Kicking the tires

The ideas of open-world exploration and story aren’t usually synonymous with racing titles. A spin-off game from Microsoft’s popular Forza franchise, Forza Horizon, bucked the trend, though, and delivered a fun, fresh take on the genre back in 2012. It was welcomed back then as a breath of fresh air, so it’s no surprise that high hopes surrounded the follow-up, Forza Horizon 2.

Primary developer Playground Games committed themselves to making sure Horizon 2 was bigger and better in almost every possible way. Moving from the Rocky Mountain roads of Colorado, the Horizon music and racing festival has now set up shop on the Italy-France border, creating a fictional space that’s not only far larger than the first game but also more diverse. Whether it’s the beach resort town of Nice, France or the fields and old-world charm of Castelletto, Italy, each of the game’s six regions feel unique and exude an authentic Western European vibe.

Also, as we’ve come to expect from every Forza, the cars look absolutely spectacular. The game’s cover car, the Lamborghini Huracán, the 1960s Chevy Corvette Stingray, or even something like the Volkswagen Rabbit—along with more than 200 others—have been crafted to look exactly like their real-world counterparts, and they all shine brilliantly on the Xbox One.

Each car also handles much like you’d expect they would in the real world, but a new addition to Horizon 2 pushes that handling to the limit. Along with the returning day-night cycle, a new weather system makes its debut here. Rain not only changes how your car drifts and takes turns in races and out in the open world, but roads remain slick well after the rain has stopped, providing not only a major new hazard for racers to contend with but also a little welcome variety.

Speaking of variety, each region features wide-open spaces that just scream for you to take your car off-roading and cut corners between winding roads. While you could do that sometimes in the first game, far fewer boundaries will impede you here as fields of roses, wheat, lavender, and dry brush dot the landscape. It became a guilty pleasure to carve crop circles into each respective field, racking up my wreckage multiplier, and then hightailing it back onto the road, looking in my rearview at the carnage I’d wrought. These off-roading segments are also the theme of many races and provide a true sense of freedom, since no barriers hem you in or tell you how to reach the next checkpoint (yes, there’s a suggested path, but you’re often better off ignoring it).

There’s more to do beyond just traditional racing at the Horizon festival, particularly since the game offers rewards for exploring the nooks and crannies of the map with the return of Barn Finds, 10 hidden gem cars scattered about the game world. Forza Horizon 2 also features six new showcase events, allowing you to race head-to-head against a train, several planes, hot-air balloons, and more. The most interesting addition, though, may be the new Bucket List—30 different challenges spread around the map that offer special objectives ranging from the simple, such as driving along the coast in a certain amount of time in a Ferrari, to the maddening, like driving a Bowler Wildcat through a forest back to the Horizon Festival main tent.

On paper, Forza Horizon 2 offers plenty more to keep you occupied compared to the first game, and there’s no denying that it plays wonderfully. The addition of Drivatar AI opponents even adds a little extra flair, with the knowledge that when one of my friend’s avatars tries to squeeze me into a sideboard on a track when we’re up against each other, that’s what they’d actually do if we were playing together. That said, playing the game on Medium difficulty and with only a couple of braking assists, I was still able to take first place in every race I was in and found the clock in Bucket List challenges to be far more of an opponent.

But there’s one thing missing this time around that left me horribly disappointed: the game’s heart. To begin with, the story mode is a shell of its former self. This iteration offers many more races (nearly 700 total across 168 championships, though you only need to clear about 65 races over 15 championships if you want to get right to the final race), but all the charm’s been sucked out.

Much like in the original Forza Horizon, your objective here is to become the champion of the festival. In the first game, however, you had to knock off other championship contenders who specialized in particular cars. They offered a rarity in racing games: nemeses with personality and panache. Here, they’ve been replaced by nothing more than the Horizon organizer telling you how many more races you have to win to qualify for the finale. It becomes just a mundane, soulless countdown of championships—punctuated by the same, dull repetitive commentary—that starts to feel more and more like a grind as you move from region to region, choosing which of each area’s respective 28 championships you wish to take part in.

The popularity aspect of single-player portion has also been removed. In the first Horizon, you had to perform tricks and win races to move up in the popularity standings of the festival. This was another way to prove if you were worthy of a championship run. Here, in order to help streamline the seamless transition to multiplayer, you have a pair of XP bars that can be filled in both single-player and online. As you gain levels from tricks, you receive skill points that can be spent on unique upgrades—of which there are only a couple dozen, and they aren’t nearly as satisfying to acquire as moving up the popularity leaderboard. As you gain levels from winning races, you get new wristbands, just like in the first game. In the original, though, these opened up new races; here, they do nothing except change the color of your XP bar—a sad attempt at carrying over aspects of the first game that have now lost all meaning.

I will say, at least, that the multiplayer transition is impressive. Mind you, it should be noted that I played with only a handful of others online, and it worked fine, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the servers when the game actually launches with, I’d imagine, many more people populating them. The idea, though, is that with a simple button press from the menu or map, you can start searching for online games. When you find enough people, it becomes an impromptu race to one of the game’s six regions if you select Road Trip, or you can simply Free Roam with your friends and challenge others on the fly.

If you do Road Trip, when everyone gets to the destination, you begin a series of four events to determine the winner and see who takes home the online championship. You can also play the returning Playground Games, a group of offbeat multiplayer challenges that are less about racing and more about surviving—like Infected, which declares that the last person to be hit by an “infected” car wins.

In many ways, it’s clear that Forza Horizon 2 is definitely bigger than the original. It’s a great racer in terms of gameplay and chock-full of content that could potentially keep you busy for months on end. But gutting the story—and taking away one of the key pillars that made the first Forza Horizon so special—to blur the line between single- and multiplayer left a sour taste in my mouth. If all you care about is getting behind the wheel and scenic European vistas, though, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better experience.

Developer: Playground Games/Turn 10 Studios • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.30.14
7.5
Bigger doesn’t always equate to better. Forza Horizon 2 definitely delivers a gameplay experience a step above its predecessor, but gutting story mode leaves the single-player soulless and more akin to a grind.
The Good A larger, more beautifully detailed world to explore; seamless multiplayer integration.
The Bad The story is nearly nonexistent.
The Ugly Tons of new music tracks—and still nothing good on the radio.
Forza Horizon 2 is available on Xbox One and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.
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