Forza Horizon 2
- Street Date:
- September 30th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- September 25th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Xbox One
- Microsoft Game Studios
- Playground Games
Digital Xbox One version reviewed.
Online free roam racing games aren't a new concept, and in fact, as the '2' denotes in 'Forza Horizon 2,' this isn't even the first attempt to marry the 'Forza Motorsport' license with a free roam title. Even so, while the first 'Forza Horizon' was a late-generation 360 title, 'Forza Horizon 2' is a flagship Xbox One title. This time out, Microsoft has made some big promises on behalf of developer Playground Games. Not only does the game promise the benefit of a shared tech with Turn 10's class-leading 'Forza 5,' 'Forza Horizon 2' also boasts of major features like off road freedom, dynamic weather, and night/day cycle, and a near seamless online experience. The racing festival has moved to a European setting, but can it live up to the weight of the 'Forza' franchise while still breaking new ground?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
'Forza Horizon 2' is meant to attract all sorts of Xbox One owners, including potential Xbox One owners. First though, I need to mention one piece 'Forza' lingo as part of an important note that might only make sense to 'Forza' or maybe just racing game fans in general. In the 51 driver levels I gained prior to writing the review, I made a lot of notes. Some notes were big and some were small. But the simplest way to bypass whatever expectations currently exist in the minds of fans of numbered 'Forza' titles is to mention an important and ever growing aspect of recent 'Forza' titles. No, I'm not talking about DLC, VIP, or even Drivatar. As important as those things are, what I am referring to is magic sand.
Magic sand is a special property applied to various parts of the track in the last several 'Forza' titles. Usually, it's found right at the exact spot that a player might cut a corner, and it instantly dampens momentum. More recently, entire sections of grass, dirt and what not, have been bathed in this ride halting invisible property as though painted in place during development just after someone on the team drove over the spot, using a dirty bit of off track space to get an advantage. Without getting bogged down in debating the merits or necessity of magic sand in a game like 'Forza 5,' what's key here is that 'Forza Horizon 2' doesn't have it.
While there are plenty of solid trees, houses, and walls to corral racers- often in spots that dramatically affect a planned shortcut- there is so much navigable countryside in 'Forza Horizon 2' that the word "playground" isn't hyperbole. (Once I adjusted to in-race checkpoints, it just became second nature to assess the amount of freedom in any given event.) By loosening the shackles of magic sand and encouraging the player to always be thinking "is there faster way?," 'Forza Horizon 2' has given each of its races (or Events as it were) an exhilarating kick in butt.
Takes All Comers
Now don't get me wrong. The game's off-roading style of racing isn't some kind of silver bullet that automatically makes playing the game fun, but it's part of that essence that's so easy to enjoy but hard to fully grasp. 'Forza Horizon 2' brings over so many (excellent) features from 'Forza 5,' it can be startling. The visual and audio assets are like to be first thing noticed by most players, but while 'Forza Horizon 2' has a more approachable driving model than the simulator light 'Forza 5,' 'Forza Horizon 2' retains the controls (including Rewind), the Drivatar racing system, the Forza Performance Index, the tuning, the upgrading, the assists- the list goes on. If you take 'Forza Horizon 2,' strip away the festival, open world, and online components, the Skills & Perks (see below), and all the special events and driving routes, what's left is a remixed version of 'Forza 5.' 'FH2' is more forgiving, but the difficulty, damage, physics, and so forth can still be turned up.
So in effect, not only is the driving feel a tweaked version of 'Forza 5' (read: excellent), but like that game, players of all different skill types and preferences can find the challenge they seek and even go head to head, each with their own preferred options. Being able to go online and offline at will is big part of that as well. And while 'FH2' takes some great components from 'Forza 5,' it leaves behind some uglier ones.
Freedom to Play, Not Free-to-Play
For example, 'FH2' isn't constantly asking me to indulge in micro-transactions. In 'Forza 5' it was easy to get into some ten race event, only to find halfway through that I'd brought the wrong car. 'FH2' is nothing like that. It's open, so if I want to take a break in the middle of four race championship to go after some Barn Finds, or some exotic Bucket List races, or take on a Rival, no problem. Even better, if I want to switch to a different car for the next race, I can, just so long as it meets the same class and other requirements.
'Forza Horizon 2's included car list reads like exactly like the cars that were held out of 'Forza 5.' LaFerrari? Included. 2014 Corvette Stingray? Included. Lamborghini Veneno? Included. Now these cars are priced somewhat like they are in 'Forza 5,' but 'Forza Horizon 2's entire economy is weirdly different.
Skills & Perks, Driver Levels
Another part of 'Forza Horizon 2' that just seems like a bullet point on the box until it's in action, is the Skills system. This game stresses that the player drive with style, and for doing all of these stylish racings things skillfully, the game awards skills points and XP. Whether carefully squeezing past an opponent, drifting around a curve, mowing over a hedge, getting some hang time, or smoothly sustaining a high speed, the game is scoring and awarding the player. To really get awarded though, players must race clean. Exhibiting skills and not smashing into everything will net the player a Skill Chain with multiplier that is partly fueled by sustained clean racing.
As is typical for 'Forza,' these skills aren't really taught. It's more like they are tested, and at first the constant front and center scoring can be like overload of info. Much like lap times, the scoring can be a big distraction, but at that time, it's endlessly entertaining. (Though I really miss split times and perfect turns.) Racking up Skills like an Awesome Near Miss or a Great Drift fills a meter that turns out Skill Points used to buy Perks.
Naturally, exhibiting skills generates XP, as does just about everything else. Gaining levels means a chance to spin for free credits and cars. The game hates how I try to bank these spins and will frequently prompt "You Have Spins" as though that were a pressing concern. I banked tons of spins (maybe 15 or so a few times), but always the game tricked me into spinning and forced me to use all my spins. I'm not a fan of this and will never understand why certain games insist on bothering players. (Batman: Arkham player levels are like this.) Gaining levels also is tied into what opens in the world for the player, but I never monitored this closely as there always seemed to be plenty to do already.
The joke is that these player levels and perks aren't that important as they are less obviously tied to unlocking cars, and yet, I was entertained, always watching after each event to see if my player level went up. I grew to love the Skills scoring, and I am surprised to finally find a racing game where drifting is a blast.
The Drivatar system continues to be one of the best things going on the Xbox One. I know for sure that it's really just a table a ratings populated by a given player's skill and behavior, which is then applied to a scalable AI archetype, but I nevertheless enjoy the idea that my game is populated by the racing behavior of my friends and other Xbox One racers. The temptation in this game is to challenge every car you see on road. Much like with post race Rivals challenges, the thrill isn't because of the meager game economy rewards (see above), it's just for the joy of speed, the challenge of the route (follow the navigation in a rivals challenge and expect to lose), and for bragging rights no matter how symbolic. (Unless my Drivatar is frequently slamming into trees and retaining walls, it's not all that accurate.)
Everything stated in the review can be applied to the online mode with the exception of the Rewind feature and ANNA (see below). Car Meets work well, and the game seems to take into account that some players have a Club full a friends to always drive with while others are good with sharing free roam online with whomever. The big caveat is that the online, Drivatars, Rivals, Clubs, Leaderboards, etc. will all mushroom to a massive extent once the game releases and thereby will realized when I was online. But even on a small scale, players that only want to play online should find exactly what they are looking for, and since they'll be gaining levels just as if they were doing things solo (but likely faster), the game's wealth of content should open up progressively as well.
It does take some time to get through the game's the bulk of tutorial notes. The 'please wait' audio cues are irritating as it can seem like the game has frozen or is buckling, but it's just one of the NPCs jabbering on. The game has a very light narrative, which I'm more than fine with, but anyone looking for some kind of plot structure won't find much beyond the festival racing circuit attracting many lovely cars.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Visually, the game is a showcase. While the game does commit the cardinal sin of having the player hunt around all the ugly spots for hidden barn finds, including some rough spots in the terrain models, trees, and boxy buildings, the cars and the landscapes are delivered in HD splendor. The games easily looks as good as advertised, and the Photo Mode means plenty of opportunity to drool over these cars.
This beauty can get rainy, and when the sun goes down, well, the stars do come out. This weather and day/night cycle is past due for the series. Still, it adds that dab of flavor and helps to keep things fresh.
Compared with the cars, the NPCs aren't great looking, especially if looking at the crowds up close. The dynamic cutscenes have some wooden looking animations, but in such cases, it's very easy to focus on the cars.
The UI is a winner, and takes the floating text to an expertly integrated extreme.
I did see a few bad hitches and had the game crash and restart a few times, though that may have been affected by ongoing development tweaks. These issues popped up at around once every 6-10 hours, and the game handled high speeds and crazy stunts better than I normally expect from a 'Forza' title.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The game's audio is a huge asset, and I'm sure that's thanks in large part to 'Turn 10's audio library. The near miss of a car, a red-lining engine, the thunder of the finish line- all of it is like finely wrought candy for the home theater. There is one effect in the game, which I believe is meant to be fireworks in Nice, but sounds instead like bad static, and it would be great if they would just patch it right out.
There is a large quotient of voice acting, which comes from the festival NPCs, the radio DJs, and even the navigation system. It can get hammy or even just a little cloying. (Do I really need the guy to say that I'm making a habit of winning after every other race?)
The game's radio stations are pleasant enough with classical music towering over the mostly synthetic collection of tracks. There is one huge issue that I'm dinging the score for which I hope is fixed soon. The game, like any racing game, desperately needs custom music, and I pray that Microsoft continues their Media Player efforts to the point that MP3s can be used just as they were on the 360.
Races, Championships, Showdowns, Bucket Lists, Barn Finds, Bonus Signs, Rivals- there is a huge volume of content spread over three hundred roads in six areas. Staying offline can still mean over 100 hours of play for the dedicated, but as great as the volume is, the replayablility is higher. Races are a sensation of speed in any class (well, maybe not at a 100 PI), and driving across the map is fun off and online.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Finally, a decent use for Kinect. Driving in the open world means having access to ANNA, the Automated Natural Navigation Assistant. Using ANNA can be so satisfying, and really beats opening the map. I asked her for the nearest event countless times and she can even suggest activities. ("ANNA, What should I do next?" There are, however, some problems. Not only is she offline during a race, but whenever in an online mode, she is "unavailable." Worse, turning up the home theater to a racing volume means having to shout at the Kinect module, "ANNA!" "ANNA!" If ANNA worked with a headset mic, it would be an awesome feature.
The Photo Mode is quite good and very robust. Plus, once I was able to start tagging new cars, I really got into being able to spot new car models to photograph. I do wish it also supported normal screenshots with the HUD and with just one command. I saved a nice set of photos, but they appear to be trapped on the Xbox One until the Forza website is fully connected to this new feature.
I used to have 'Forza 5' as must-own demo material, though I knew most would not be able to really enjoy the game. 'Forza Horizon 2' is so much more that; it's excellent demo material, it's accessible to play, exhilaratingly fast, but manages to avoid being repetitive. Seeing one of my friend's Drivatars cruising around the European countryside often feels like being issued a challenge, and the ensuing race manages to avoid the grind feeling that plagues most racing games. Get in an Ariel Atom, or an F40, or even a Ford Transit and try not to have fun racing from coast to coast, I dare you.
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