Forza Horizon 2 review: road not taken

Forza Horizon 2's foundation is stronger than the underwhelming tracks built on top of it

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Playground Games
Release Date Sep 30, 2014

If the main Forza Motorsport games have become a church over time, a place to worship at the altar of cars and the culture around them, Forza Horizon 2 is the church group's field trip.

It's developer Playground Games' (on the Xbox One version) second shot at making a big, social racing game out of the laser focus of the main series. There are no licensed tracks, no real-world altars to racing, no shrines to storied brands. Instead, there are speed traps, and hidden barns, and billboards to smash. Forza Horizon 2 is about the journey, not the destinations — like any good open-world game should be.

But, like Forza Horizon, Forza Horizon 2 finds mixed success in that regard. Horizon 2 has all the basics down, borrowing from almost a decade of Turn 10's racing fundamentals. But when it comes to building places to use all that hardware, the game comes up a little short.

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Forza Horizon 2's story, such as it is, provides an excellent setup for the fictionalized southern European setting and the concept of the Horizon festival. I rarely asked why I was going on road trips or doing point-to-point races because the game contextualizes it so well. Just don't expect much more than that.

It helps that driving in Forza Horizon 2 is so enjoyable. The mechanical fundamentals of the Forza series are in place, though the move from 60 frames per second to 30 has made the car controls just a bit less responsive than they were in Forza Motorsport 5. Otherwise, Forza Horizon 2's car physics and handling are impeccable — each car feels unique, particular, like something to get to know. It's easy to develop favorites, and then, when prompted by a new championship class, to find a new favorite.

That shift from 60 frames per second to 30 is prompted by the broader scope of Horizon 2 in comparison to last year's Forza Motorsport 5. Horizon 2's world is big, significantly bigger than the last Horizon game, and for the first time in a Forza game, weather has been added to the mix to join the dynamic time of day — it makes for some spectacular sunsets and stormy racing.

In open-world fashion, there are collectibles. For example, there are more than a hundred billboards around the world to smash for bonuses. There are plenty of championships to enter, plenty of cars to buy, hundreds of roads to find and special cars inside hidden barns. All the pieces seem to be present to make for a consistently engaging hybrid of open-world systems and a deep racing game.

Horizon 2's structure undercuts any meaningful sense of progression

But after I raced for about four hours, a sense of sameness had settled on top of the game. The way everything is structured undercuts any sense of real progression I was looking for. Sure, there's an experience system — two, in fact. There's a basic leveling system, with points awarded after each race and for other small activities around the game world, and each new level rewards you with ... a prize wheel spin, and that's about it. Performing "tricks" also fills a wheel over time which in turn rewards you with perk points once the meter is full. But these perks have little effect on the game. In fact, Forza Horizon 2's various means of "progression" rarely give any actual sense of progress.

I've played a lot of Forza games in the last nine years; I was almost instantly comfortable falling into the seat of Forza Horizon 2. But it also revealed that the other drivers you race against start at one nominal difficulty level that never really changes as the game goes on. I never found a shift in the challenge presented by my opponents.

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Much like Forza Motorsport 5, Forza Horizon 2 leans heavily on the Drivatar system that takes profiles of your friends racing habits, throwing them into your game world as opponents to overcome. In fact, Horizon 2 is already using Drivatar data from Forza 5, providing an established crop of challenges to face.

Much like elsewhere in Horizon 2, however, the Drivatar systems potential is undermined by poor structure. After races you're presented with a rival to race against whose time is better than the one you posted, but the rewards for doing so are paltry compared to moving on to the next event. You can also challenge other drivers on the open road to race, with the same issues.

Actual competitive multiplayer suffers from the same track design problems that plague the main game, but there is a bright spot in the ability to do open world driving sessions with friends. You can explore, find roads, and generally fool around and do as you please, which is almost enough to look past the mess organized races become.

Yes, Forza Horizon 2 uses the same artificial intelligence system as last year's Forza Motorsport 5. The awkwardly named Drivatar system is constantly analyzing you and everyone else playing Forza Horizon 2 for your driving behavior, and putting a virtual approximation of those driver profiles into everyone's races. This system results in drivers that react much like you'd expect people to — they're often reckless and aggressive in a turn, causing spinouts and wrecks on a regular basis.

But they never got any better in my time with the game, a problem Drivatars also suffered in Forza Motorsport 5. Races later in the game weren't much more challenging than when I started, shy of some very poorly explained staged events.

Other racing games struggle with interesting AI, battling against this idea of sameness. But games like Forza Motorsport 5 and Gran Turismo 6 present a more compelling challenge than other cars — they license the most famous, infamous and storied racing venues on earth, each themselves an example of meticulous, well-tested design. They focus their time on fantastically refined mechanics and systems, and lean on decades of real-world track design from the real world. Racing games are as much about beating the track as the other people on it.

Racing games are as much about beating the track as the other people on it

Forza Horizon 2 instead relies on courses built on top of its open world, and they can't compete. There's no equivalent to, say, Laguna Seca, a punishing, rewarding, fickle track that demands so much and provides such a deep sense of satisfaction for mastering its intricacies. Instead, there are two kinds of races, and two kinds of tracks — circuits, which are lapped races, and point-to-point sprints, which in turn are on streets, off-road, or a combination of both.

These start out fun, because winning against the forces of chaos feels like, well, triumph. Against evil, even. But after the 15th race, that chaos doesn't seem so chaotic. There's not much nuance to Horizon 2's track design. Circuit and point-to-point races on asphalt begin as melees at the first few turns before winnowing out. Any early leads you secure are unlikely to be challenged barring a catastrophe you can rewind and fix anyway. Offroad races are brawls from start to finish without any particular instruction or direction, other than to hit checkpoints.

This last part would be a redeeming feature, actually, save that there's little proper direction in offroad races. There are checkpoints that construct some kind of route, and the rest is up to God. God in this scenario is fickle. Strategies that seem expedient can be sabotaged by terrain that slows you down inadvertently or sends you flying, and the only way to figure it out is to fail — though at least it's a temporary failure with Forza's rewind feature, activated with a press of the Y button. Still, it feels like surviving, not succeeding.

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The exception here are the bucket list challenges scattered around Forza Horizon 2. These are car specific activities with a pretty decent variety of stuff to do. There's some obligatory "get to this point within this time limit" races, but there are plenty of exercises straight out of a show like Top Gear, designed around some idiosyncratic property of each car. That "track toy" concept car with the insane handling? Use it to navigate against traffic to score 20 "near-misses" within two minutes. An older collectors item is a tool to get air repeatedly at a pier full of shipping containers; a practically ancient hatchback is your ride in a rally course downhill through a forest at night.

Bucket list challenges tease at the kind of creativity that makes difficulty a prompt for experimentation and pushing the limits of player skill. They're the most fun part of the game, well after winning the first (or second ... or third) Horizon championship has lost all sense of perspective or appeal.

Wrap Up:

Forza Horizon 2's foundation is stronger than the underwhelming tracks built on top of it

The excellent foundation below Forza Horizon 2's open world and the experimentation that it occasionally encourages at least provide a reason to race there. But that same open world serves as a less well-executed space to race and drive than the tracks that have defined previous games, and the open-world activities can't quite make up the difference.

Forza Horizon 2 was reviewed using a retail download code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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