I should preface review by noting that I don’t play a lot of racing games. I’m not much of a twitch-gamer in general. My reflexes could best be described as ‘sloth-like’ on a good day. It’s why I never managed to finish Ninja Gaiden on the NES, why I don’t play online shooters and why I’m not particularly good at racing games. I’m also not much of a car guy. I don’t know gear differential from a hole in the head. That said, Horizons is wonderfully accessible to people of *all* skill levels and/or automobile affinity (Automobile Affinity is my Cars tribute band). There are a large number of various ‘racing assists’ (things such as traction control, ABS and even a driving line that goes so far as to show you when you should brake and when you need to accelerate) that help even the field a little bit to make even the worst racer at least passable. Then, as you get better, you can remove these assists one by one, and gradually reap more rewards (the game pays out bonus credits in-game if you have certain assists turned off). It helped me gradually improve to a point where I’m almost competent – much like training wheels on a bicycle.
If you’ve seen the screenshots, you probably already know this, but this game is absolutely *gorgeous*. Rendered in 1080P with vibrant colours and full day/night and weather effects (well, *rain*, at least – you won’t see much snow in the middle of summer in the Mediterranean, which is what the game is modelled after), you’ll sometimes find yourself shocked by how detailed everything looks. At one point, I was driving along the coast, into the sunset and the sun glinted off my windscreen and, I have to say, it was positively breathtaking. This is clearly a game that could not have been made on the Xbox 360 – in many ways, it feels like one of the first ‘Next-Gen’ games on the XBone.
The main crux of the gameplay involves cruising around the French/Italian countryside while you race in various championships, which, in a nice change, tend to be based on various body-types (for instance, hatchbacks, ‘classic roadsters’, etc.) rather than being strictly class-based. There’s a good selection of different championship types, encompassing the more than 200 cars in the game’s roster meaning there’s something for everyone. As someone who struggles with the rather intimidating speed of the super-cars, I did just fine for myself sticking to slower championships starring hatchbacks, off-road trucks, etc. The best part was that the game never makes you feel guilty – the in-game avatar who acts as the de facto ‘leader’ of the Horizon racing festival (voiced by and using a digitized avatar of Sean Maguire – Robin Hood himself, from ABC’s ‘Once Upon A Time’) will congratulate you on every accomplishment, no matter if it’s a hatchback-hop across the countryside or a circuit race with S-class super-cars. While the game may have been holding my hand a little bit, I never felt bad about it.
While the racing is tight, responsive (even if the off-road sections stretch the boundaries of truth just a little bit – something tells me a McLaren P1 wouldn’t handle quite as well bombing through apple orchards as this game would have us believe) and rewarding, the open-world nature of the game sometimes provide the most fun you’ll have in Horizon. There are various collectables and ‘speed traps’ (which are exactly what you’d think – try and hit the radar gun going as fast as humanly possible, and then compare your speed score vs your friends) which can keep you busy for hours without even pulling up to the starting line. Another nice selling point is the ‘drivatar’ concept – which was introduced in the XBone launch game, Forza 5, but realized more fully in this game. Basically, if your friends have the game, it will note your racing tendencies (are you a wrecker, do you tend to pass in corners or on straights, etc.) and then basically upload a ‘ghost’ version of your racer into the Cloud , which will then show up in other people’s games – AND ACTUALLY EARN YOU MONEY BASED ON ITS PERFORMANCE. That’s right – your ghosted ‘drivatar’ can earn you in-game credits when you’re not even playing. How cool is that?
Online play is also a real selling point – you’re never more than a few button presses away from joining an online session and, if you’re not a fan of racing with randos, setting up a private session with your friends is a breeze. For the most part, lag is almost non-existent and the racing is fast and fun – and your racer’s progression is not tiered to multi or single player, meaning you can still gain levels even if you’re just mucking around with your friends, seeing who can fly down the freeway in the shortest amount of time. Basically, this game plays like I hoped the ill-fated experiment, Motor City Online, was going to be like back in the early-00s. Anyone remember that game? Online MMO with an ‘open world’ where you could cruise around, showing off your car, do pick-up races… except none of it worked like it was supposed to. God, what a trainwreck that was. Anyway, I’m digressing way too much here. Back on point.
The soundtrack is uniformly outstanding – everything from modern rock, to alternative, to the standard euro-dance to a station that plays classical music (complete with a DJ who speaks entirely in Italian). In a nice touch, the game’s DJs will invariably make note of different in-game happenings to help create the illusion of a cohesive world. This is obviously standard stuff in most open-world action games, to be sure, but it’s nice to see this level of polish here, as well.
Now for the frustrating bits – there’s not much point to ‘levelling’ beyond showing how long you’ve been playing the game. Since every level requires exactly 20,000 experience points, once you’ve unlocked all of the in-game ‘perks’, your racer’s level just becomes a simple number that makes you look intimidating in online sessions.
The game also has a few bugs – times won’t post or update properly, speed traps won’t properly pop when you drive through, etc. Niggling things to be sure, but you really have to wonder how these seemingly tiny issues weren’t ironed out prior to shipping?
The collision detection can also be inconsistent– sometimes if you’re drifting around a corner and you give a little love tap to the wall, it’s counted as a ‘drift tap’ – which actually earns you experience – but sometimes hitting the wall with the exact same amount of force is enough to kill your scoring streak.
In truth, these are tiny issues on what is otherwise a very clean, polished and incredibly enjoyable racing game.
Forza Horizon 2 is the first game I’ve played on my XBone that has really made me stop and say, “If this is what this generation of games can do, we're living in the future now.” Other games had one or two aspects (the instant-connectivity, the graphical fidelity, the Cloud support, etc.) but there hadn’t been a game that brought them all together in such a complete package, until now.
Geek Score: 9 out of 10 Bacon Strips
What I’m Playing: Forza Horizon 2 – XBone, Infamous: Second Son – PS4, Wasteland 2 – PC
What I’m Reading: Fables by Bill Willingham