Forza Horizon 2 review: Going on a road trip, baby

Off-road: Where we're going we don't need roads.
Off-road: Where we’re going we don’t need roads.

Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 2, a car game that has racing in it, has had an interesting effect on my car-mad teenage son. I’m bike-mad, he’s car-mad.

Anyway, after driving exotic sports cars around Italy – France and Italy are the  playground for this second Forza Horizon game –  during the game’s road trips, my teenage son proclaimed his future plans.

“When I’m older I want to go to Europe and rent a Lamborghini. How much would it cost to hire one of those?” he asked. “Probably quite a lot,”I told him. He contemplated for a little bit then said, “You’ll have to come with me then.” Good lad.

The original Forza Horizon never really connected with me: Maybe it was the North American setting but for some reason Horizon 2 has captured my attention and made me want to keep exploring, keep racing and keep gaining XP so I level up, win more championships and seek the final challenge. The basic premis is that you have to win the right amount of championship events to take place in the Horizon Festival’s final event.

In-car view: Perhaps the best view to drive from.
In-car view: Perhaps the best view to drive from.

As I write this, I’m sitting at level 26 (a low level compared to some of the people I’ve encountered), have raced in 32 championship events, and have had 53 collisions in one race.

Perhaps the appeal of a game like this is that I get to drive virtual representations of cars that I’ll never own, and there are 210 cars to unlock, ranging from luxury sports car, rugged 4WDs and American Muscle cars. I think, though, much of the appeal is that there is so much fun to be had outside of the racing. Just driving around brings its own rewards.

Everything you do in Forza Horizon 2 earns XP, and the more XP you earn, the faster you’ll level up: Do a nice drift around a tight corner, you earn XP; pass within a cat’s whisker of an oncoming car, you earn XP; smash a street light and take down a stop sig, you earn XP. Some  things earn small amounts of XP, others earn bigger amounts, and everytime you level up, you get to do a virtual Wheelspin which can reward you with credits or a new vehicle to add to the garage. Perks are the game’s skill tree, letting you tweak how you want XP to be earned doing different things.

Race time: each race gets you closer to the championship finale.
Race time: each race gets you closer to the championship finale.

As well as straight out race events – each championship event has four events to complete – there are also things called Showcase events, which add a bit of variety to the frequent A to B beat-the-other-car races. One of the Showcase events has you having to outrun 37 hot air balloons in a 1970s Lancia rally car. Another has you  having to sprint against a steam train. Another has you  having to beat a squadron of fighter jets to the finish line.  They add excitement to things and a touch of style.

The  game’s Bucket List, too, is a nice  diversion from all the racing, letting you do things like drive a luxury sports car like you stole it or have to gain the fastest speed through a speed zone.

Horizons 2 looks gorgeous, too, with the car’s appropriately shiny, European architecture and wide open fields, but I have to talk about the ambient weather effects and the day/night cycle. They are, in a word, amazing, adding immersion to the game. The sky goes dark and thunder booms overhead when a storm is approaching, clouds blackening with moisture. Rain drops splatter windscreens, streaked by wipers. Sunlight blooms and rainbows appear when the rain has gone. Playground Games has done an outstanding job.

The game’s makers say that Forza Horizon 2’s drivatars, which populate the game world, are based on the driving styles of real-life Forza Horizon players. All I can say is I pity those other FH2 players who have the misfortune of running into me on the roads of Europe, especially when I first started playing.

If you saw an Ariel Atom race car driving erratically through fields, slamming into trees, and generally slipping and sliding all over the roads, it was likely me.  In fact, I can probably guarantee it’s me.

Something that was frustrating about the drivatars, though, was that on the moments when you drove to the next region – the game’s road trips –  they turned it into a race, meaning at times several of them would collide with each other. I lost count the number of times a drivatar would race past me, pull in front then slam on its brakes, forcing me to crash into it. Perhaps  future DLC for the game should include a virtual insurance company to ring?

It’s testimony to how good a car game is – and Forza Horizon is an outstanding car game – when it grabs the attention of a gamer like me – one who isn’t a huge car game fan – and won’t let go. Forza Horizon 2 grabbed me after the first race – despite the cheesy, non-skippable intro sequence that just seemed a little forced – and I’m hooked.

And for Xbox owning car racing fans, this is a no brainer. It’s gorgeous, it’s huge, and it’s fun. Isn’t that what a car racing game should be?

Forza Horizons 2 is a game that will  capture your imagination, cajole you into racing one more event, and won’t let go. It’s set a very high bar for other car racing games to come close to. The challenge has been set.

It’s now up to other car racing games to accept the challenge.

Xbox NZ kindly supplied a digital copy of Forza Horizon 2  for this review.

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