How Forza Horizon 2 hopes to break free of the next-gen rat race

By Brenna Hillier, Thursday, 2 October 2014 14:59 GMT

Forza Horizon 2 faces some stiff competition in the racing genre. But it’s already laid a very solid foundation to build on, says Brenna.

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“How do you move on and differentiate your game when its initial selling points have been embraced all over the industry?”

Forza Horizon was a radical departure for the franchise, but just two years on the genre has already changed so much that its many innovations have already lost their shine in a morass of competitors. How do you move on and differentiate your game when its initial selling points have been embraced all over the industry?

Well, according to Chris Bishop of Microsoft Game Studios, “beauty” is the first for Forza Horizon 2’s four core design pillars.

Like Forza 5, Horizon 2 runs at 60 FPS in 1080p, but unlike Forza 5, it’s set exclusively in a fictionalised vision of southern Europe – think the gorgeous coasts of France, Italy, Greece, Spain. The terrain varies from swooping highways to narrow city streets to broad avenues to off-road – you can just take off across the fields if you like, and with three times the area of the first Horizon game, there’s plenty of room to explore.

With the day and night cycle and weather system bringing drama to the terrain, it’s genuinely charming. There are no skyboxes; the atmosphere is entirely simulated. The lighting is an all-new system called Forward Plus which Microsoft believes has never been used in a console game before. It allows Playground to put more kinds of light on screen at once – different types of headlights, streetlights, signs, traffic lights, windows. They’re all there, and all different.

One of the problems with open world games is how unreal and empty they feel, but Horizon 2 has a built-in solution thanks to Drivatars, a bit of tech imported wholesale from Forza 5. If you didn’t play Forza 5 you might have missed out on this bit of wizardry; basically, every time you play it Forza 5 records data about how you drive, and when your friends connect to the servers, it adds a sort of smart ghost data to their game world.

I played a little bit of Forza 5, and the Drivatars, despite their ridiculous name, seemed super cool to me. I liked seeing my Xbox Live pals careering around with me even when they weren’t online, and I liked hearing back, for weeks afterwards, that I’d knocked them off-road in my quest for the chequered flag.

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“Turn 10 harvested over 2.5 million Drivatars from Forza 5 players, and they’re all going into Horizon 2.”

Turns out my amazing, aggressive Drivatar lives on. Turn 10 harvested over 2.5 million Drivatars from Forza 5 players, and they’re all going into Horizon 2 to supplement the on-disc ghosts. As soon as you take the game online for the first time, you’ll be assigned a random selection of these AI opponents, probably heavily weighted with names from your friends list, to fill up the roads around you. So there’s always someone to play with and against, even if you choose not to let any real people into your game, and thanks to the myriad points of info tracked by the Drivatar system, they display much more personality than generic racing game AI, which tends to fall into either the “mental” or “mentally perfect” camps.

Of course, Drivatars turn up in their vehicle of choice, and it’s kind of funny watching SUVs and Volkswagen Beetles pop up in amongst all the street racer favourites. Horizon 2 has over 200 vehicles, all with working headlights, windscreen wipers and internal gauges, and Microsoft cautiously guesses it has “one of the largest” catalogues of any racing game in 2014. This diversity is put to work; because of the variety of events beyond the standard street racing fare, there are genuine reasons to choose an unusual vehicle and learning to tune it properly. There are over 700 events, and only about half of them are the kind of racing you’d expect. To master the entire Bucket List, you’ll need to let go of your Ferrari obsession.

If you’re not a completionist, though, there’s no reason to do anything you’re not interested in. Like the first Forza Horizon, if you’d prefer to just roam the world with your mates, picking and choosing as you fancy, that option is always open to you – and there are twice as many tracks on the radio to keep you company as you do so. Everything you choose to do awards you with Kudos, which you probably remember from Project Gotham Racing; it’s worth remembering that many of that game’s developers found a new home at Playground Games. Kudos unlocks skill points which can then be spent on perks.

The future of the racing genre is pretty clear by now: if you don’t have an open world, persistent online profiles, and massive integrated multiplayer, you’re not competing. The first Horizon stood shoulder to shoulder with competitors like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but it was a freshman game, with straw in its hair. Horizon 2 is the fruit of the first game’s success; the formula works, Microsoft has realised, so let’s throw some resources at it. Horizon 2 is the Forza franchise’s bid to conquer the brave new next-gen world.

Forza Horizon 2 is out now on Xbox One in North America, and hits Europe on October 3.

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