Horizon officially expanded.
The E3 demo for Forza Horizon 2, the last time I had hands-on time with the upcoming title, showcased a coastal cliffside race against several Drivatars with one of three high-speed vehicles. But the essence of the sequel—the vast, photorealistic world depicting several bordering regions between France and Italy—was not ready for action at the time. Luckily, Microsoft showed off the latest build of Forza Horizon 2 at a private closed-door event, showcasing the first hour of open-world gameplay.
Though many Forza fans will understandably complain about the game being locked at 30 frames per second, the speeds at which your vehicle of choice will travel across the Mediterranean countryside require much of the world to be drawn and redrawn quickly. Trees, grape vines, and regional homes with tiled roofs and stucco finishes zip past on your high-speed road trips. Thus, the locked framerate is justified, but even so, every car runs, turns, and drifts smoothly to the point that you'll need to focus on the screen to tell the difference.
The progression of Forza Horizon 2 works generally the same as its predecessor, centered around the bombastic Horizon Festival, a carnival replete with cheering audiences and ferris wheels. With your advanced driving skills, you've been invited to the event and challenged to become the festival's champion by winning fifteen individual championships spread throughout the map. Each championship is comprised of three or more racing event types that are situated near each other, and you'll earn ranking points for placing well in the hopes of being atop the leaderboard after completing all of them.
Most of the race types are carried over from the original Forza Horizon, including Showcase where you face off against a squadron of planes, but the main new racing type, Cross-Country, will have you intentionally bobbing and weaving between asphalt and off-road tracks, whether that means dirt roads or literally barreling through fields of wine country. Opting for the BMW Z4 sDrive35is (A753) from among the opening choices, I claimed the championship in short time, paying close to attention to the racing line, braking properly around corners, avoiding oncoming traffic, and rewinding time if absolutely necessary. The difficulty of the competition from the AI Drivatars, based on the performance of other players, depends on the setting you choose, but you'll earn more credits for turning off assists.
Meanwhile you'll receive both experience points and skill points along the way for chaining various maneuvers together, accrued by everything from sideswiping and trading point to e-drifting and clean racing. Skill points can be spent on unlocking perks placed on a 5×5 grid. Starting at the center of the grid, you can eventually reach the most powerful perks hiding in the corners. Leveling up will earn you a wheelspin, a roulette of rewards that gives mostly credits but can land on unlocking free cars as well (it has better odds if you choose the right skill).
You can beeline through all the championships, but you'll miss the majority of the 700 events (yes, that many) available in free roam: going through speed traps, finding new cars at barns, and completing various challenges. The GPS system will let you know where to turn, but it's usually much better to cut straight through the grass. Anyway, completing all of these events will all earn you extra credits which you can use to upgrade your car or pay for a new paint job; I gave my BMW a midnight blue shiny finish that glowed green where the sun struck. I didn't have time to through decals over it, but I will in the proper release even if doing so prevents it from being posted in the storefront.
The addition of tuning is free, though, and you can adjust everything from tire pressure and gearing, to alignment and anti-roll bars. Better yet, several benchmarks are available for comparison: acceleration from 0-60mph and 0-100mph, lateral G's at 60 and 120, and gearing at final and from 1st to 7th. If I had any gripes with the game, it would be that you can't change your avatar much, but that's not a huge deal since you won't see it your avatar much anyhow.
Forza Horizon 2 will release a demo on September 16, 2014 and will release on September 30, 2014 for Xbox One and Xbox 360.