Oh, and most impressive? I won that race.
Let's all agree to be perfectly honest about what Horizon 2 – next-gen-console follow-up to Turn 10 Studios' Forza Horizon game for Xbox 360 in 2012 – is and is not. This is not a racing simulation. And, despite millimeter-perfect car renderings and a completely lush, believable and truly open world to drive around in, a significant suspension of disbelief is required before one can sink into this gamescape.
Do all of that, and you'll find that Horizon 2 is not only a stealthy and entertaining hybrid of simulation-console-racer and arcade-style, super-speedy-smash-'em-up, but also one of the best driving titles we've seen for the newest generation of gaming hardware.
FH2 follows the same basic pattern as the first title in the series, though it has been conspicuously streamlined. The essential setup is that you are an attendee at the Horizon Festival (moved from Colorado to a Southern European locale for this sequel), where a collective of racers and machines have gathered to go wheel-to-wheel at every possible opportunity.
This time around, the Turn 10 team has eighty-sixed all but the very most basic vestiges of a story element in favor of a simple and satisfying formula: buy a car, race it against its peers in a championship, move on to the next town. Yes, you still have some kind of British guy serving as your narrator and color commentator whenever you unlock something new, and there is an attractive digital lady named Ashley whom you'll get to know as your master mechanic. But the thinly drawn cast of rival characters from the first Horizon game have been left home this time. There are still wristbands to win, never fear.
The goal of the game is still to reach the Horizon Festival final round, by way of winning some combination of 16 championships and improving your rank. There are tons of side missions and mini-games to play along the way, too, but the straightforward structure of the mainline mission keeps the action pointing forward at all times.
That is unless you decide to take some time for yourself, to free-roam around a world that is more lovely and truly open than ever before. Where the original title often hemmed-in drivers with geographic formations and unbreakable fencing, FH2 presents a landscape that you can drive across, more or less from one edge of the map to the other.
The pleasure of the actual races is enhanced by the inherent goodness of the Forza guts.
The game actually rewards this behavior, too, awarding points towards level building for a diverse set of actions. Drifting your car or laying down a satisfying smoky burnout will help you up your rank, but so will hanging major air by launching your Bowler EXR S off of a wicked jump. (There is a section of ruined buildings on the map that's first-rate on that jumping front; not to be missed.)
Even with the fun of free-roam and the surrealism of driving any/every kind of vehicle through farmland, the pleasure of the actual races is enhanced by the inherent goodness of the Forza guts.
There's no question that the basic Forza 5 physics model is still at play here. The 'reality' may be softer, especially on the very forgiving default settings, but cars still move and act as you'd expect them to, and with consistency.
I moved from the "90s Rally" championship, contested with the precision of the 1998 Subaru 22B STI (what else?), to the kill-it-with-a-hammer stylings of the "US Street Muscle" group and the 1968 Dodge Dart Hemi Super Stock. The change in approach from one car to the next was roughly like that of writing with a ballpoint pen versus carving your name in a glacier with a blowtorch. Yes, both 22B and Dart were asked to race in otherworldly situations, but the subtleties in handling, grip, power delivery, sonic presence, etc. were all pronounced in the process.
This is a strong candidate for the best-looking Xbox One title I've yet seen.
Tuning and modification can play a heavy hand in how you experience FH2, or they can be basically ignored, as suits your style. With some odd omissions noted (there's no off-road wheel/tire/suspension package in a game that features cross-country racing so heavily, really?) you can build even the most basic starter car into a racecar of your dreams. The lauded customization tools from Forza 5 are offered here, meaning you can tweak your car's visuals with infinite malleability, and the varied tuning options allow for alterations as dramatic as engine swaps and new drivetrain layouts.
But most impressive of all is the graphical presentation. This is certainly the most opulently rendered driving game I've ever played, and is a strong candidate for the best-looking Xbox One title I've yet seen, too. The new weather system allows more visual differentiation than ever, with a true-to-life range of precipitation strengths affecting one's visibility, and spray from competitors' wheels rendered in rooster-tailed splendor. I noticed a few facades of buildings that seemed shallower and less detailed than the rest of the world, but for the most part, the environs are stunning.
My nitpicks of an otherwise great gaming experience include a recent weakness of Forza titles: car selection. There are more than 200 vehicles in the game, spread over a well-conceived collection of styles, eras and price points, but each is compelled to compete in rather narrowly defined championship categories (at least in the main part of the game). Turn 10 will no doubt offer more car packs and other good, significant additions to the map and the gameplay, but it'll do so only after you pay more money for the downloadable content. That's a common new model in gaming, to be sure, but the bucks do tend to add up.
Nitpicks of an otherwise great gaming experience include a recent weakness of Forza titles: car selection.
I'm also not completely convinced that the Forza 5 "drivatar" system – using aggregated behaviors of actual human players instead of pre-programmed AI – makes the opponent experience radically different than in the original Horizon. Part of that could be down to the small sample of players in the pre-launch time frame, I'll admit. The good news is that I'm sure I'll still be playing when FH2 hits the shelves on September 30 though, so I'll be able to reevaluate.
DLC and drivatar questions noted then, I know I'll have a great time killing a lot of hours with this open-world driver. Finding an entertaining middle ground between the simulation-like racers and the arcade-style games, Forza Horizon 2 takes a formula I liked a lot last year, and improves on it significantly.