Hi, I'm an autojournalist. Car companies fly me and my colleagues around the world to drive their fancy new cars. Sometimes on tracks but usually just on amazing b-roads in Spain or Italy or whatever. Forza Horizon 2 is about as close as you'll get to living our dream life, just without the deadlines, consequences, or cholesterol from all the free steak.
(Full Disclosure: We've done car packs with Forza in the past and I hope we'll do one for this game but I don't know if we will or not. These are editorial deals and money does not change hands. Because we're the biggest enthusiast car website in the world they also sometimes advertise here, but so does their competition. They gave me a free copy of the game to download and play, which I've done.)
The developers have stretched the capabilities of the Xbox One to build a massive world that's almost better than reality in how it looks and feels and reacts to your every action. It's as every bit as impressively detailed and hyperreal as Forza 5, like you've been wearing polarized sunglasses this whole time and have just removed them to see how green that green grass actually is. Or, in this case, how blue the blue of a vintage Alpine actually is or how pink the pink marble of a building in Nice is.
As the game opens you find yourself behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Huracan as a disembodied British voice tells you that you're one of the first to be driving this car, although he warns you that you shouldn't be too hard on the car as the fans will want to see it all cleaned up.
Then, suddenly, you're in the Italian Riviera and there's a McLaren P1 on your right and a LaFerrari ahead of you. As you twist down the two-lane highway there are fireworks in the distance. You're at the Horizon Festival. And then it dawns on you that you're not an autojournalist, you're something far worse. You're a Gumballer.
If you aren't aware, there are (generally) very wealthy people who buy expensive cars and drive across continents trying to impress upon everyone else how awesome they are and, if Forza Horizon 2 hits one perfect note of accuracy, it's in making it clear that some exotic car owners are relentless tools. The kind of people who could kill someone in their exotic car and run away.
Your "guide" through this entire affair is the insufferably douchey Brit from earlier and he fills every cut scene with the air of someone who was kicked out of multiple boarding schools for setting younger, more vulnerable children on fire.
Try to block him out and try to ignore the almost nonexistent plot (you're a white guy who likes cars!) and you can hope to approach what makes this game so enjoyable. If you focus hard on not focusing on any of that, you're just a human being in one of civilization's most scenic corners, driving the shit out of some cars.
Then it's not autojournalism or Gumball. It's C'était un Rendezvous, which is all any of us really want to experience.
I like driving on the track and look forward to the opportunity when it presents itself, but it's always a bit of a bummer that the best driving games only put the best cars on racetracks. I want to drive a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II and I want to drive it along the coast of the Mediterranean or up a mountain pass or through a vineyard, dammit!
If this game's developers learned anything from the previous game it's that, like Roy Rogers, we don't like being fenced in. The original Horizon takes place at a festival in Colorado and, despite the many miles of road, there were fences everywhere to keep you penned in and near the roads. No more. Not only can you cut across most of the map, it actively encourages you with a new type of race that sends you across fields, around abandoned churches, and into drainage ditches. Oh, and the golf course is back and even bigger!
Just with that they've built a game worth owning. As much fun as I had playing GTA V no one would say the driving dynamics are particularly great. Serviceable, maybe. While Horizon 2 doesn't play like iRacing it's much closer to a sim experience than a pure arcade one, even if the moment-to-moment racing is more like Crazy Taxi. Also, Crazy Taxi was awesome.
The game also distributes credits and free cars like RAs pass out Chinese-made prophylactics at a co-ed dorm, giving you every opportunity to win cash for doing basically nothing. It's not set up to have you fail. If you want a nice car you'll have one soon enough. And since leveling has less of an impact on what you do in the game, you can have a nice car and race in great events quickly.
With more than 700 challenges grouped around different car types, you can, for instance, spend an entire afternoon racing every major generation of rally car — even if you don't have quite every car type in every group yet. The first hour of play is slightly on rails as they want to make sure your "get" the game before letting you advance too far, but eventually they back off.
Another point in Horizon 2's favor is that you're not racing against computer generated AI but "Drivatars" generated by the profiles of real gamers (mostly made up of your friends). This makes it all the more fun, even if, or maybe because, the Drivatar behaviors are sometimes strange. More than once I saw the Drivatar of someone I know (on the Internet or IRL) randomly crash into another person while free-roaming around the world. This randomness is more entertaining than everyone staying in their lane, as is forcing Ray Wert (clever gamertag, bro!) into the wall, repeatedly, in a race or just on the street.
But who wants to play Drivatars when you can play real people? The reason why you'll buy the game is that all your friends will give in and get it, and then you'll be the only one not racing online through a dock suspiciously full of ramps trying to avoid the "infected" player in a giant game of car tag with $1.3 million cars.
I spent a decent amount of time with multiplayer and it was the best experience i had, even if the points system tends to reward "clean driving" and getting along over finishing first. That's worth dealing with since you now have the opportunities to race multiplayer with traffic – something noticeably absent in the first game – either in a road trip session that makes most of the plans for you or in an online free roam where a group "leader" picks what you do.
There's nothing quite so rewarding as chasing a heavily modded Civic in a kitted out Rally Fighter through an abandoned warehouse.
I haven't finished the game yet but I assume I will, so here are some quick notes if you don't like reading or whatever:
- Why do you only get to play as a white dude? I can paint Janet Reno on a super lowered Ford Raptor but I can't make my avatar look like Janet Reno? (Which, how awesome would it be to get your ass kicked by Janet Reno?)
- The online mode scores you based on XP you earn, not just the place you finish in, so you can beat other people by getting to races first and driving cleaner than your opponents. I don't know if I like that.
- You get extra points for taking pictures of cars. This seems sort of unnecessary, but whatever.
- There are clubs you can join and Jalopnik is JALP and we'll maybe find a way to give out something to people who do well, or something, maybe, in the future. Join Jalopnik!
- Trucks. There are way more trucks in this game than in the past. I love this. More trucks! Weirdly, no European-style trucks. Maybe we can fix this.
- Man it's pretty. Just, it's gorgeous. If there's a better looking console racing game, I haven't played it.
Ultimately, you're going to give in and buy the game if you have an Xbox One and anyone you know buys a copy. Like the minigame of "infected" itself, getting to close to someone playing the game turns you into one of them.