'Forza Horizon 2' review

High roads, low roads, and everything in between

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Sliding sideways in a Lamborghini Huracán through a lush field of lavender isn’t a life goal I knew I had before I started playing Forza Horizon 2 last week. Turns out it was, and I accomplished it. I feel whole now.

Like the 2012 original, FH2 is an open-world companion to the long-running Forza series that injects enough energy and ADHD-friendly action to appeal to a broader audience than a typical hardcore racing sim ever could. (I personally love racing sims, but even I can admit that the dry, sterile slog of Forza 5 isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time.) The new game carries the Horizon franchise forward with an Xbox One version, a variety of new features, a stronger multiplayer story, and a new venue: it seems we’ve relocated our millions of dollars’ worth of exotics and priceless classics from the rugged, rocky American West to the narrow streets and glorious vistas of Europe’s Mediterranean coast.

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The basic premise of the game is to drive around and participate in different types of driving events. Each town in the FH2 universe is centered around a multi-race championship, but there’s no real pressure to plow through those series — you can just putt around town, complete challenges, turn up the surprisingly deep radio selection (Microsoft says there are "nearly" 150 tracks in the game), and challenge other drivers to short races for experience points and cash. As the XP builds up, you’ll earn new wristbands, which entitle you to enter more events. Wash, rinse, repeat.

FH2 begins with a required, non-competitive "road trip" to the game’s home base, driving your choice of a small handful of starter vehicles. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the controls (especially if you’re new to racing games, or it’s been a minute since you’ve loaded up Forza 5). What’s different from the first Horizon, though, is that you’ll take a bunch of forced, guided road trips as you progress, relocating from village to village. It has a weird effect: even though FH2 is an undeniably massive open world with over 700 individual events to enter, I often found that it felt smaller than the original because you’re frequently being ushered between different event-dense areas separated by long stretches of open road. Getting from Nice to Castelletto takes some time, even in a 903-horsepower McLaren P1.

The cars and scenery are as flawless as I’ve seen in any console effort

But boy, what gorgeous road trips those are. FH2 has some of the finest graphics I’ve seen on the still-young Xbox One (and launch title Forza 5 had already set a tremendously high benchmark for next-gen racers). The cars and scenery are as flawless as I’ve seen in any console effort. In particular, Forza 5 had problems with aliasing — visibly jagged lines, particularly along the edges of body panels — and that seems to have been completely cleared up here. It has a noticeable impact, even on my untrained eyes.

Under normal conditions, cities and roads have looked great in racing games for a long time, though; it’s the extremes where FH2 really shines. It features dynamic time of day and a variety of inclement weather scenarios, which alone add an entire dimension to the game that Forza 5 — perpetually sunny, warm Forza 5 — is woefully missing. I found myself looking forward to the sound of thunder (yes, you occasionally hear thunder before an in-game downpour) because it kicks the graphics to another level: slick roads shine under sun and moonlight, spray kicks up from the drivers around you, and your beautiful car slips and slides on the asphalt just a little more than it normally would.

FH2 1

That’s when you’re actually on asphalt, that is. FH2 puts a surprisingly big emphasis on offroad action, which has you laying waste to crops, getting ridiculous amounts of air as you jump a hill at 130mph, and yes, occasionally drifting through a field of lavender in a $300,000 supercar. My first few experiences with offroad (and partially offroad) events weren’t the best — I was piloting a Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale that had been gifted to me in a prior race, and it’s an entirely different animal rolling through a wide expanse of prairie than it is on blacktop. (Shocker, I know.) The throttle blips up and down as you navigate the terrain — you might never make it out of third or fourth gear in some events — and sliding is a skill that you have no option but to master.

The limited controllability out in the sticks can end up working to your advantage: some events in the game lack checkpoints and simply require you to get from point A to point B in the shortest time possible, so shortcutting across a field or through a forest can destroy an opponent who’s playing by the rules — as long as you don’t hit a tree or get lost in the process. It’s an entertaining and challenging hack.

That kind of skill particularly comes in handy when you’re riding solo and the world is filled with driveatars, which tend to follow the proper path in events. Yes, driveatars: unlike the original Horizon, FH2 doesn’t have any pure AI competitors in the game. When you’re playing offline, all racers you encounter are driveatars, which means your friends who’ve built up Forza 5 driveatar profiles will appear in FH2 on day one. It’s a cool touch of personalization that makes you feel connected, even when you’re playing alone. It also means that you encounter far more erratic driving than you might be expecting from a typical AI bot — I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving at a reasonable speed in the right lane, only to have opposing traffic suddenly swerve into a head-on collision. Driveatars can be jerks. Tom Warren is the worst offender.

When you’re online, FH2 doesn’t lose its open-world feel; there are no lobbies like with Forza 5, you just wait a few seconds while the game finds a world with an open slot. Once you’re there, participants can vote on events to compete in. You need to "road trip" from event to event, which I have mixed feelings about — it certainly helps maintain the feeling that you’re actually scooting around Europe with your buddies, but it can mean several minutes’ worth of driving before you’re even competing.

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The entire game is wrapped in an appropriately thin backstory that frames you as an up-and-coming entrant in the Horizon Festival, the digital equivalent of a perpetual Fast & Furious movie where men in modded sports cars roam the countryside and seek out races on public roads. I say "men" specifically because, oddly, for as many ways as you can infinitely upgrade and tune your car, you can’t customize your driver at all. You’re simply thrust into the world as a street racer stereotype, a young white dude. Considering how little character development takes place, it would’ve been minimal effort on the part of Turn 10 and Playground Games to let you choose skin color and gender upfront (and hey, maybe clothing options while we’re at it). It’s disappointing they didn’t.

You can’t customize your driver at all

Still, on balance, this is the most satisfying driving and racing experience I’ve ever had in the video game world. Two years ago, Forza Horizon impressed me for how deftly it walked a fine line that allowed it to appeal equally to an entire spectrum of people from casual gamers to hardcore racing sim fanatics — the sequel walks that line every bit as well. Amateurs can dial down the difficulty settings, take it easy, and just let the game’s host (an affable English gentleman named Ben) walk them through the key milestones; seasoned veterans can make the game extraordinarily difficult, dip into the roster of 200-plus available cars, tweak setups ad nauseam, and explore the open world for dozens of hours. (Granted, a good many of those cars are paid DLC, but that’s pretty much the world we live in now, unfortunately.)

In my dreams, the Forza and Forza Horizon concepts would be joined in holy matrimony. A Unified Theorem of Forza, if you will, in service of a single Forza Universe. But as long as people like me are willing to pay $60 for each of these titles, I don’t see them coming together — so unless you absolutely detest racing games, Forza Horizon 2 is a really easy one to recommend. Look for me, I’m the guy with the green and purple color-shifting Ferrari.

Forza Horizon 2 comes to Xbox 360 and Xbox One on September 30th.