Review: Forza Horizon 2 – The First Next-Gen Racer Proves that Xbox One’s Cloud Can Be Awesome

on September 25, 2014 3:00 AM

Before we move on to the review, here’s a rather relevant disclaimer: While the game is also available on Xbox 360, the old-gen version is made with a completely different engine, by a completely different studio, and also comes with slightly different features.

Considering the fact that I didn’t even see the Xbox 360 version, let alone get a chance to play it, you should consider this review exclusively related to the Xbox One version. I can’t safely guarantee that anything written here actually applies to Forza Horizon 2 on Microsoft’s old console, and if you purchase it based on the contents of this review (you shouldn’t purchase anything based just on a review, mind you), you do so at your own risk.

Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s move to why I called Forza Horizon 2 “the first next-gen racer.” Technically, that title would belong to Forza Motorsport 5, but while quite great, Turn 10’s game was too firmly anchored to the last generation to be considered a true generational leap. Its status as a launch title limited its ambitions, basically positioning it hovering between the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One.

Forza Horizon 2 isn’t a launch title, and it shows. While its graphics won’t make you scream “hallelujah!”, what places it firmly within the next gen (or current gen, however you want to call it) is the fact that it’s an open world game, and you probably noticed that “open world” is one of the most relevant factors characterizing many games landing on PS4 and Xbox One.

Graphics are what one would define beautiful but not miraculous. The game is based on Forza Motorsport 5’s engine, and besides some additions mostly around lighting and effects, there are a lot of points in common with its predecessor.

Cars are lovely to watch, and they pick up dirt and water in a way that looks quite realistic and pleasing. If you loved the looks of the rides in Forza 5 you’ll love them here, because they’re basically the same. That’s actually a good thing, as this means that all the beautiful paint jobs created for the previous game can carry over. Even if there were very few people playing the game during the review period, the library was already chock full of nice liveries to enjoy.

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The second protagonist of the game is, of course, the rather vast open world, with environments that are definitely beautiful to look at, even if certain elements (like some vegetation models) tend to be a little less pleasant when you observe them from up close. It’s obvious that Playground games had to keep the polygon count at reasonable levels in order to ensure optimal performance with rather extensive draw distances.

Still, when you’re zipping around in your car, you won’t really notice the occasional low triangle count. What you will, unfortunately, notice is a very visible pop-in of environmental details and shadows that can prove disturbing at times.

Despite that, Forza Horizon 2 is still a beautiful game, and while its graphics aren’t perfect and required a certain degree of compromise in order to let you run around freely into a condensed (very condensed, actually, but that was expected) version of southern Europe, they are most definitely pleasing to the eye, especially for where lighting and weather effects are concerned. The full day and night cycle is simply a joy to watch.

Incidentally, that’s exactly what sets Forza Horizon 2a side from Forza Motorsports 5 visuals-wise.

Music is par for course for a Forza game. The available radio stations include a nice variety of tracks which should fit most tastes, even if my favorite is definitely Radio Levante, a mock Italian station that broadcasts only classical music. The host’s Italian isn’t even that awful, which is quite refreshing after hearing Ezio Auditore butcher my language for years.

Sound effects are definitely high in quality as well, with cars sporting very diverse engine roars, proving both satisfying and immersive pretty much across the board. The sound of collisions, on the other hand, tend to be a bit muted, but having been in a car crash before, I’m not so sure realistic effects would prove very fitting to a game. Poetic license is at times perfectly acceptable.

In a game like Forza Horizon 2 gameplay is what makes or breaks it, and luckily almost everything checks in very nicely in this category )at least if we don’t try to shove the title into the realm of simulators).

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Handling and physics are definitely made to be fun more than to be realistic. Don’t get me wrong: cars don’t behave like starships like in your usual Need for Speed game, and retain a degree of fidelity to their real life counterparts, but it’s a fact that especially the most powerful rides are a tad on the tame side.

Even with all assists off, you’ll find the wildest FR and MR supercars quite agreeable. It’s rather hard to spin them around, but honestly that’s unsurprising. The game’s world is definitely bumpy, with rather harsh changes in elevation. If Forza Horizon 2 was built as a simulator, it would relegate a vast majority of players to the most underpowered cars.

The damage model is also very forgiving, and you’ll have to give a ride quite a lot of very harsh punishment before you’ll start to feel appreciable negative effects on its handling.  If you want a real, hardcore simulator, probably Forza Horizon 2 isn’t for you, but if you prefer a well balanced racing game that sits on that nice, sweet spot between realism and gaming value, then there’s a good chance that this will fit your taste.

Speaking about the choice of cars, there’s a veritable wealth of them to be enjoyed, from quick hot hatches to hypercars and exotics, including some weird wildcards like the old Fiat 500 or the classic Volkswagen Type 2 van.

A puzzling fact is that the game doesn’t really encourage the player to explore this wealth of rides. At the very first showcase event you’ll win a high powered S1-class supercar (I won’t tell you which one, to avoid spoilers), and some might be tempted to skip low horsepower races altogether.

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That’s even more noticeable due to the fact that you can play almost the whole game without changing cars. Every leg of the Horizon “Road Trip” will include races for all classes, and there will always be one that will fit your car of choice.

While this, indeed, may discourage some from ever changing cars and exploring the game’s vast catalogue, it’s definitely nice not to be bottlenecked in the usual trite progression from a creepy-looking Volkswagen to everyone’s beloved Ferrari and Lambo.

There’s also a rather wide variety of racing events. Some are one-shots like the head-to-head “duels” with random opponents met on the road, while others are linked in championships and are directly bound to your progression in the Horizon road trip.

And here we run into a little problem, derived directly from the fact that one of the game’s selling points is that you can drive almost anywhere, including across fields and in other off-road areas. While it’s a refreshing and pleasant change per-se, the good folks at Playground didn’t miss a chance to shove it down our throats.

Almost every championship you’ll play will involve races that will force you to drive through the mud, including those dedicated to high powered hypercars which would break their differential just by looking at the mud. If you enjoy nice, clean races on the solid asphalt, you’re really out of luck, because in Forza Horizon 2 getting dirty isn’t really optional.

Another partial nag is that the game rewards you for a lot of “stunts,” like drifting, near misses, and even trading paint with other cars or destroying elements or the environment. Basically it rewards you to be a crazy redneck, and it doesn’t really praise you that much for actually being a good driver. Come on Playground…you guys are British. Where’s my prize for drawing a perfect line to the apex, or for being an awesome gentleman driver? If I didn’t know better, I would think this game was mostly developed on the other side of the pond.

What we said about offline racing can be seen in online gameplay as well. You’re most probably going to impoverish hundreds of virtual farmers by racing through their crops more than driving with your wheels firmly set on the asphalt.

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The two modes, online road trip and online free roam, are pretty much a chain of many different events with a wild romp through traffic and fields between each of them. Online free roam is probably your best bet if you want to keep to the streets, as events aren’t decided by the server, but manually selected by the leader.

If you find a like-minded leader (and this is where the games’ club feature comes handy), the experience is definitely fun and exhilarating, otherwise you can find yourself playing tag with minigames like King and Infected, that are enjoyable if you’re in for some light-hearted paint trading, but tend to get old if serious driving and racing is more to your taste.

Interestingly, the most relevant aspect of Forza Horizon 2‘s multiplayer is asynchronous, via the Drivatar feature of the game.

If you played Forza Motorsport 5 you’re probably already familiar with Drivatars. The game analyzes each player’s driving style and then stores his/her virtual alter ego in the cloud. That Drivatar will then zip around the sessions of other players, driving AI cars which will have a sort of personality reflecting their original owner.

This was visible, but not really exploited in Forza Motorsport 5. Driving in a circuit means that there are only so many good lines, which made Drivatars feel a little monotonous. The roads and fields of Forza Horizon 2 give a lot more leeway and maneuvering space, and allow the Drivatars to really shine.

In this game it’s really easy to recognize someone’s driving style after you’ve met his virtual alter-ego a few times, and the Drivatar feature really makes the world feel alive.

As you drive around, hundreds of Drivatars will enter and exit your game session dynamically. Some of them will be your friends, while some will be total strangers, and getting to know them and to somewhat predict their moves is really, really fun. It’s also worth mentioning that racing against them is actually rather challenging if you ramp their experience level up and don’t abuse rewinds, and that’s definitely a positive.

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This could easily be defined the first time in which Microsoft’s Cloud really demonstrates part of its potential for gaming. The restrictive environments of Forza Motorsport 5 didn’t allow it to shine, but in Forza Horizon 2 it sets the game aside from other racers, bringing forth the most sophisticated artificial intelligence that I ever experienced in the genre.

It’s hard not to wonder why Microsoft still didn’t apply the same feature to other games and genres, and it’s equally difficult not to be excited at the perspective.

In the meanwhile, though, Forza Horizon 2 definitely proves that the investment made my Microsoft in all those cloud servers has a raison d’être, at least for what gaming is concerned. It adds value to the game and turns it into an unique and connected experience even when you’re not really playing online with your friends.

Ultimately, Forza Horizon 2 definitely delivers. Its wealth of content, large open world, and variety of activities ensure that racing enthusiasts will have a whole lot to enjoy for a long time. It comes with some nags, especially if you’re set on the more simulative and serious aspect of driving, but if you approach the game looking purely for the fun factor, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

Pick an expansive world, top it with a whole lot of freedom and populate it with the most intelligent (or delightfully stupid, because not all Drivatars are good, and that’s on purpose) bots ever created, and you have the very first fully satisfying next-gen driving experience on consoles.

Perfection is not of this world, but fun is, and Forza Horizon 2 comes with that in spades.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.