After initial concerns that it would dilute the hardcore spirit of the game too much, we unexpectedly fell head over heels with the original Forza Horizon on Xbox 360. That meant expectations were high for the sequel, particularly considering its access to the turbo-charged power of a next-gen console.
While it uses the same graphics engine and Drivatar tech as Forza Motorsport 5, Horizon 2 is a very different game to its track-oriented teammate. For starters, it only forces you to drive around in an underpowered coupé for a handful of races before handing you the keys to a Ferrari, glistening in the mediterranean sun.
The Horizon of its name is a huge festival held in the middle of the Franco-Italian countryside, from which the racing events you participate in are operated. A bit like the FIA if it were run by a bunch of ravers. In truth the festival is at odds with the surroundings in which you drive. It’s all lasers, whooping and EDM, dropped jarringly amid rolling hills dotted with vineyards, delicate farm cottages and quaint little market towns with piazzas at the centre.
Apart from your irritating host, Ben, a man who’s about as likeable as a wannabe Top Gear presenter, it’s actually pretty easy to ignore the festival side of things. Turn off the radio (it’s usually better to hear the sound of your engine anyway) and you can almost forget the festival exists. That’s because each tournament takes place away from the site itself, in one of many geographically distinct regions.
New car smell
To get to each one you must embark on a road trip, usually in a new car you’ve just bought specifically for that championship, meaning you get a chance to familiarise yourself with your new marque on the way. Races are either point-to-point sprints or laps of a makeshift street circuit. You’ll find yourself revisiting places over the course of the game but with so many roads to use there’s an almost endless selection of tracks and routes.
While it feels slightly more structured than the original, in geographical terms Forza Horizon 2 is a significantly larger game thanks to the extra opportunities for free roaming. There are fewer barriers restricting you to the roads, so if you can see a field, chances are you can blast right through the middle of it. We even beat an AI opponent in a head-to-head by driving our Mitsubishi 4x4 straight at the finish line, while his significantly faster Porsche stuck to the asphalt.
In fact, off-road events have been completely overhauled. Whereas before they were just regular races on loose surfaces, off-road events are now exactly that. Barrelling through a field of bonnet-high crops at 100mph using the in-car view produces some genuinely heart-stopping moments. What before was one of the weaker parts of Forza Horizon has become one of this game’s most thrilling, only really beaten by the championship finales, which see you racing against an aerobatics team along the French riviera in a Ferrari, or sprinting through the countryside in an old rally car in a race to beat an express train.
It’s all of the extra off-road opportunities that add acres to the world. It’s three times larger than the last game, plus there are over 200 drivable cars on the disc, including everything from Ferrari’s 330 P4 to Local Motors’ open-source Rally Fighter. Each handles differently too, with noticeable differences even between equally powered cars.
That’s another benefit of the game’s more developed off-road side; it gives the gnarlier cars a purpose. Before there was no real reason to have one in your garage, but with the added emphasis on cross-country racing those trucks and American muscle cars that nobody really wants can now find a home barging across the landscape before drifting vaguely left at the barnyard like a turbocharged oil tanker.
Just like any other open-world game the environment is scattered with distractions, challenges and bonuses to encourage exploration. Horizon’s Barn Finds return (and are just as well hidden as before), while new additions include Car Meets (essentially an excuse to sit and rev other people’s motors in a car park – meh) and 30 Bucket List challenges that require you to complete a task in a specific car: a point-to-point through trees in the pitch black behind the wheel of an old Lancia, for example.