In Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 2, the name of the game is exploration. Gone are the restrictive circuits and close-knit reflex races of Motosport infamy, replaced by an open world of sprawling fields, gorgeously detailed vineyards, and muddy hills. Horizon 2 invites players to crash through the barriers, both metaphorically and literally, zoom through expansive spreads of land, drift across dusty roads and perform explosive jumps at every opportunity. Realism takes a backseat to fun, and Horizon 2’s reimagining of Southern Europe is a beautiful, immense chunk of world in which to sow your wild racing oats.
Much of Forza’s traditional gameplay has been stripped down, fine-tuned, and dipped in a vat of arcade-magic for good measure. Handling, while impressively tight and reliable, is far gamier than in previous titles. You can slide from road to dirt, cracking fences and trading paint without ever losing control of the wheel, and there’s a stronger emphasis on drifting on and off road. At it’s core, Horizon 2 is all about entertainment, and the open world encourages breaking the mold as often as possible. Performing once penalty-bearing stunts earns you Skill Points rather than a restart screen.
There are two forms of progression in Forza Horizon 2. The traditional and familiar event system, which can now be approached from the world and launched with the press of a button, will earn you credits for car purchasing purposes. The second (and far more interesting) system will earn you various Perks as you slice through the conventions of racing and play the wildcard at every turn. Perks, which can unlock everything from fast travel options to basic driving abilities, are gained by spending those aforementioned Skill points.
Forza Horizon 2, while certainly a racing game with all the trimings, isn’t as constraining at the competition level as you might expect. Challenges pepper the map, and a handful of mini-games, secrets, as well as over 700 events will be available at launch, with around 200 cars to unlock and enjoy. There’s more to do at every corner, and the stunningly detailed environments are more enjoyable to zip through than ever. If you don’t feel like competing you’re free to drive around aimlessly, making fascinating discoveries and gaining Skill Points in the process. Hidden challenges, too, can be found as the map is revved through.
The most impressive feature, though, is also the most unexpected: Horizon 2’s dynamic weather system. While beginning a race with clear skies and sunshine may boost your confidence like a middle-school slow dance, mother nature is quick to trip you into a bowl of punch with a surprise rainstorm and bout of distracting fog. Rainbows, like the clouds shifting and the mist splashing the windshield, can’t be controlled. Once there’s enough moisture in the atmosphere, they’ll appear on their own, and even the devs can’t control the outcome.
It’s not all visual flare, however. Roads will become increasingly difficult to navigate as the tarmac becomes slick with rain, and speeding through turns can result in a heap of scrap metal and some lost progression. When the weather goes sour, the game changes its course from high-speed tailing to quick braking and focused gliding. The realistic physics make sliding around the AI a blast, as they too will become less interested in gaining lead and more invested in surviving the rough.
Multiplayer is, reportedly, another place where Forza Horizon 2 shines. The Drivertars system makes a comeback, with various new features to boot. The world, already chock-full of single player content to conquer, will feature player characters roaming freely, whether on or offline. In turn, you’ll be able to race against real people — and their unique driving habits — at any time, all across the map. Alas, I wasn’t able to sample the features myself, but I was assured that they were an integral cog in the Horizon 2 machine.
With wildly entertaining mechanics, a true-to-gaming open world experience, and a weather system in which every droplet of rain can pull at the very fabric of any given course, Forza Horizon 2 is the racing game to beat all racing games. It’s big, it’s sexy, it’s lengthy in both single player and muliplayer content, and it’s as pretty as a vehicular prom date. But most importantly, it’s fun. Lots, and lots of fun. Forza Horizon 2 will be available September 30 on both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, the latter of which boasts 30 fps and 1080p.