The original Forza Horizon was a revelation: a fun, accessible open-world driving game that stood shoulder to shoulder with serious motorsport simulators when it came to graphics, physics and driveability. Like the Nissan 350Z or the Mazda MX-5, it was accessible enough that anyone could have some fun behind the wheel but if you knew what to do with it, you could get some serious pace out of it.
The next-gen sequel is a big work with plenty to boast about: more cars, more land, more pixels (yes, it's 1080p). We sat down with the game's Creative Director, Ralph Fulton, asked a few questions and smashed up a few cars.
As we pointed out in our Forza 5 review, the teams working on this series have made the jump to next-gen as gracefully as a particularly graceful cat that has just spent three years studying for a PhD in Exquisite Movement. And while the game is packed with tasty motors, you might spend more time gawping at the landscape: the open-world map covers a large chunk of southern Europe, which the developers picked for the roads and scenery, and it's rendered in astonishing detail. As is the weather. The weather is really something.
"With next-gen hardware we can simulate the weather, rather than faking it," Ralph told us, "which means the atmosphere and the rain are there, they're modelled as particles in the game. In the last Horizon, if we wanted a rainbow to appear, we'd have to stick a bunch of polygons in the air to make it look like there was a rainbow there. In this version, we have water particles in the air and we shine light through them at the right angle and you get a rainbow, like you do in real life. And when the road dries out after rain, it dries out like it does in reality, in patches."
That's not to say the cars haven't been lavished with a lot of detail. Ralph tells us the graphics "concentrate on light and modelling how it behaves, rather than the polygon count". While you could point out that all graphics concentrate on light, these cars do have look particularly luminous in their reflections, glints, gleams and shadows. That is until it starts raining, or you drive through a field, at which point they pick up a further layer of realism in the form of a coat of dust or a wash of moving, individually modelled water droplets.
it's a lovely drive
Our hands-on took in some rolling hills, a field and a breathtaking stretch of Italian coastline, complete with shortcuts, alternative routes, traffic and a brief but heavy shower of summer rain. The three cars we tried - a Lamborghini Huracán, a Nissan GT-R and a Corvette - offered an interesting variety of styles, as did the different driving surfaces. The considered physics of the racing sim at Forza's heart are still there. You can use assists and guides to make it a more pick-up-and-play experience, or you can turn off all the help, switch the gears to manual and devote yourself to becoming an understeer ninja.
READ MORE: First Play - GRID Autosport
There's a lot of driving to do in Horizon 2. For a start, it's properly open-world this time: crash through a fence and into a field, and you really can drive through the field. As a result it packs in three times the driving area, and the driving you can do is more varied: there are over 200 cars in the game, from twitchy little sports cars to off-road mammoths, and over 700 'driving events' that take every class of car through its paces. With a huge scope for customising your motors, the developers say that 100 hours is a 'very conservative estimate' for the amount of time it'll take you to go through all the challenges the game has to offer.
it's not just about winning
Skills - rewards for driving stylishly - were part of the original Horizon, but in the sequel they're a significant part of the game. Each long drift, swish bit of perfectly clean racing, big air or bum-clenching near miss earns you points, which add up to perks, and you spend these perks on new abilities. Looking cool is now as important to progression as winning races.
it's more multiplayer
Our one sticking point with the original Horizon was its multiplayer, which was decent enough but fell short of addictive. The sequel gets a major multiplayer upgrade by adding the Driveatar function from Forza 5 - an AI 'ghost image' of you that learns your driving style and then remains in the gameworld when you're not playing, driving around so your friends can challenge it in your absence. In Horizon 2, your Driveatar drives not just how you've been driving but where you've been driving, so you can follow your friends' Driveatars to see what goodies your pals have discovered.
Don't have any friends? Fear not - the game also makes more of an effort to play matchmaker with huge clubs of up to 1000 drivers, car meets where you can swap custom liveries and setups, and 'instant' transitions, with no waiting in lobbies.
READ MORE: First Play - Driveclub
it's got company
Of course, Horizon 2 isn't the only racer offering a mixture of fun, accessibility and proper handling. GRID: Autosport is out in a couple of weeks, and Horizon 2 will be quickly followed by the PS4-exclusive Driveclub. Its main competition, however, will come from Ubisoft's The Crew, which offers a huge map covering all of North America. Will the new Horizon's map be that big? If it's three times the size of Horizon 1 then we're going to say probably not, but it may not need to be: The Crew might offer cross-continent races, but Forza's racing pedigree, the smart Driveatar tech and the fact that it's the best-looking racing game we've ever seen may seal it for Forza Horizon 2. We'll let you know with a full review nearer the time.
READ MORE: everything we know so far about The Crew