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Forza Horizon 2 / 17th of October 2014

When Playground Games released the original Forza Horizon on the Xbox 360 back in 2012, there were many, including myself who appreciated what the team were trying to do, but took offence to it falling under the Forza name. Turn 10 had painstakingly built up the Forza brand to symbolise authenticity and painstaking attention to detail, something that the original Horizon lacked in its attempts to unite car culture with that of a fictitious mainstream music festival. There was no denying its obvious visual allure, yet the style of racer that it was felt ill-fitted to the Forza brand, and yet now, after having finally had the opportunity to spend some time with the Xbox One version of Forza Horizon 2, I think that it is safe to say that I’m glad nobody listened to me, because Playground have successfully managed to create one of the finest driving experiences to date, and I for one, am proud to have it fall under the umbrella of Turn 10’s sublime racer. In short, the Horizon series has now come of age.

The fate of the arcade racer has, in recent years, looked somewhat bleak, with the demise of both Black Rock and PGR developer, Bizarre Creations, not to mention that Need For Speed will be missing its usual annual update for the first time in over a decade, and yet, along with Driveclub on PS4 and Ubisoft’s The Crew coming before Christmas, Horizon 2 is here to put that right, and ensure that there is a future to racing games that fall beyond the bounds of the simulation genre.

It must be said that Horizon 2 is not a revolution, but rather a perfect tweaking of what was already a rather impressive formula, from its new setting to its vast array of vehicles, multiplayer aspects and sublime visuals, it is impossible not to be impressed by the work that Playground Games have done over the last two years. Visually speaking, the game is nothing short of stunning, with gorgeous vistas abound across the game’s vineyard drenched setting in southern France and northern Italy. There are plenty of cities, towns and villages dotted around the landscape, though perhaps best of all, the area is quite literally strewn with fantastic roads that simply beg to be driven on, proving above all else, that this shift from the original’s setting of Colorado was a very wise move indeed. When the time of day revolves from day to night and back again, or the clouds gather overhead to thunder down a torrential downpour upon the track that sees light reflect back off of the sodden surfaces, Horizon 2 sets a new standard for driving games, it really is that beautiful. And it is a benchmark that, along with its sublime gameplay, will ensure that this a very tough act to follow.

The original game featured a system similar to PGR’s kudos system, yet this also seems to have been given something of an overhaul, and it finds itself with a far more prominent place in this sequel. Generating vast sums of experience points sees players rewarded with skill points which can be used to unlock perks that can help to generate additional XP from performing such actions as drafting opponents or winning head-to-head battles. Players still have driver levels that are progressed through in the same way as before, except that now, levelling up rewards players with a free “wheelspin”, a lucky draw that could see them earn a cash injection or a new car. As such, players will find themselves more desperate than ever to record high skill point rewards, seeing them having to weight up car performance and road handling as they scour the map in search of those much needed points.

Unlike the original game, the festival itself isn’t shoved in the faces of players, but this time instead forms a vague background to the far more important tasks of racing and earning experience points. The implementation of Forza 5’s Drivatar system sees Horizon 2 really benefit, with the game no longer parading hackneyed AI creations designed to take on the role of rival to the human player, now, with the Gamertags of friends appearing all over the place, the motivation needed to push for victory is much easier to find. And there are plenty of races to win too, with a whopping 168 championships in all that take in races from all 28 different racing categories, though whilst the Horizon title can be captured by winning just 15 championships, there is an inordinate amount of content here that will see the game last a very long time indeed.

Speaking of content, there are now more than 200 vehicles to choose from, incorporating transit vans, jeeps and supercars, along with everything in between. Not only that though, there are, on top of the championship races and the odd challenge event that sees players race against such opposition as a group of planes in a showcase event to win a high performance vehicle, a collection of events known as the Horizon Bucket List that challenge players to maintain high speeds, overtake set numbers of cars or simply race a pre-set course within a specified time limit, they are varied, not to mention vast. Likewise, the world map is around four times bigger than that of the original game, and almost every inch of it can be explored, a feature brought to life even more by the new cross country events that see players tearing up rural areas as the rip through vineyards in beefed up vehicles. The effect is initially somewhat disorientating as player’s lose sight of checkpoints, but it eventually provides the game with a visceral, white knuckle racing experience that further distances this series from the real Forza titles, both of which evidently benefiting from Turn 10’s technological innovations.

Multiplayer on the original Horizon always felt a bit tacked on for me, it was an underwhelming experience that let down the game as a whole, but no more, for undoubtedly the area in which Playground have doled out their attention rather liberally is here, and the results quite frankly speak for themselves. Switching between solo and multiplayer modes is both effortless, and utterly seamless, throwing players into a free roam mode rather than a bland menu, allowing them to access championship races or brilliant, co-operative versions of the Bucket List challenges. There are car clubs that can host 1,000 members in each, and a new playlist variant known as Road Trip, that allows players to race off, amounting stockpiles of XP points between events as they traverse the big, beautiful map. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest additions to any racer yet released, testament to the work of Playground Ground games, and the ultimate example of the Horizon philosophy. There can be no denying then, that Forza Horizon 2 is the complete package, and a very hard act for any other racer to follow, but that is of no concern to Playground just now, at least not until the obligatory sequel makes its way to Xbox owners in a few years from now, and I wonder already, just how exactly they can build on what could easily be seen as the perfect driving game. We shall simply have to wait and see though.

So, plaudits must go out to the brilliant, and highly talented team at Playground Games, they have achieved something so incredible with Horizon 2, a near faultless driving experience, though perhaps even more impressive than this, they have managed to achieve the impossible, they have actually surpassed all expectations in doing so. With a busy schedule of driving games emerging between now and Christmas, there can surely be no doubts that Horizon 2 has set a standard that none will come close to matching, and if that isn’t a reason for Microsoft to make the team a permanent addition to the Microsoft Game Studios family, I don’t know what is.

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