The horizon expands.
Ah, the open road, the wind carving around the body of the car like a slice of time, that tranquil spell between man, machine, and nature speeding past. It seems that for every commercial selling the sheer horsepower of a car powering around a racetrack, there are two more selling the promise of a car effortlessly gliding down curved roads along a coastline. The destination doesn't matter so long as the peace of a casual drive remains undisturbed. With respect to the main Forza Motorsport series, this is what Forza Horizon is all about at its core.
As it is with most open-world racing games, Forza Horizon 2 has numerous working parts that together expand upon the design of its predecessor in virtually every way. While the general objective of becoming the Horizon Festival champion by crossing the finish line first in various tournaments remains the same, this time around you'll abandon the arid plains of Colorado for the breathtaking Mediterranean countryside between Italy and France. And instead of trying to dethrone an obnoxious driver named Darius Flynt, the online Drivatars from Forza Motorsport 5 or actual players in the online world will take his place as the main competition.
Suffice it to say, if you're at all familiar with the original Forza Horizon, this sequel will hardly be a complete one-eighty. Starting off as a virtual nobody with a lower class vehicle, you must prove yourself by winning a set of four circuit races and sprints in championships hosted in various cities, which you'll travel between via road trips. Win enough championships and you're not only unlock the Horizon Festival finale but earn plenty of credits to spend on upgrades at the garage and new liveries in the autoshow.
Complementing this natural progression from the C-class to the S2-class championships is a new tuning system with helpful benchmarks, all of which cement the game's technical brilliance. Getting the best times means following the racing line and braking where necessary, although the ability to drive off-road naturally lends itself to cutting corners. As for peripherals, the Kinect allows for a more personally directed GPS system and I recommend the Mad Catz Pro Wheel if you can afford the hefty pricetag.
While in free roam, you'll meander an open world that is twice as gorgeous and at least twice the size of Forza Horizon's environment, though there are still more than several areas that are out of bounds and blocked off by walls. It's a car lover's paradise where you don't have to pay for gas, where a female tomboy mechanic restores rusted cars you find in barn shacks for free, and a place where there are no cops to give you speeding tickets. The new dynamic weather system, calmly drifting from day to night and sending the occasional shower that make roads slick, is a sight to behold as well.
Along the way, you can zip through speed traps, break XP boards and fast travel boards, find one of the ten barns to unlock special throwback cars, face off against other Drivatars in head-on-head races on the fly, and complete one of thirty bucket-list challenges which serve as the main distraction to the more straightforward championship racing. These range from reaching a top speed with an S-class vehicle, to performing a number of specific racing skills in an allotted time, to navigating a forest at night, which is much harder than it might seem at first.
Meanwhile, you'll receive plenty of minor rewards that will encourage you to play a few more hours than you might intend at first. Every unique car you capture in Photo mode grants extra credits. Every day you log in, you'll receive credits from your Drivatar's activity. Every time you acquire enough experience points to level up (the number of XP you need to do this doesn't change), you'll earn a Horizon spin on a slot machine that will award you either piles of credits or, if you're lucky, a new car. Along the way, you can bank skill points by performing strings of neat tricks like drifts, passes, and near misses together. Filling the skill bar will net you points that can be spent on a 5×5 grid where you can, for example, improve your chances for rarer drops on the Horizon spin or allow you to fast travel wherever you want instead of only Horizon hubs.
However, your experience level has little to do with your actual racing prowess insomuch as the extent that you've played the game. (If you're looking to be the highest level, I've seen players already over Level 200.) Thankfully, if you turn off the assists and earn first place, you'll earn a bonus amount of XP on top of your earnings, which is good for reaching the top of the weekly leaderboards in your chosen car club. Doing so will earn your club faster prestige, get you into higher club tiers for more credits, and ostensibly improve your Drivatar's ability. But having a neat indicator somewhere that would denote a player's ability or having special events for expert races with all of the assists turned off would give the more hardcore Forza crowd some special notice.
One issue with the skill bar is that it rewards players in the middle of the pack since they can draft and pass, while the player at the front has to settle for clean racing bonuses that don't trigger quickly enough to continue a combo. It's an awkward conundrum. If you find the right spot on the map, particularly vineyards enclosed by a fence or oncoming traffic lanes on a highway, you can drift or accumulate near misses and just grind out the maximum number of skill points within a matter of about three hours. And then from that point on, increasing the skill bar has no effect apart from awarding a paltry amount of XP.
The best way to describe Forza Horizon 2's overall tone would be innocuous production value. The undulating scenery and the refined details of the car modeling can't be denied, even despite it understandably running at only 30 fps, but the game just isn't as exhilarating as Burnout Paradise or Need for Speed Rivals or as customizable as Test Drive Unlimited 2. In fact, on that front Forza Horizon 2 is woefully lacking, pinning you with a generic avatar that can't be altered in any way. This may not seem to matter much since the game operates in first-person, but the avatar appears in photo mode and at the end of some races standing next to your car. I suppose the car you drive and how it's designed would represent your in-game identity, but it wouldn't have hurt to have at least preset options to change your avatar's appearance.
By virtue of Drivatar technology, the online integration in Forza Horizon 2 is seamless and deeply embedded. Sure, there will be times when an Drivatar with your best friend's name above it will slam into your car (as you shake your fist and curse his name to the high heavens). But having the world populated by digital clones of other players is a strong reminder that online road trips and online free roams are just a few button presses away.
Online road trips work exactly like normal road trips in solo mode, except that there are team-based versions of the standard races, you can't rewind gameplay for obvious reasons, and you're ranked by how many experience points you accumulate on the four racing events and the road trips between them. Reaching destinations in time, not forcing bumper-car antics too often, and getting first place are important if you wish to top the leaderboard, though clean driving and skill combos also matter in gaining experience points. Online free roam allows for co-op bucket list challenges, entertaining infected and king multiplayer modes, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever you want as if you were in the solo free roam but with a full party of friends.
Forza Horizon 2 may be vanilla when compared to other open-world racers, but if so, it's one of the most well-produced vanillas ever made. While it could be bolstered by having more skill-based challenges and any kind of avatar customization, it impresses with technical brilliance, robust online integration, and graphical splendor. Turn 10 Studios always planned to have the Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon series rotate yearly releases, and with Forza Horizon 2, that high-quality standard can now be upheld with ease.