I finally finished… Forza Horizon 2

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I bought Forza Horizon 2 sometime in 2018, when its upcoming delisting from the MS store was announced. However, it then fell deep into the backlog. After playing Forza Horizon 4 and finding that I preferred the original Forza Horizon‘s smaller scope and slightly more grounded nature, I returned to FH2 in the hope that it would be closer to its predecessor than its sequels.

Where it counts – the driving and racing experience – FH2 makes an excellent first impression. Its six locations across the France/Italy border allow for more environmental variety than the original game’s Colorado-inspired setting, and the dynamic weather system that brings in night races and rainstorms further enhances the game’s visual appeal. FH2 also improves offroading, giving players more freedom to tear across the map, although its delineation between driveable and non-driveable offroad areas is inconsistent – the same type of tree can be breakable in one area but an impassable, skill-chain-destroying barrier in another area.

The blur here comes from the in-game photo mode, and is nowhere near this strong in regular gameplay.

FH2 contains the same varied event types and map extras as FH1, including drift zones, speed cameras, showcase events and smashable signs. In many ways it’s a great sequel – it iterates upon the successful mechanics of the original and also expands the vision of what the Horizon Festival concept could provide.

However, while I completed every single event of the orginal Forza Horizon, I was effectively done with FH2 by the time I reached 30% game completion. I appreciated Playground Games’ attempt to create a game that reached a defined conclusion fairly quickly for casual players yet also contained plenty of challenges, events, and collectibles for dedicated open-world completionists. Normally, that’s an approach I celebrate. But it just didn’t work too well for me in this case, mainly because of the clumsy way that Playground Games handled the story elements.

To explain this, I’ll compare FH2 to FH1. In FH1, you started as a new, bottom-of-the-pack entrant to the Horizon festival. Completing enough of the entry-level yellow-wristband events unlocked green-wristband events, winning enough green-wristband events unlocked pink-wristband events etc, until you reached the top rank and challenged the current Horizon champion. Winning that one-on-one challenge and becoming the champion yourself was the climax of the game and it meant that you’d done nearly all of the 127 races FH1 had to offer. Although this sounds linear, you didn’t have to enter or win every event in a wristband group to reach the next wristband, so you still had some control over how you progressed.

In FH2, however, completing 15 championships of 4 races each and then besting the current champion to take his crown represented just 8% game completion. At first that seemed ridiculous – how could I have reached the expected pinnacle of the game after completing 8% of it?

This is when FH2 throws a curveball. Festival host Ben, who until now has been your guide and (somewhat annoying) commentator, responds to your victory by entering the festival himself.

This “new challenger” idea would be really interesting if the game’s world reacted to it in any way. But it doesn’t. The Horizon champion instantly returns to doing the same championship races alongside newbies, with the only difference being that as the champion you choose which region each road trip goes to. During this second phase, the commentary doesn’t update either – Ben still remarks that “people are starting to take notice of you” or “you’re starting to make a name for yourself” after you’ve already become the champion of the festival. This makes being the Horizon champion seem meaningless, which isn’t good given that it’s the aim of the game!

The idea of a second gameplay phase has potential; it could have been a really interesting subversion of the familiar “beat everyone else to reach the top” structure. It could have been something like Tony Hawk’s Underground, in which your character is blacklisted because someone else claimed his accomplishments as his own, forcing your character to find a way to regain their standing. But because the second phase in FH2 don’t affect the world, the races, or anything about the experience, it feels like it exists solely to lengthen the back-of-the-box gameplay time.

Now, this is an open-world driving game which didn’t need a plot beyond “win races to get to the top”. If it had been that simple, I wouldn’t have complained. The problem is that this structure created the impression that FH2 was going to be more ambitious, and then did nothing with that impression.

Looking up the details shows that <spoiler> you can eventually challenge Ben and become the champion properly</spoiler>, but this requires completing all 168 available championships. In effect, the main “story” is complete after you play through 15 championships, while the “epilogue” requires completing another 153 championships.

Every car is driven by the drivatar used for the player character, which leads to some uncanny photos.

Similarly, while adding a timescale to the Horizon Festival was clever, it was done in an overly-padded way which detracted from its appeal. Each set of 3 championships marks an in-universe day, after which everyone returns to the main festival hub. The next morning, competitors collectively head out to the next championship location to start the day’s racing. This is an interesting premise, as it centres the idea of a large-scale festival experience more effectively than FH1’s inifinte stream of events. But again, it was an appealing idea that I didn’t enjoy the execution of. While the initial road trip to each destination felt great and worked well as opening chapters, the road trips happened so often that they lost all impact. When I first became the Horizon champion, I had spent 6 hours in championship races, and over 8 hours in road trips; that ratio is just too high, and the road trip system again started to feel like padding.

Overall

Despite my complaints here, the most important factor – the gameplay – was great. FH2 was a fun driving experience that was easy to pick up and jump in to. It was also a stable and solid game; I had no visual or framerate issues, and I only experienced one glitch during my entire ~30 hours of play (my car became stuck in a building while smashing a sign). The difficulty and assist options meant I could vary the challenge FH2 provided to try out harder difficulties for extra credits or to adapt my settings for races that required cars I was less skilled with.

For me, FH2 belongs in the “Cool” tier. Although I didn’t enjoy the way some new ideas were carried out, most notably the road trip system and the two-phase structure, I can appreciate that FH2 tried those ideas in the first place. It tried to make the scope of the Horizon festival bigger, and create more opportunities for what the game could do as a result, rather than just repeating the original Horizon. On its own merits, its an accomplished driving game that’s best when played casually rather than with full completion in mind. But for me FH2 is most interesting to look at in the context of having played a sequel first: while it doesn’t have the over-the-top bombast of FH4, nor the simplicity of the original Horizon, it’s the stepping stone that lead towards what Playground Games were aiming for the series to mature into.

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