Preview: Forza Horizon 2

Dominating the larger part of Microsoft’s E3 2014 booth is a demo for Forza Horizon 2, the latest Xbox One exclusive racer from developer Playground Games. I had the opportunity to go hands-on with it yesterday, here’s what I think.

Forza Horizon 2 trades the Americana backdrop of its predecessor’s Colorado, USA setting for the stunning and varied beauty of southern Europe, offering up an even bigger and more open world than ever before. I raced my yellow Lamborghini Huracan through vineyards and up the precarious mountains roads of the French Riviera, ending in a small coastal town overrun by the game’s fictitious street racing festival, ‘Horizon’. The game world promises to be three times larger than that of the original Forza Horizon, and if the rapidly changing scenery of the demo is at all indicative of the game as a final product, you can expect to see a wide range of environments during your time with the game.

Speaking of environments, Forza Horizon 2 sports some truly breathtaking vistas supported by amazing next generation visuals. Running on a modified version of Forza Motorsport 5’s graphics engine, improvements such as full dynamic lighting for all light sources in the game means everything looks that much more natural, that much more real. New weather effects – a series first – are also a stunning feast for the eyes; I was racing in cockpit view as it began to rain and could not help but marvel at how individual raindrops begin to streak across your windshield and can be seen gathering on the hood of your painstakingly modeled supercar.

Draw distances are expansive, allowing you to see detail on a macroscopic level, but it’s the smaller, subtler things like seeing dirt and mud stick to your car as you drive off-road or noticing the real time reflections on the body of your Huracan that really sell the game’s visuals. Much has been said about the power of the Xbox One, but knowing that Horizon 2 displays a native 1080p image at an absolutely rock solid 30 frames per second leaves me very impressed indeed.

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Forza Horizon 2 continues to play like something of a cross between the super serious, physics-based simulation of its parent Motorsport series and the more arcade fun of titles such as Project Gotham Racing. Handling felt appropriately loose during my play session, allowing me to drift around corners with ease. Rumble triggers, which were first introduced in last year’s Forza Motorsport 5, return here to even great effect – the sensation you feel while driving on tarmac as opposed to dirt or gravel is surprisingly nuanced and serves to provide better feedback for players willing to learn the more subtle intricacies of the game. Weather adds yet another layer of depth to the racing; you don’t brake quite as well and car handling can quickly become slippery and erratic. (Fortunately for me, the demo had a very limited instance of rain that occurred somewhere during the last third of my race.) The original Horizon was received as one of the best playing and feeling open-world racers of the previous generation, and this sequel is looking to continue that trend with smooth handling, fun game play, and precision controls.

All things considered, Forza Horizon 2 is shaping up to be one of the premier racers of the year. The game’s change in setting is both refreshing and visually arresting thanks to the power of next generation hardware. The developers over at Playground Games are set to release yet another excellent racer for the Xbox One, one I am personally excited to see more of.

Forza Horizon 2 is set to release this September.