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Forza Horizon 2

Forza Horizon 2

Written by Dave Gamble on 9/25/2014 for XBO  
More On: Forza Horizon 2

There are an awful lot of cars out there. Hundreds upon hundreds of unique designs, many of the more desirable classics going back decades. How then, if you don’t have the budget of, say, Jay Leno, do you go about deciding which one is the car that you would choose to own yourself if you could?  Do you go with a high performance Italian supercar and drive it around at 15% of its potential speed, cringing every time an old man in a beat up Buick Century (the only car that I am aware of that is named after the average age of its owners) comes near you, or do you choose a venerable classic and worry only about the aged driver dinging you rmetal? Decisions, decisions, decisions. Which, both fortunately and not, most of us will never have to make.

Still… in those spare moments that you can devote to daydreaming about your most wanted ride, you work through the nearly infinitely long list of cars you would choose, knowing that you can only have one. Not that anyone asked, but for me that car, the car is…. the Caterham. Despite the fact that they sponsor a somewhat lackadaisical Formula 1 team, I really, really like the idea of the Caterham, with its retro roadster looks married to a modern engine, drivetrain, and suspension. I visualize myself ripping through the curvy rural roads of Europe with the wind gently teasing what’s left of my hair, the mixed scents of livestock and newly mown hay replacing the odors of the city that I usually drive in.

Ahhh, driving bliss!

And then it happened: my dream came true! There I was, in a brand new Caterham painted in the colors of my own choosing, flinging the finely tuned piece of machinery through the back roads of Europe as if I didn’t have a care in the world when…. it started to rain. And rain. And rain and rain and rain.

Frustrated, I hit the menu button on my controller and quit for the day.

So, yes, it was all make believe. But for a few moments, I really felt as if I was there. The scenery: spectacular. The sound of the engine: superb. The ego boost of blasting my way past a far more mundane and ubiquitous shoebox of a car: titillating. The feel of the steering wheel alive in my, uh, right thumb: oh, well, yeah, there was none of that.

You take what you can get in this life, so that was more or less okay.

And that, in a nutshell, is Forza Horizon 2. For the Xbox One, to be specific. Developed by Playground Games, to give credit where it’s due.

Just as in the first Forza Horizon, you have somehow been selected as a participant in a car-lovers dream in the form of a “Woodstock for Car People” called Horizon.

Music, food, like-minded people, and cars are all there for a full-immersion festival of speed. And it’s not even BYOC - they give you a wad of cash to buy yourself a car with too!  It won’t be the best car, mind you, but with the easy money that starts rolling in once you start driving, it won’t take long to work yourself up to something really cool. Like a Caterham. Or even my real-world car, an SLK. And the best parts are, in no particular order, no law enforcement, no lawsuits, and no way to actually damage the cars!

The festival activities aside (primarily because those aren’t interactive), the point is in the driving. You can free roam about the countryside sightseeing, if you so choose, and you can even earn money while doing it by challenging other Horizon drivers (well, their Drivatars anyway) you run into (ach, poor choice of words, there) to have a one-on-one race with you right there on the public roads. Or, as you will find to be very common, across open fields and wooded areas. I have to confess to having plowed through acres of vineyards, an offense that is often punishable by lengthy wars in Europe. It’s a winner take all race, of course, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of successful races to bring in enough lucre to buy more cars.

While you can easily entertain yourself for hours doing nothing but driving around picking fights with other drivers, listening to the radio (there’s even a classical station for us old gray hairs!), and racking up XP using the same kinds of driving tactics that earned rewards in Crazy Taxi, you would be missing out on most of the fun. Still, with something like a few dozen (and more to be available via free DLC) Bucket List cars lying about the countryside just waiting for someone like, say, you to come along and drive them, in the words of one of the challenges, “like you don’t own it,” (which is easy to do, of course, because you don’t), there are hours of fun to be had just playing in the sandbox..

So yeah, you can be a loner and toodle around doing your own thing, or hunting for Barn Finds (one of my favorite activities), but this is supposed to be a Festival. It’s supposed to be social!  And how much more social can you get than racing against a group of other people that are every bit as much in love with their vehicle as you are with yours? And beating their cars to a wrinkled, dented pulp in the process??  You will have to forgo a little of the freedom that you have in driving aimlessly around the sandbox countryside eradicating entire vintages of wine-on-the-vine, naturally, but that’s a small price to pay for camaraderie and potentially large buckets of cash. Well, cash plus XP, which eventually ends up being the same thing since you get to spin the wheel for cash or cars every time you level up. Every now and then you also earn enough points to buy a “perk” or two, and these perks as often as not increase the earnings you receive for this, that, and the other.

This game throws so many credits, points, and sundry forms of legal tender at you that it becomes hard to track which is which (I’m pretty sure the Crazy Taxi stunts are what leads to Perks), but the upshot is that you quickly reach the levels where you can buy some pretty attractive hardware. That said, there are some cars available that would take months of constant play to earn, but I’ve always said that aspirational goals are good things to have.  That’s why I dream of Caterhams.

So, back to the racing. It’s a mixed bag of race types, but with one major exception it’s all stuff you’ve seen before. Most races have you racing against eleven other cars in the same class (and there are a lot of classes!) on streets, be they paved, gravel, or dirt, either with or without “civilian” traffic. They may be rally style point A to point B races, or they may be lap races. The big difference is that many of them are cross country races, literally. While it stretches the bounds of believability, you will find yourself driving through fields, woods, and the aforementioned vineyards in completely unsuitable cars, like Ferraris.  

Silly? Yes.

Fun? YES!

The ability to drive a low-slung, mega-powerful, street-tuned car across open land strewn with hay bales, shrubs, grape vines, and other sundry flora comes from the relatively forgiving physics and controls. As delivered through the default settings, the drivability of the cars is both forgiving and challenging. The configurations can be changed to move between those two endpoints, but as I was winning races while starting back in the middle of the pack (in what seems to be an unassailable convention in this gaming genre) I saw no reason to complicate my life. There is a financial incentive in that your race winnings take complexity settings into account, but winning is winning and I quickly learned to set first place as my minimum acceptable result.

The closest racing, though, came from the Showcase Events. In these races, you are pitted against opponents like a speeding locomotive or a national airshow team, to give two examples. This is a bit more challenging for the simple reason that your opponent isn’t on the road with you, and therefore cannot be punted out of your way. While these are theatrical and at least a little bit interesting, they don’t have that element of mano a mano battle that a tightly packed street racing has. Still, variety is the essence of life, so they have their place in the festival.

The winning streak was, to an appreciable degree, enabled by the nifty ‘rewind’ capability that allows you to back up to your most recent mistake and try again. I have always considered its usage to be cheating, of course, and swore that I would use it only to rectify wrecks that I considered to be someone else’s fault, but the addiction to first place soon had me routinely using the rewind feature.  Hey, it’s just a game! And even with the get-out-of-a-wreck-free card, I still found that the latter stages of the races could result in seat cushion clenching levels of stress.

The cars are very driveable, but there is enough reality in the equation that a late race spin or tankslapper into a concrete barrier is still a distinct possibility. And, for the first time ever with a console racer, I never felt like the controller was a liability. Whether that comes down to the Xbox One or to the design of the games, I can’t say. Either way, it was a welcome enhancement, although I do still dearly wish Microsoft would join the rest of the world in allowing us to use our high-end racing rigs. I couldn’t help thinking how great the Thrustmaster T500 would have been…

… when I finally decided to cast aside the training wheels and see what it was like to drive without assists. I turned off everything except automatic shifting (sure would have liked to use my H-gate shifter), just the braking zone part of the dynamic race line, and actual performance degradation from car damage. I also turned off almost all of the HUD distractions.

You can imagine the result, especially considering that my first ‘Simulation” level race was in my Caterham. It’s a squirrely car even with the assists; with them turned off, I finished the next two races in dead last. Rather than turn the aids back on, I took a different path and bought a low-powered Alfa Romeo Spyder. With the more realistic handling, a less distracting screen presentation, and a slower, more forgiving car, it was like an entirely different game. With steering assists turned off, the very nature of the racing changed. No longer could I treat the other cars as if they were rolling guardrails - now that my car would spin out, I had to avoid contact with other cars since a little brush would be enough to turn me around. With the screen decluttered, I could see even more of the fantastic local scenery. And because of the financial incentives provided to encourage players to do precisely what I had done, the money continued to pour in. After some practice, I even got back to winning races.

Overall, Forza Horizon 2, at least as pertains to the Xbox One version, is a worthy successor to the original game. The addition of dynamic weather, a 300% increase in playable real estate, and a reportedly more immersive and accessible multiplayer system are reasons enough to pick this one up even if you have the first version on your old 360. While it would be better if Microsoft allowed the use of higher end controllers, the standard hand controller worked well enough to not be a giant detriment.

Forza Horizon 2 is just about everything you would expect from an already superb game upgraded and moved to a stronger platform. While it's disappointing that higher end driving rigs still can't be used, the quality of the game and the Xbox One's controller ease the pain just a bit. This one is well worth the 100+ hours it will take to work your way through.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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