If Forza Horizon 2 managed to continue its momentum past those electrifying opening hours it'd have easily skyrocketed into the 10 category. And even if it drops down a gear or two as familiarity with the open world and its events starts to grind the experience from sublimely eclectic to uncomfortably formulaic, Playground Games offer up one hell of a road trip. One that echoes the arcade racing genre's best - bold colours, iconic soundtracks. An embracement of all that is fun when behind a wheel. But above all beautiful curves. Be they off-road or on.
The different car class championships available to race through and spread across artistic interpretations of France and Italy sees Forza Horizon 2 offer its take on racing's greats. Take the coast roads in Ferraris and the exotic sun-kissed European sprints echo the best moments of Outrun. Tear through dirt and over hills in Rally cars and you're revisiting the heart-pounding vibe of Sega Rally circa-1995. Prefer GT Championships? You got them. Want to roar round county roads in American muscle cars, blast through village streets in Classics? You can.
Nor is this a Frankenstein monster cobbled together from other developer glories either. The feel's suitably iconic, but the vision's Playground's. It's one connected sandbox that you're free to take what car you want where you want. Outside events (and during some) you can cannonball off the tarmac into fields and weave between trees. The lack of trackside barriers suggest what needs to be capitalised on most races: shortcuts.
None are excessively arcade in design - Horizon shares the same DNA as Motorsport 5 after all - but cutting corners here or slamming through café tables there is pure punk compared to FM5's stuffy adherence to the pure racing line. Coloured smoke denotes checkpoints that need passing through to stop you ignoring curves and avoid arrowing straight for the finish line instead. On roads these are bullseye-sized to keep your turns tight, while off-road they're several garage doors-wide to let you enjoy stupidly-wide drifts through valleys.
Two distinct disciplines, but there's plenty between the two extremes. Forza Horizon 2's a chameleon. It tries, rather well, to suit all racing tastes. The XP system awards clean racing lines, chaining scores the longer they're unbroken. But the successful technique text box pop ups also offer acclaim for wheels leaving tarmac, dangerous drifts. Pull open the Settings menu and you can firm up on, or dismiss totally, a garage full of racing assists to help with the likes of braking and steering.
Playground let you decide where on the arcade/realism spectrum you drive. That said, switching off the majority of them is better done when a racing wheel is part of your setup. The standard controller lacks the finesse (full disclosure: it's likely us, not it) to control a wild Viper on tarmac, not to mention mud.
Advice? At least crank up the Drivatar difficulty from average to skilled once you've got used to the lay of the land. The former makes races a sedate country drive, while the latter will see you continually neck an neck for pole position come the last few turns.
Forza Motorosport's headline-grabbing feature, pulling player data from the Cloud to populate your game with names and ability from everyone else's games, reappears in this Horizon sequel.
We're not wholly convinced of the level of fidelity these digital twins have with their real-life counterparts, as we continually blasted past two drivers we know for a fact are some of the best of our contacts and others who were the opposite end keep the wheel straight, but the illusion does its job.
Spot a car with a familiar name may make you more likely to lay down a quick road race challenge with a tap of X as you pass them. Any progress made in world, from roads found to boards smashed, flashes up a comparison score with the friend that's nearest (note: better) to yours. Every event race finishes with a quick comparison to a friend's lap time on the track, offering you a quick button press to dive back in and race against their ghost to beat their best performance.
You can lose a lot of time just chasing your closest friendly speed demon, though with the highly skilled Drivatars you challenge on the open road, unless you're in the best of class car with a upgraded engine you're unlikely to get a glimpse of your competitor as they zoom towards the randomised finish line.
Of course, nothing's as good as the real thing, Horizon divides its online and solo worlds though a two-choice menu option to take your ride into a shared world by the event-roulette of Road Trip or the freedom to express your driving desires that is Free Roam. Dragging friends in should be easy, but Xbox One's party & game systems still aren't as quick and easy as its predecessor Xbox 360's, making it an annoying niggle that we put more down to the console than the game. Once you're in though, the experience is different again, as it would as slow-moving AI is replaced by sneaky real life competition.
With online multiplayer, there are still things missing we'd have liked to have seen. Some because they seem an obvious addition, others because we're just spoilt with choice these days.
The group leader decides event conditions and locations, as well as car types. While there's truth in too many cooks, we'd have wanted a more robust voting system - as it is, the group can only weigh in on the next location for Road Trips.
If you haven't kitted out your garage in single player with a particular car type, you're left renting a bare basic model if the leader vote goes with something you've either yet to buy car stock in or plain don't enjoy. We wanted to see races that allowed you to stack whatever cars you choose against each other, not just when you're driving outside events.
We definitely wanted to see a vote to replay in post-event breakdowns: finishing Infection or King games immediately lead to the want for a rematch. For all the hundreds of carefully manufactured roads in the sandbox, hunting down opponents with zombie-like cars or trying to hammer the owner of the crown to grab the King status ourselves in small arenas are arguably the best time sinks in the game.
The world's littered with diversions. Speed traps stack you up on online leaderboards measuring your top speed as you pass them. Well-hidden barns hide classic vehicles. Even pre-release the custom decal livery's got a few notable designs to copy onto your own car, and we sunk some time into tinkering our rides with paint jobs.
Just beating out racing trains and planes though for the game's highlight are the Bucket List challenges. These task you with driving some insane vehicles to some nicely cocky objectives that flash up as you approach these parked rides.
Drive like you stole the car, race the setting sun and such may be nothing more than a different one-liner to get you to do the same thing - hammering down roads to meet tight time countdowns - but the sell is in the feel and swiftness of the car. An early McClaren joyride sticks out for being the best sensation of speed since Burnout 3. Go online and the game alters the perimeters to the challenge to incorporate a co-op buddy.
Hopping between different pursuits is recommended, because otherwise you start tiring of the formula that's all too apparent at times. Single player feels lacking compared to the variety and progression layers of the original. You've a fairly simple Championship structure to run through, with the odd fun event on the side.
We spent one afternoon whittling down the Championship challenges - a batch of points-based races per car type to progress to the Horizon Finale - and found ourselves starting to lose interest. A wider variety of goals would have spiced things up massively, and we wonder if more development time was pushed into online at the sacrifice of single player.
But even that doesn't quite embrace the spirit of the festival: we'd have loved to have seen a more wacky playlist of racing events, or the ability to curate group challenges from the community. As it is, we had to make up our own - doing Infected in rubbish Ford Vans with interior cameras enforced was a particular silly highlight - when we'd have liked some light direction from the studio itself.
The Championships have another issue given they're tied to vehicle classes. We'd, obviously, picked those car types that perked our interest to race with first, leading us to gradually diminishing speeds and lessening excitement as we progressed to the festival's end and were forced to race in classes or cars that we weren't bothered with.
You're free to jump between Championships at will, though it does mean a trip back to one of the few garages on the map to switch cars (admittedly though there's a fast travel option to the main game hub, Playground not enforcing the need to travel across the country in a ride you're not happy with). but you still need to bite the slow-moving bullet if you're to ‘finish' the game.
But as with most modern racers, the real game's in the multiplayer. While we half-wish Playground had kept the two worlds one by default to ensure as many dynamic experiences as possible, we have to commend the decision, if only because so many games do enforce that need and cater little for the solo driver. And post-launch anyway, there'll be plenty of people on the road only a three button press away if you prefer sharing the road with people.
We recommend sticking with friends if you can, as it makes races towards event starts or impromptu finishing lines set by the party leader more invigorating. The banter as you cock up someone's racing line is fantastic.
Other than the classical channel (which is rammed full of iconic pieces like Ride of the Valkyries and The William Tell Overture) the radio stations favour the festival flavour even if there's an attempt to make each distinct. The chosen tracks are patchy in the way that hardly anyone will have an eclectic enough taste to enjoy everything on the playlist, but many to our ears tie in well with the experience of driving down beautiful locales at high speed.
Graphically Forza Horizon 2 is a knockout. Sure, look at the tiny details such as grass and foliage when in on the bonnet view and you may not feel it's truly new-gen, but pull back to the larger picture and you'll want to use Photo Mode for more than pornographic shots of your cars. There's a lush level of detail that embraces the idealised summer that was the hallmark of Sega's blue sky-kissed 90s racers - every turn rolls you out to a postcard landscape.
We've missed those days massively, and if you have as well, then this is the closest you'll get it to them in modern racing. Even if the world's not as rammed full of top-tier content (and sparse with 'normal' NPC cars), events and challenges as we'd want, we still enjoy what we have, and there are few games that could haunt our dreams so much after the console's turned off for the night. Racing moments have haunted our nights these past weeks and left us with idiotic smiles plastered on our faces during the day.
We've felt the satisfaction of chilled spins along coast roads, had our hearts thumping as we've leapt over hills and buried ourselves into the hearts of country ruins. For those, and the strive to better friends' time attacks or track positions over the next few weeks, makes Forza Horizon 2 worth the buy-in.
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