Forza Horizon 2
360, Xbox One
Given the destruction wreaked on Colorado during the first Forza Horizon, you’d think the French and Italian authorities charged with authorising the festival’s visit to the south-west of Europe might have reconsidered. Mere days into this latest motorsport gathering, olive fields lie in ruins, parked scooters and restaurant furniture are scattered across the streets, and local drivers can’t venture out for fear of losing their no-claims bonuses. But while our blaring presence in this bucolic idyll is doing little for the reputation of Brits abroad, it’s hard to feel much guilt when we’re having this much fun.
And in a genre so enamoured of American tarmac and overt spectacle, Horizon 2’ s setting is particularly appealing. The sinuous European roads here aren’t as broad as the American highways that crisscrossed the first game, but are characterised instead by soft verges, challenging camber transitions and all manner of elevation changes. The world feels more organic as a result, and its roadways more intricate as they wind through the gently rolling landscape connecting the small, characterful towns that occasionally interrupt the countryside. Horizon 2’ s compact take on this part of the world is certainly capable of delivering incredible views, but does so without falling back on red-rock canyons, neon lighting (at least outside of the festival enclosure) or vast, towering forests.
Don’t expect any such subtlety when it comes to the brash Horizon Festival’s race schedule, however. The first game’s list of event types is retained, including circuit races, point-to-point sprints and dirt-trackbased rallies. Here, they’re just as boisterous as before, further improved by a network of roads that demands more of you as a driver, and Playground’s circuit designs are exemplary, always making the most of Horizon 2’ s Mediterranean setting. Tarmac sections are marred slightly by Horizon 2’ s unfortunate inheritance of Forza Motorsport 5’ s excessively slippery handling, which sees even four-wheel-drive vehicles break traction around slow corners, but the game’s handling model suddenly makes sense once you venture off road.
This is made possible thanks to Playground’s decision to remove Horizon’s roadside barriers and offer a truly open world. Now if you can see a location, you can drive there, inflicting culturally insensitive damage as you go. And this newfound freedom has allowed the studio to introduce its most exciting event type yet: Cross Country. In these races, you hare through wideopen fields, down densely wooded hillsides and across people’s gardens – don’t worry about the fences; they’re destructible – as you wrestle to keep your vehicle pointing vaguely in the right direction amid clouds of dust and constant controller rumble. It’s a bit odd being asked to drive a Pagani Huayra on anything other than tarmac, but stick to the 4x4s and rally vehicles and Horizon 2 shines. These events are so good, in fact, that you’ll be disappointed when you use them up and have to revert to road racing to fulfil the quota of 15 championship wins to enter Horizon 2’ s Finale.
Championships revolve around a mobile hub that changes location throughout the festival, with four events to complete in any order. Once you’re done, a noncompetitive road trip to the next location becomes available, allowing you to choose the discipline of the next championship from a selection that includes super cars, hot hatches, track toys and off-road vehicles, then buy a suitable vehicle. And sometimes championships are brought to a close by returning showcase events that, as in the first game, channel Top Gear as they pit you against planes, trains and, well, balloons. There’s no rush to progress, however, and there are plenty of distractions beyond the main story. Breakable boards are dotted around the map that offer either additional XP or discounts on fast travel, Barn Finds have you searching for rusting classics and restoring them, and leaderboard-driven Speed Traps are brought over from Horizon as well. But the sequel also finds time to introduce Bucket List challenges, which lend you the keys to some of game’s most exotic hardware and task you with reaching a destination within a certain time or, for example, scoring 15 near misses in oncoming traffic. They’re amusing, and you’re chirpily told that you can retry them any time you like, but the latter variety will frustratingly end when you hit the required target, even if there’s lots of time on the clock.
There are some other design niggles, such as the fact that the world map, which you’ll spend a great deal of time using, requires two button presses to both access and return to driving. A far bigger problem is the introduction of Turn 10’s AI Drivatars. Emulations of your friends and other players, Drivatars serve to make offline events feel more personal and generate emergent midfield rivalries that can keep things engaging even if you’re not at the front end of the grid. But out in the open world, they’re bolshie, oblivious to other drivers, and fond of denting your car even if you’re out for a gentle cruise. They create an accurate simulation of going online with strangers, then, but they’re a scourge on Horizon 2’ s often entertaining world.
It’s a shame that Forza’s much-vaunted AI tech proves an ill fit for open-world racing, but even all the constant shunting can’t break Playground’s characterful, confident blend of driving, exploration and festival atmosphere. That vibe feels as fresh on Xbox One as it did in the original on 360. By removing the barriers that hemmed in the first game’s drivers, the Horizon series has better realised the intoxicating potential hinted at in its title, even if the inconsistency of its parts occasionally threatens to spoil the trip.