Preview: Forza Horizon 2

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Upstairs and behind-the-scenes in Microsoft’s booth at E3, Playground Games’ Creative Director Ralph Fulton said that Forza Horizon 2 has four core tenets: next-gen beauty, action packed fun, freedom and an online vision. These four elements are the tent poles that hold FH2 up and attempt to separate it from the likes of Need For Speed and The Crew.

It’s a slightly different beast from Forza 5, but it shares its DNA making it a logical extension of the Xbox One launch title. But what about the four ideas driving FH2? How did Playground Games go about showing us how each of them has actually shaped this racer? When it comes to next (current) gen beauty, FH2 really does have it going on. It’s a sight to behold. Colourful, bright, uplifting and happy were words Fulton used to describe the southern European setting and he couldn’t be more accurate. Exploring areas of France and Italy, players will drive through gorgeous coastal regions, villages, winding roads and of course immaculate vehicle models.

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Fulton claims that with the power of current-gen, developers are beginning to realise that rather than textures, poly counts or the number of pixels a game sports, it’s lighting that’s the key to eye-popping graphics. In the real world, light moves and bounces between and off objects, affecting the way our eyes perceive colour, texture and detail. It creates reflections and, in turn, warps and skews them based on the surface they’re projected onto. In FH2, Playground has gone so far to accurately simulate the earth’s atmosphere in order to accurately simulate light. Paired with an active and dynamic weather system for the first time in a Forza game, the game world, objects within it and most importantly its vehicles look truly incredible. FH2 is easily the most photo-realistic game I’ve laid eyes on and since there aren’t any human faces staring back at you, that pesky uncanny valley is nowhere to be seen.

FH2 is based on the same technology that Turn 10 used when building Forza 5 which means that FH2 features the much touted Driveatar feature. While in my time with Forza 5 I never really found Driveatar to be all that effective (let’s face it, it turned every race into a smash-up derby), in an open world it has to potential to be truly game changing. Fulton revealed that Playground had to work incredibly hard to make Driveatar work in the open world as it’s infinitely more complex than the confines of a single track. Upon cracking the formula for Driveatar in the open world, it’s clear that it will be what separates FH2 from any other current-gen driving game. In Forza 5, Driveatar learns how a player drives. In FH2, Driveatar learns how, but more importantly, ‘where’ a player drives. Driveatar will learn where and when you take shortcuts, how you get from point A to point B, which secret areas you discover or frequent alongside your favourite locations on the map.

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While playing FH2, players’ friend’s Driveatars will populate the game world and will be available to challenge to races, cruise around the map with and may even lead to secret locations. Like with Forza 5, Driveatar will continue to earn cash and other rewards while players are offline and in fact Fulton revealed that Forza 5 Drivatars are currently racing around FH2‘s map and servers in preparation of the game’s release.

On the gameplay side of things FH2 is set to follow on from its predecessor. Players will earn skill points by driving stylishly which can in turn be used to purchase perks. Likewise, players can unlock fast travel, paint jobs and tune-ups by spending skill points. The currency in FH2 is generated entirely by driving well and driving with style. The more you play, the better you become and the easier it will be to unlock additional content. Fulton said that FH2 is three times larger than Horizon and features 200 cars, 700 events and around 100 hours of gameplay at the least. He added that the only physical barriers in the game are those that exist in the real world, so players will be able to drive in any direction they like… provided there isn’t a road block or wall.

In my hands-on time with the game, I found Horizon 2 to be a Forza where you really don’t care how well you do — you can just put your foot down and have fun, not worrying so much about technical driving. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Forza 5.

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Interestingly, Fulton never mentioned the Xbox 360 version of the game other than to say it was being developed by a separate developer. He did mention that everything in FH2 was only possible through the power of Xbox One, which raises an interesting question: if FH2 is only possible on Xbox One, how is it on Xbox 360 and exactly what differences will there be? No footage from the Xbox 360 version was shown and it seems like it will be quietly released alongside the Xbox One version for those without the current-gen console. Cross-gen games may be a scourge at the moment, but as new games become more and more reliant on current-gen power and technology, the last-gen versions will become increasingly terrible.

Forza Horizon 2 is shaping up to be an incredible racing experience, but only on Xbox One. From the way it’s being ignored, pushed out of the spotlight and marginalised I’d be willing to bet that the Xbox 360 version will be far inferior. Do yourself a favour race fans: get the Xbox One version and see just what Microsoft’s current-gen console is capable of.