Forza Horizon 2

I've had the opportunity to play dozens of racing games over the years but none has felt as wonderful as Forza Horizon 2. Speeding through an agricultural field of land at 150 mph, racing down a track to beat a fighter jet that's soaring in the clouds, or simply cruising around the awe-inspiring world of Horizon 2 gives me a refreshing feeling I haven't felt from the genre for years.

Playground Games capitalizes on the success of the original Forza Horizon by implementing a plethora of new features. First and foremost is the vast and beautiful new world you are placed in. Horizon 2 takes place in southern Europe and once again you are a part of the Horizon Festival. The festival is a tournament made up with the best racers the world has to offer. To qualify for the final games, you must race your way up the ranks by competing in races and winning tournaments.

Surprisingly, a sizable amount of time I've spent in Horizon 2 hasn't always been on the track. Playground Games does a superb job packing an abundance of things to do in the map. Arguably, none are as entertaining as the "Bucket List" challenges. These difficult challenges place you behind the wheel of some of the fastest cars the game has to offer, like the Hennessy Venom GT or the McLaren F1, and race to the finish line under a certain time limit. Speed test is only one of many different challenges the Bucket List has to offer. "Barn Finds" is a fun scavenger hunt that has you searching the map for hidden cars to add to your collection. Finding these cars is only the beginning. What makes the Barn Finds so fun is restoring the cars so they can compete in races.

You are rewarded for everything you do as well. Speeding down a highway without crashing, pulling of that perfect drift, or winning close races are just a few of the ways you can earn skill points. Skill points have a more prominent role this time around and can be used to purchase perks that, for example, allow you to earn credits faster or receive discounts on upgrades, that assist you in becoming a even better racer. I found myself really enjoying the new skill system and spent hours in free roam trying to build multipliers to rack in those points.

Drivatars debuted in Forza Motorsport 5 and they make a return in Horizon 2. Drivatars replace the typical AI racers have become accustomed to by utilizing profiles from your friends list and other Xbox profiles worldwide. This results in a more realistic AI that races more like the profile they are built from rather than something generic. I love the sense of identity the Drivatars give the AI. Admittedly, I race dirty sometimes and try to run them off the road and, to my surprise, these Drivatars tend to do the same thing which makes singleplayer races much more interesting and hectic.

Speaking of online play, the multiplayer portion of Horizon 2 is seamless. By simply pressing a button you will enter the online world. Like singleplayer, multiplayer has plenty of things to do. Online free roam allows you and friends to simple travel the map together and do whatever your hearts desire, but when you want to get competitive there are tons of events to partake in. You can also join clubs, each with a member cap of 1000. These clubs allow you to work towards being the top club member by earning weekly experience and puts you in higher tiers. Clubs can work together to compete against other racing clubs.

I was caught by surprise by how well Kinect integration has been applied to the game. Anna is the navigation system installed in every car you drive. Instead of pausing the game to set waypoints, Anna is always listening for your next command. You can continue to drive and simply tell her to set a waypoint for the nearest race, garage, Barn Find, or any other destination on the map. This simple but effective mechanic will hopefully become standard in racing games from now on.

I also like how the game keeps track of everything you do. Every mile you drive is annotated in the stats menu along with your favorite car, most listened to radio station, race wins, and number of times you've interacted with Anna. All this data is a great way to look back and see what you've accomplished in the past. You can record some of your greatest moments with the Xbox One, but Forza Horizon 2's Upload Studio lets you take photos of gameplay. At anytime you can stop the game and take glamorous pictures of the action around you. After taking your snapshots, filters can be applied to make them look even better. You also get awarded credits for every new vehicle you manage to capture on camera.

Having a car that can crack 100 mph in a matter of seconds is only half the battle of Horizon 2. The second half consists of customization. There are hundreds of different ways you can make your car the flashiest vehicle on the road. When you purchase one of the 210 cars available, it can be customized however you choose. Adding vinyls to your ride will make it stand out more than other racers and show off your creativity. Cosmetic customization is great when you go to "Car Meets" with random players around the world to show off you car and compete in races but having a cool looking car doesn't win you races.

The key to winning races is dependent on what your working with on the inside. Having the same car as someone doesn't mean your car will perform the same. Tuning vehicles allows you to tweak certain aspects such as tire pressure, brakes, engines, etc. If you just like to hit the road and don't want to bother with the complicated part of racing, Horizon 2 allows you to download other players tuning customizations so they can quickly be applied to your car.

Forza Horizon 2 is the best looking racer I have ever played. The world is stunning. The game runs at a locked 30 frames per second which translate to a smooth driving experience with no hiccups along the way. During the day you can see the sun gleaming on the cars, incredible draw distances and beautiful fields that bring the game to life. The amazing attention to detail is astonishing. While racing in the cockpit view, the smaller things is what caught my attention such as seeing my reflection in the windshield when I was under certain lighting conditions or how dirty my car would get after venturing off to some off road driving.

When the sun sets however, the beauty of Horizon 2 especially shows. Street lights reflections, fireworks exploding in the distance look exceptionally phenomenal. Real time weather effects are a welcomed addition to the game. When the rain starts to fall, the game just looks even better. Rain also affects driving. Hitting those turns in the rain to hard will make your vehicle slide and brakes can sometimes falter during the inclement weather so I had to be more careful when the roads were wet.

Horizon 2 isn't the realistic racing simulation you would find in the Motorsport series but is more of a blend of arcade racing and simulation. The game is more forgiving when it comes to physics of the cars and how they would handle in similar situations in real life. Increasing the difficulty of the game can however make it closer to a simulation. The harder you make the game for yourself the more credits you earn for winning races so the incentive is there if you are up for the challenge.

As you would expect from a Forza game, the sound is top of its class. Hearing an engine revving up, drifting through those tight corners, or colliding with other drivers all sound as fantastic as we've have come to expect. What I didn't expect was the great soundtrack that has been added. There are a few different radio stations you can flip through in the game and all of them have a unique playlist that immersed me more into and already immersive experience.

Forza Horizon 2 has raised the bar for open-world racing games. The beautiful setting and sensational visuals are one thing, but when you mix it in with heart-pounding races, an extensive car list, intense competitive online play, and a vast explorable world, it all translates to Horizon 2 being the cream of the crop in the genre and the best in its class.

Writer for Darkstation since 2014. I've been playing games my whole life and starting writing about them in 2010. Outside of gaming I enjoy anime and watching my Philadelphia Eagles let me down every Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @jsparis09