'Forza Horizon 2' review - turning the corner?

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Last year, as Microsoft launched its shiny new Xbox One, one of its most exciting launch titles was the next-gen version of the extremely popular “Forza” racing series.

Yet “Forza Motorsport 5,” despite having excellent driving mechanics and superb graphics, fell flat due to a weak marketing campaign and a seemingly endless reliance on grind in order to get through the game, seemingly motivated by the introduction of the dreaded paid “microtransactions.”

“Forza Horizon 2” (Microsoft Studios) is the latest in the series, following on from 2012’s "Forza Horizon" -- a spinoff franchise that, instead of the traditional track mode, uses an open-world environment as its model.

This time set in Italy and France, the game takes place in the fictional “Horizon Festival” -- a hip racing tournament taking place across roads all over Europe.

It’s a bit forced and unrealistic (as if cops would be fine with an unashamedly open festival racing supercars through cozy French villages) but the premise is little more than an excuse to get you zooming through the Italian countryside in your Lamborghini with the wind through your hair and the radio pumping.

Let’s be clear, “Forza Horizon 2” is trendy -- very trendy. From the moment you step into the game, you are hit with modern techno beats, and cool young racers guiding you around the world of Horizon. Occasionally it verges on obnoxious, especially the self-sure British guy who acts as your main tour guide, but on the whole it gives the game a light-hearted character that differs from the main franchise.

Yet “Horizon 2” doesn’t mess around with story too much -- you have racing to do. With over 200 cars and over 700 different events, there is a lot of racing to be done.

Like "Forza 5," "Horizon 2" is visually stunning. It isn’t just the quality of the graphics, though -- the environments are genuinely beautiful. From the quiet Italian vineyards to the bustling Horizon hubs, packed with fireworks and hot air balloons, "Forza Horizon 2" is a pleasure to look at and just begs to be explored.

And explore you can. In fact, races encourage it. Not only are there the enormous road trips, where you and a bunch of other cars (either computer controlled or online multiplayer) trek across Europe to get to the next set of races by whichever route you deem best, but the actual races themselves often allow you to take short cuts, cutting through forests or back alleys to get the edge on your foes. It’s not one for purists, but it adds a chaotic edge to what has sometimes been a sanitized franchise.

Also unlikely to please the purists, but possibly delight everyone else, is the introduction of Skill Points. Similar to the “Kudos” points of the Project Gotham franchise, Skill Points are awarded for style. Drift your corners and you’ll get some points, combine it with a near miss or a perfect line of racing and the points will start to rack up. This translates into experience points or ‘perks.’

Adding to this are the “bucket list” challenges -- fun tasks that range from a flat out sprint to pulling stunts in a golf course. Additionally, the game has a few curveballs, such as an early race where you race fighter jets to the finish line. It adds up to a game that sets out to have fun, and succeeds.

Additionally, the multiplayer is worth noting as a key feature. The AI "Drivatars" are back, meaning that the computer-controlled cars are shaped by the driving characteristics of other players. This adds personality to the other cars and means opponents don’t stick to the racing line, but act irrationally, mirroring the driving of real people.

The combination of in-and-out multiplayer and Drivatars, who you can challenge to a one-on-one race as you drive past them, all contributes to the vibe of a living-breathing world. Even if you stick to single player, you will see evidence of other players zooming around, and will frequently be invited to join for quick hassle-free tournaments.

The only downside to all this is that “Forza Horizon 2” often feels a little chaotic. I found it hard to keep tabs on where I was, and keep track of the tournaments that I had participated in. Overall, I felt the need for some more structure to proceedings. A greater feeling of progression to the game may have helped players attain a better sense of completion.

Moving away from its ultra-realistic roots once again, “Forza Horizon 2” is nothing short of a triumph. “Horizon 2” offers a gorgeous, free-roaming fun-fest with a huge world packed with things to do, complete with silky driving mechanics and a wide-ranging soundtrack.

Although gamers who like their racing straight-up may be put off by the glitz and the gimmicks, it’d be wise not to dismiss “Forza Horizon 2” out of hand -- it is easily one of the best racing games in recent years.


Forza Horizon 2 is available now for Xbox One. 

RRP -- $59.99