Games toes the line between silly and serious, reawakening Forza Horizon’s innate passion previously smothered by Forza 5’s no-frills sterility. Brandishing the purest revelries of pinning a vehicle’s throttle to the floor, Forza Horizon 2 is an exquisite display of car fetishism that studios spend decades trying to imitate, but nobody will think you’re weird for enjoying it. I sure won't.