Forza Horizon 2 proves the driving genre is back at its best
There have probably been better times to be pitching around ideas for a new racing game than the summer of 2010. Following the release of Bizarre Creation's Blur and Black Rock Studios' Split/Second - both excellent, forward-thinking takes on a genre that's famous for going round in circles, both failing to find an audience - racing games were entering a period of crisis. For Bizarre and Black Rock, the crisis would prove fatal. For Playground Games, a UK studio formed late in 2009 by veterans of the genre from Codemasters, it made getting its first project off the ground daunting.
"It was not a good time to be a racing developer," says Ralph Fulton, one of Playground Games' founders, as he looks back at the studio's early days. "It wasn't a good time to be pitching racing games to publishers. More than one told us that racing is dead, that they didn't want anything to do with it. There were a number of times over that period that were really difficult for everyone involved. In those situations you always have to come back to: why am I doing this? Why did I get into this, and what are we hoping to achieve?"
Playground Games kept on doing it because it had some ideas on what would make a great racing game and a certain amount of confidence that it had the team to make them happen. "We started with not a great deal - not a lot of money, not a deal, not anything like that - but we had a strong group of people who had been working with each other, in some cases, for 10 years. We had a heritage making racing games and that felt like the right thing to do. We felt, if we had a strong team - which we did - we'd prevail. We'd find the right partner and we'd find the right project."
The studio found a partner in Turn 10 and a project in Forza Horizon, an open-world entry into Microsoft's driving franchise. Made in 18 months - a mere sprint compared to the marathon of most games' development - 2012's Horizon was a success. "Forza Horizon is built on the best parts of the Motorsport games but delivers a strikingly different experience to them," wrote Oli in our review. "In many ways, it's a better one." Judging from Playground's light, airy office, which occupies three floors of a stately Leamington Spa building and threatens to take over the police station next door, it didn't do too badly commercially, either.
It was successful enough for a sequel, at the very least. Forza Horizon 2 transposes the open-world racing of the original from craggy, picturesque Colorado to the sweeping, heart-stopping roads of southern France and northern Italy. It's a move that has instilled a little more pastoral beauty in Horizon's cross-country rides and introduced stirring coastlines as iconic as anything the American West can offer; an extended tunnel that amplifies the exhaust note opens up to the hills above Nice, the city twinkling below like a pool of stars.
Forza Horizon 2 also marks the transposition of the open world from Xbox 360 to Xbox One, though it's not quite the studio's debut on the console. Thanks to the close relationship between Turn 10 and Playground, where build servers are shared between the two, several of the team gained experience of Microsoft's new console on Forza Motorsport 5. You can see some of that experience pay off in the gorgeous visuals of Forza Horizon 2 - though Fulton also tells me it's thanks to Forward + Rendering, a new system being used in the game - where the lights of a city at night dance dynamically off freshly dampened streets.
It's a fine-looking world, complete with dynamic weather systems that cross the large map, and it's perhaps one of the finest spectacles you'll find on Microsoft's new console this year. It's a beauty served up more generously than in last year's Forza Motorsport 5, even if it doesn't share the same 60fps refresh rate of Turn 10's game. "It was a question we asked again," says Fulton when asked whether it was ever an option to go for 60fps with the new hardware at hand. "Does this new platform mean we should change something? We went through the same process, and we alighted on the same decision.