Playing Forza Horizon 2 at Tokyo Game Show

Getting behind the wheel of the brand new Lamborghini Huracán in Forza Horizon 2 at Tokyo Game Show and racing at top-speed along a scenic cliff-side road overlooking the Mediterranean Sea was a breathtaking experience. I’ve had a few opportunities now to take Microsoft’s upcoming open-world racer on test runs, using different Xbox One builds, and each time I’ve walked away even more impressed with how this much-played racing series is evolving.

Forza Horizon 5As a direct sequel to 2012’s Forza Horizon on Xbox 360, this is the first game in the spin-off series to release on Xbox One, and second Forza game on the platform following last year’s launch title, Forza Motorsport 5. Like the original Horizon, the sequel is being developed by the team at Playground Games, a relatively young game studio but one that is staffed by alumni from some of U.K.’s finest racing development studios, including Criterion Games, Codemasters, Bizarre Creations, Sony Liverpool, and more.

Similar to the previous outing, Forza Horizon 2 centers on a fictitious event called the Horizon Festival, which attracts the world’s best drivers with huge music parties and high-speed street racing. The sequel brings back the wide-open world driving experience, only instead of travelling through the scenic beauty of Colorado, this time you’ll be exploring exotic locations in southern France and northern Italy.

The Tokyo Game Show demo I played was limited to a race set in the countryside of Tuscany in northern Italy, one of the many locations you’ll visit in the game. Two cars from this year were playable, including the gorgeous Lamborghini Huracán LP610-4 and Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, as well as the 2012 Aston Martin Vanquish model. All three cars looked great, and while there’s no Forzavista, a mode in Forza Motorsport 5 that allows you to ogle over engine bays, you do get a nice visual tour of the body and interior of each car by selecting them in the garage prior to racing.

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Forza Horizon 2 runs on a modified version of the Forza Motorsport 5 engine, and aesthetically, the game looks just as beautiful with rich textures, superb lighting, and excellent visual effects–all presented in crisp 1080p. The only sacrifice moving from a defined-area track racing game to a fully open-world racing experience is the framerate, which in Forza Horizon 2 is locked at 30fps, the same as the original game but half the framerate of Forza Motorsport 5. Despite this, in the demo I played the game still ran buttery smooth, with the locked framerate offering a consistent racing experience with no dropped frames or graphical stuttering.

For obvious reasons, I choose the game’s headlining Lamborghini Huracán for my first race, and straight from the race’s starting point, the level of polish and detail was evident. The bright sun glinted off my Lamborghini’s bodywork and windshield, conveying an authentic sense of beauty appropriate for this luxury sports car. The race began with the camera panning out to show my 11 Drivatar opponents, ranging from exotics, to supercars, to sports cars, including the Ferrari 458 Italia, McLaren P1, and Lexus LFA. Then, in spectacular fashion, five airshow planes sped overhead with a commanding sound burst, enhanced by a rumble effect on the controller, with the planes emitting rainbow colored smoke out their tail-end.

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To aid your steering, Forza Horizon provides optimal driving lines, with green indicating you’re driving at an acceptable speed for the turn, yellow indicating you need to slow down, and red notifying you that you’re driving dangerous fast. You’ll notice right away that the driving lines often will recommend you exit the racing roads for some free-roam driving fun, and as an example of this, less than one minute into the race the driving lines took me straight through a crop field along with a half dozen of my competitors. Not only can following the driving lines through these off-road moments save you time, but it also opens up additional strategies you can employ such as accelerating through the flattened crops made by other racers, or for the devious type, positioning your driving line so you force other racers to dodge (or smash into) conveniently placed bails of hay.

Racing through the back-roads of Italy offers lots of visual variety, from the grand Ferris wheel in the festive starting town, to the many hot air balloons high above the farmlands, to the natural beauty of the cliff-side highway overlooking the Mediterranean coast during the final stretch. Just prior to this coastal section, a dark overcast swoops overhead, and a trickle of rain soon gives way to a full on downpour. The weather effects, which all-new for Forza Horizon 2, are very realistic, especially if you choose the driver’s seat camera view. From this perspective, you can see water droplets form into rain streams on your windshield, reflections of your car in the road puddles, and even watch your wipers oscillate back-and-forth to clear your view. If you’re lucky, you might even see a rainbow after the downpour, again showing off the game’s excellent visual effects.

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The weather isn’t just spectacular to look at, as it also has a real effect on how your car handles on the wet road. My first time through the rain was volatile, with my Lamborghini Huracán fishtailing dangerously around the slippery corners, but by my second run-through, where I choose the Aston Martin Vanquish, I was starting to get a hang of how to drive safely on the wet cliff-side roads. Even if you make a bad driving error, the game is quite forgiving since, like the first game, you can rewind the action to correct mistakes at any time with a simple press of a button (though for most racing simulation purists, I’m sure this would be unthinkable.)

I briefly mentioned that my opponents were “Drivatars,” which is the name given to an AI controlling system originally introduced in Forza Motorsport 5, and makes its return in Forza Horizon 2. Drivatar technology analyzes how you, and other real players drive, and then simulates these natural driving behaviors in-game with AI-controlled cars bearing players’ names. So, whether you’re cruising around the European countryside, or locked in an intense street race, you’ll encounter Drivatars representing other players, and you might even see some of your friends.

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To create Drivatar behavior, the game analyzes a wide range of driving data, including how players approach corners, where they accelerate and brake, how they pass other cars, and what shortcuts they take. In practice, what this means is that your opponents will race extremely realistic, often making unexpected shortcuts, taking different lines around corners, or even splitting off into multiple paths. A good example of this was during the farmland stretch, with some Drivatars racing in supercars opting to stick to the roads, while some of the cars more suited for off-road driving zipped straight through the crop rows.

The range of Drivatar behavior was even more evident during the last 10% of the race, as each racer is given a choice to remain on the elevated cliff-side road, or take a plunge downhill along a dirtroad shortcut. Whether or not the shortcut will shave off precious seconds really depends on how many other Drivatars take the same route–and since they’re all based off of organic human behavioral patterns, there’s no way to know for sure which path your opponent’s will take.

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Another completely revamped feature in Forza Horizon 2 is the Skills System, which rewards you second-to-second for driving with style. You can earn XP and increase your multiplier by performing feats such as near misses, obtaining high speeds, drifting around corners, clean racing, and numerous other skills. The Skills System doesn’t emphasize hitting other cars, or other aggressive behavior, so the inherent risk/reward is deciding how stylish to be without colliding or crashing into opponents or roadside obstacles. The more bold your feats are, the bigger the potential payoff, but you also run the risk of sloppy driving and losing your hard-earned point streak.

Linked to the Skills System is the all-new Perks System, which offers game-wide benefits that can be unlocked by trading in your accumulated Skill Points earned from banked skills and combo scores. During Microsoft Canada’s X14 Media Showcase event, I was given a final build of Forza Horizon 2 to play for thirty minutes and had a chance to see the Perks System first-hand. At about fifteen minute mark I earned by first Skill Point, enabling me to visit the Perks menu to unlock a center tile of a 5×5 grid resembling a Bingo card. This center square unlocked the “XP Everywhere” perk, allowing me from that point onward to earn XP while free-roaming around the main map. There are 25 Perks in total that can be obtained, and unlocking a specific perk will make available the adjacent tiles (up, down, left, right), for future purchases.

The game also brings back the leveling up system from the previous game, enabling you to take a spin of the Horizon Wheel after collecting enough experience to raise your level. Potential prizes offered by the Horizon Wheel include extra cash to spend on upgrades and new paint jobs, and if you’re really lucky, you can win a brand new car.

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Judging by the 1% completion marker I achieved during my roughly thirty minutes of hands-on time with the final build of Forza Horizon 2, I’ve only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. A representative from Turn 10 Studio told me the game contains at least 100 hours of content, over 200 driveable cars, and three times the available racing area of the last Forza Horizon game. With a crowded holiday racing line-up full of new IPs, including Project Cars, Driveclub, and The Crew, Microsoft Studios’ Forza Horizon 2 has the advantage of being the only returning franchise title, as well as being first out the gate with its September 30th release date. Above and beyond that though, from my limited time with the game, I definitely see the potential for an exciting, content rich, and deep racing experience that both simulation and arcade racing fans alike can enjoy.

If you’ve played the original Forza Horizon and are looking forward to the sequel, or are thinking about jumping into the experience for the first time, be sure to let us know in the comments section below!