One thing I’ve learned over the past few years as a video game reviewer is that any racing fan has a singular favorite series. Some prefer Burnout, a brave few will actually praise EA’s Need for Speed games, others prefer F1 games and the Sony fans will praise Gran Tourismo. But for me there is no racing series better than Forza. The wide variety of cars, awesome tracks and gameplay mechanics that pair realistic driving physics combine with just enough arcade style inspiration to make for, what I find to be, the best racing experience out there.
Where the regular Forza games are all about driving on actual race tracks the Horizon sub-series is all about the Horizon tournament. This tournament mixes typical race track style racing with bits of off-road craziness that mix for a heck of an experience. Where the regular Forza games feel like the simulation games they’re meant to be, the Horizon games really remind me of the old arcade racers like Cruisn’ USA. With some mild open world elements as you drive around to reach the races, reminding me of Burnout Paradise or Test Drive Unlimited.
Both of these games are built on the foundation of a damn solid racing game. Not only do you get to pick your car and upgrade it, as well as painting and putting designs all over it, but you can even change the tuning of the individual elements of the car. All of this allows you to really get down into the nitty-gritty of exactly how your car will function. It’s an incredibly deep simulator experience if you want to get into it or you could just download tuning schematics from other racers or let the game help you.
With Forza Horizon 2 though, while it still embraces the simulation, it feels like much less of a strict simulator game. The races take place in European cities and surrounding landscapes and not only is the landscape incredibly dynamic (expect to go airborne, like it or not) it’s easy to just take shortcuts through grass, backyards and what appear to be large fields of crops. You’ll have a heck of a time controlling your car through all of this unless you are smart enough to actually keep your car up to date with the newest, best and most suitable parts for keeping up with the pack.
Speaking in a purely technical manner, Forza Horizon 2 feels like it’s a damn near perfect racing game. There are almost no problems with the game as it stands and all of the things that people might not enjoy are definitely going to feel like they’re more of a matter of personal taste. For example Horizon 2 contains the fairly controversial mechanic of time rewinding. While I personally love this mechanic since it prevents a single mess up from ruining an otherwise perfect race, others will probably still be complaining about it. Others might find the racing lines and other assists that you can turn on / off at will something to be complained about while others will either enjoy or not mind. But these two things are just part of what’s been with the Forza series – Horizon 2 brings some new issues to possibly complain about.
Personally speaking, I loathe the radio stations in Horizon 2. The music is so bland and boring, bordering on the soporific, that I eventually just turned it off and started listening to my own MP3 player. But even that isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do since the game will just never shut up. Ever.
For some reason the developers have decided that what a racing game needs is narration. Lots of narration. While some of it is easy to swallow, like the voiced dialogue that reads off tutorials to you. This is fine. What isn’t so fine is the fact that there’s a British guy, apparently the one who put together this tournament, who never stops talking to you. Before you race? Dialogue. After a race? Dialogue. Driving around? He needs to very slowly explain to you about how every race type works rather than a quick text blurb you can read.
Normally in these situations I just click through their dialogue to shut them up as soon as possible but here you have to listen to this idiot before you can continue on. It’s intensely annoying, especially at the beginning of the game when you just want to race and this idiot will not shut up. An amusing little factoid about this is that when you turn the game on between opening cutscenes, dialogue, more dialogue, racing and then more cutscenes and dialogue, this has an opening drag that reminds me of a JRPG where you often have play for a half hour or so before you can save the game. That’s what this feels like except the delay feels intolerable since it’s a racing game and all you want to do is drive but it’s making you just sit on your thumbs.
Obviously, as I said above, some people won’t mind this guided experience but it really drove me nuts. All I want to do is drive so stop talking – I’m not going to take the time to learn your names and don’t care at all.
The only part of the gameplay experience that I found off putting was the cross country races. Normally when you’re driving you’re going to try to optimize your car to get the most out of it. But with cross country you’re going to be spending a lot of time driving through the dirt and this can be a pretty miserable experience if you’re not changing your car up to deal with it. This depends on your car, since some naturally do better off road than others, so if you have a car that deals with the dirt just fine, or a tuning setup that works with it, then you might enjoy these. Personally however they tended to annoy me.
As I mentioned above the sound in this game is pretty much something I grew to avoid, voice or music. But the graphics in this game are beyond amazing. The cars all look fantastic, shining in the sun or kicking up dirt as you off-road. Gazing across the environments one has to wonder if they picked Europe just to show off the beautiful vistas. Heck, even the cheering crowd look pretty awesome for a background prop. My personal favorite aspect to the graphics here is watching your car as it takes damage from all of the banging into each other and the scenery. Watching the dirt gather up on your cars underside as you tear across the countryside is another impressive sight that I never get bored with.
There are a number of features that have been placed in the game but they didn’t noticeably impact the experience from what I experienced in my limited time with Horizon’s first entry. There’s a mode called Bucket List, car challenges where you drive cars placed around Italy or France to specific goals with special constraints, that was little more than a passing distraction but little more than that. You'll also earn various perks as you gain racer levels that have a very minor impact on your driving or the experience you earn from stuff, nothing major. Only the rival races, where you challenge other gamers best times on a race you just completed, actually felt like they added something by bringing extra an challenge to tracks you’ve just raced and they get pretty tough which is always fun.
One thing that definitely has to be championed about Forza is the other drivers. Seriously, these guys are nuts. Normally in a Forza game they stick to that driving line and will slam you out of the way if you dare to get in their way. But in Horizon 2 they're a lot more slippery. They'll take off road paths every now and again, they'll slalom down a hill in a fishtail if the traffic gets in their way and they're not the perfect, rubber banding drivers that you're probably used to seeing in racing games. If you can get a good lead on them they'll often get in each others way so much, or be so sidelined by traffic, that you might just never see them ever again because they're just beating the crap out of each other. It's pretty glorious.
I’m going to stand by the assessment that Forza is the best damn racing series out there and Horizon 2 continues that fine tradition while also trying to expand on it. The developers have mixed the core simulation gameplay of Forza has been finely blended with the open world of Test Drive Unlimited and the more chaotic elements of Project Gotham Racing and Burnout, making for an incredibly satisfying game. While some of the elements may not have resonated especially well with me personally, any gamer who owns an Xbox One and is a fan of racing games will enjoy Forza Horizon 2.