Every so often, a game comes along that you imagine that you’ll be reminiscing about as a ninety-year-old while sipping a cup of weak tea in an old people’s home with your friends. Of course, the games of your youth will come up first. The arcade game that you beat with a single credit when you were on holiday with your parents. That Christmas day when you unwrapped a shiny new SNES and played Super Mario World or Sonic the Hedgehog until the small hours, only taking a break when it was turkey time. But after those formative experiences, the games that you bought later on with your own hard-earned money will come to the fore. Your Red Dead Redemptions and Final Fantasy VIIs. Your Super Mario Galaxys and any Zelda title you can think of. Those cheeky smaller-name games you think nobody else will remember but that you loved – ZombiU, Valiant Hearts, Child of Light, Catherine, Vanquish, or maybe D4.
One that will be a contender to make the list for a lot of people, is Forza Horizon 2.
It isn’t all smooth sailing straight to your heart, though. When judging your enjoyment of the new world that Playground Games has created, you’ll find that the curve starts out low and slowly creeps up. Indeed, after the introductory movie plays out and you’ve driven to the Horizon Festival that the game revolves around, you’re taken on a stutter-step tour of the game’s features. Every menu option you choose, every corner you turn, and every selection you make, results in your controls being locked while the game throws an unskippable audio description at you. It becomes infuriating very quickly and what’s worse is that most of the descriptions are entirely unneeded. If you select the “Tuning” menu, you don’t need someone rambling on about how this is the tuning menu and it’s where you come to tune your cars, then piping up again when you select a sub-menu. The game seems to drip-feed you content over far too long a time and is reluctant to let go of your hand, when all is told. For example, your main menu contains a “Club” option which allows you to join an online car club, for example, but it doesn’t unlock until you’ve played for a good couple of hours. In fact, you – somewhat nonsensically - can’t really play online at all until you’ve unlocked the ability to do so by playing through a bunch of single player championships.
By the time you’ve unlocked all of those features though, you’ll be hooked. Sure, there’s the annoyance of the forced stoppages which do crop up from time to time further on as well, but that’s small price to pay for the sheer amount of high-quality gameplay that’s on offer in Forza Horizon 2. Set around six connected areas in Southern Europe, the game is an open world that allows you to select a car of your choice from a large range of real-world vehicles, and head out on an adventure. Even though you can get from one side of the explorable world in a Ferrari F50 in six or seven minutes, you’ll lose hours just roaming about the countryside, looking for points of interest in what is a deceptively huge gameplay area. A quick drive down to the next championship at Nice Massena will see you stopping to hunt for smashable boards that boost your XP score or give you a discount on your fast travel costs, or you'll try to find a hidden classic car in a barn, try to top a speed trap leaderboard, take on a “Bucket List” event, or challenge a friend or clubmate who’s Drivatar has just happened to come into view. If that’s not enough, at times you’ll simply find yourself noticing a strange bit of scenery that might be interesting to check out, or you’ll see a super-long straight road that would be perfect if you wanted to rack up a nice skill chain.
Speaking of skill chains, Playground has done a really nice job of balancing the system. We’ve seen similar features in other racing games of course, where you’re rewarded for driving with style, but Forza Horizon 2 never ends a chain unfairly or prematurely, and you’re generally rewarded for the things that you should be rewarded for. A massive drift around a corner will get you some points, and destroying some scenery or knocking over some trashcans on your corner exit will earn you more still but if clean racing is your thing, you’ll be rewarded for that too, with drafting, speed, and sticking to the racing line all netting you points. At all times, you know that a big combo can be lost if you crash, but you can feel safe in the knowledge that you won’t be punished for a minor scrape of a wall or a slight bump into an opponent, which is refreshing. You can even switch up your style mid-chain, driving cleanly and grabbing the points for that, then getting a little bit more aggressive and forcing your way through a pack of opponents whilst grabbing the points for that, if that’s what you wish to do. Racking up points earns you tokens which you can trade in for gameplay perks which do things such as boost the amount of credits you earn from rival races, increase the length of time before a chain is banked, and provide all manner of other benefits.
Aside from earning perks, winning events (and smashing XP boards that you find) earns you XP, which increases your driver level. You’ll level up relatively quickly, as there's no noticable increase in the amount of XP required to beat each level. You’ll reach level two within two – or even one – race, and then you’ll still be able to get to level 32 from 31 within a brace of races later on. Each time you level up, you get to spin a wheel that awards credits or cars – very handy when you’re saving up for that monster with the large price tag. The amount of XP you earn is also relevant to the online car clubs feature, as you’ll be ranked within your club based on how much XP you’ve earnt in the previous week. But while XP is important, it is far from the only number to watch in a game that is absolutely full of them. From the time you first get into a car to the time you switch the console off, you’re racking up stats. Every road you drive down is recorded, with an achievement awarded if you find all 315 of them. Every breath you take, every move you make, the game is watching you…and drip-feeding in little pop-ups to keep you playing. “I’m only two bonus boards away from beating my friend! I’ll just get those and then I’ll stop for the night” at 10pm on a cold and rainy Sunday soon becomes a quest to top a speed leaderboard, followed by a challenge to get to the next XP level and then an attempt at clearing a Bucket List. Then there’s a championship you could quickly take on and – oh look, you’re racing a plane! – then, hang on…your friend has picked up two more bonus boards so you'd better beat them again....and so it goes until it’s 4am and you’re trying to convince yourself that you’ve still got another hour of playing time left and that you can survive the next day on only three hours of sleep.
With all this in mind, we’ve barely touched on the actual racing. Here are more numbers. Across 168 championships, there are 700 single-player races to take on. You won’t have to complete them all to reach the “Horizon Finale” event – you only need to beat 15 championships for that – but you’ll probably want to best them all. Each location has a championship on offer for each car class and sub-class, and that’s before you consider the wealth of online “Road Trip” events that are available, so it is very, very unlikely that you’ll run out of things to do should the game hook you. Fortunately, while taking on this number of challenges could be considered to be a bit of a grind, the sheer excitement that the game’s offline racing provides is enough to relegate that thought to the back of your mind. Whether you’re cruising down sun-kissed Italian streets or tearing up a farmer’s field as you make your own way across the French countryside in a downpour, the action is absolutely non-stop. Some will feel that the default handling settings are somewhat “arcadey” (which suits us fine) but the standard menu of Forza tweaks comes into play to appease those players. You can change things up so your car takes actual damage as opposed to cosmetic damage – which we wouldn’t recommend if you’re playing online – turn up the skill of opposing Drivatars, disable ABS and traction control, change the handling model, and generally set things out how you would like them. The freedom that this provides means that Forza Horizon 2 is a game that spans the sub-genres, somewhat. It’s never a full-on simulation even if you change the settings to make it so, but it can come pretty close for a game that sets its stall out on the fun side of the street from the off.
One thing that will hopefully please all gamers, be they fans of arcade racers or fans of simulations, is the AI. The Drivatar system showed promise in Forza Motorsport 5 and with Drivatars carried over from that game to Forza Horizon 2, they reach their peak. You won’t ever see a procession of cars all sticking to a racing line here, or all braking early to make a corner, oh no. You’ll see cars all trying to cut a line around the track in varying ways and in off-road races it can make for some fun adventure racing – especially when you decide to follow a Drivatar who ends up taking the scenic route around things. It also means that no two AI cars are identical. If you take on a "pro" Drivatar in a head-to-head race, you'll often find that they don't stick to the road as they attempt to reach the finish line by any means possible. Sometimes this means they'll trounce you soundly but at other times, you'll be able to get the jump on them as they make a mistake. Indeed, your 1940s classic will sometimes outpace a Lamborghini Veneno on occassions where the opposing Drivatar gambles on finding their own route and miscaclulates things. In other games, you can overtake entire packs of cars using much the same tactics for each one. Here, you need to think about what’s going to happen a little. Is the opposing driver going to swing wide or brake late? Are they liable to use the wall to help them around? If you position your vehicle too aggressively, you can pay for it seriously. Of course, you can always use the “rewind” function to try again, but nobody wants to admit to doing that…
In terms of visuals, Horizon 2’s looks match up to the gameplay, and then some. In the wet, the water pools on the track convincingly and beads up on the bodywork beautifully. When the sun comes out, there’s a genuine and appreciable difference in the atmosphere of the game between driving out in the early hours and tearing up the track in the mid-afternoon. You can park up and watch as the world changes around you with the changing weather conditions and if you're in the right spot, it truly is breathtaking. While the decision to lock the game at 30 frames per second has been controversial in some camps, we’re happy with how things pan out. After absolutely hours of gameplay, we’ve noticed only two or three instances of very minor drops in the framerate, and we’re convinced that they were associated with joining online games. No, you can scrape that controversy away, as Forza Horizon 2 is an absolute stunner. You can lose track of time finding picturesque spots from which to take snapshots and share them with your friends via the game’s Photo Mode, or tweaking your paint job and decals so they're just right, since you kow they'll look great in-game. We know that we’ve spent far longer than we’d imagine doing both of these things.
If we were to look for minor nits to pick, we’d find that the game’s achievements aren’t particularly well thought out in places. Asking people to rack up a million credits in rival races, when the most we’ve seen such an event pay is just 10,000 credits is a bit beyond the pale and feels grindy. Also, at times, the in-game GPS has issues – generally if you’re driving down a highway with three lanes or more. But, there will be some that will relish it as a fresh challenge and another reason to explore Horizon’s roads. It would be hard to criticise those people, given the tremendously high quality of the gameplay on offer. In fact, it's a testament to the quality of the game that you can find and unlock "fast travel" spots that allow you to quickly jump from location to location, but you'll rarely use them. Even when the next event is on the other side of the map, you'll be happy to fire up the engine and drive to it, simply because you might find something cool along your travels.
From the first time you feel that you’ve been let loose in the world, to the time you take part in an absolutely exhilarating race against a steam train, to the time you’re careening through fields of corn that are taller than your Ariel Atom, to the time you switch the game off for the last time what realistically could be hundreds of hours later, Forza Horizon 2 delivers, and delivers in style.
Was it not for what feels like an overly-long period of hand-holding when you first start out and some other noted minor issues, a perfect ten would have been on the cards here. Forza Horizon 2 is easily the Xbox One’s best driving game and also easily one of the finest, expansive, and most enjoyable racing games of all time. Before writing that sentence, we did indeed consider all of the great games that fall into the category. Whether your favourite is Stunt Car Racer, Out Run, Ridge Racer, Burnout, Project Gotham Racing, Blur, any Need for Speed game, Gran Turismo, or good old Metropolis Street Racer, there’s something for you here. In terms of excitement, fun, style, and a sheer wealth of things to do, Forza Horizon 2 can stand proudly up against any of the games in that list, despite the trifling imperfections that we’ve noted.