Forza Horizon 2 is love at first sight. It's the sequel to Microsoft's open world racer on Xbox 360 and a spin-off to the serious track racing sim series that is Forza Motorsport.
We played a near-final version of the title, starting out from the game's opening and digging into the first few races of the central campaign. Previous demos have only given us snapshots of the car handling and specific races. Here we get to see the latest Horizon festival in all its glory.
The intro movie glamourises the festival feel of a super car enthusiast meet in Europe. It's a wafer thin story and you can easily skip and get to the real meat of the experience, as we come off a boat and are pointed in the direction of the festival, up the coast and deep into the country.
The winding open roads takes us through France and northern Italy. And by open we really mean open, as the vast road network is, at best, a rough guide. If you want to win races you're going to have to venture outside the comfort of asphalt, finding alternative routes and shortcuts across fields and through wooded areas. Going off-road offers a great sense of freedom.
Gameplay is fully geared towards fun. There isn't much of the realistic simulation found in Forza Motorsport 5 here. It offers a mix of strategically seeking out the best route and being aggressive - but not overly aggressive. The cars are beautiful, regardless of whether you opt for the a view from the outside or the cockpit view. The same can be said of the environments we drive in. The dynamic day and night cycle provides us with everchanging lighting conditions where clouds can come rolling in, providing us with a set of new driving conditions.
The greatest single aspect of the game is the online strategy Turn 10 and Playground Games have taken. Forza Horizon 2 has been designed with a connected Xbox One in mind. Only then will all other cars in the game be replaced by ghosts (or drivatars) of real friends and players of Forza Horizon 2, something we also saw in Forza Motorsport 5. This makes for more realistic, intense and dynamic racing. Your friends will use shortcuts AI wouldn't dare to try, and this will make each race a unique experience every time you boot it up.
After completion of each event you're offered to challenge a friend and beat their best time of the event just finished. It's a great diversion in a game that aims to keep us busy by constantly distracting us. There are 700 events waiting us with 25 perks to unlock. The 15 "Championship events" alone, which we're lead through by the dodgy event manager Ben, provides us with a standard career worth around 15 hours of play time. But that only makes up about 15 percent of the whole game.
There are all sorts of challenges to deal with, most you'll likely sample before even embarking on the story. There is XP to be won from driving well and dangerously, for airtime and drifting. But you have to make sure you don't crash, else the multiplier resets and you won't bank the points. When you level up you get to spin a giant wheel of fortune that offers a chance of winning a cash reward or an expensive rare car for your garage. Naturally you start out with lesser cars: you've a BMW Z4, a muscle car and tuned Japanese street racer to choose from. But soon after we were racing in a Koenigsegg Agera R through a cornfield.
That's thanks to Bucket List Challenges. There are 30 cars that have been parked at various locations in game, most off the the beaten track. Find them and you can initiate a challenge. The first one tasks us with racing the Koenigsegg as fast as possible through a speed trap. Then there is a night-time, off-road rally car race that takes place between densely planted trees in a Lancia Delta. You can also play these challenges co-operatively, which is a very nice touch indeed. The idea is for more Bucket List Challenges to arrive as free updates post launch.
The online portion of Forza Horizon 2 is of vital importance - it what makes the game come to life and an offline only player will not get the full experience. Playground Games completely tear down any barrier between online and offline racing. There are no lobbies; it's completely seamless and a quick button press gets you racing when passing an event. From there the online infrastructure is meant to build communities. Clubs for up to one thousand members. There are online car meets designed to let you show off the highlights in your garage. While we didn't have a change to sample the actual online racing this time we learned there is a choice of Online Road Trip, Online Free Roam and private sessions.
An hour or so into the game and we're at level 3, have a stash of pointless cash won at two spins in the Horizon Slot Machines and we're invited to play a special event. This sees us drive a Ferrari 430 Stradale against a squadron of Italian jet fighters (Top Gear-inspired?), as we both race to beat the other through a series of checkpoints. At the end of the day we win by two tenths of a second. Our reward? We get to keep the Ferrari. Unfortunately as we watch the replay of our triumph we get the all too familiar tap on the shoulder indicating our time is up.
As stated in the beginning Forza Horizon is love at first sight. And it remains just as captivating at second glance. It looks gorgeous, with the only thing that could do with a little visual improvement being the frame underneath the cars as we see them roll over. The racing is great, not too heavy on simulation, but neither is it a case of pure arcade antics. You can adjust your experience by turning driving aids on and off, skilled racers will level up quicker simply by acquiring more experience points. Those who feel an itch can tune each of the cars, adjusting the balance of tyres as you hunt better times. The only thing you need to ignore, as best you can, is the lacklustre story that frames the racing. Not that it matters anyway...