(Xbox One Review) Forza Horizon 2: Storm Island

Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Turn 10 Studios
Genre: Arcade Racing / Rally Racing / Sim Racing
Players: 1-N/A
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Forza Horizon 2: Storm Island is the first content add-on out of the gate for Playground’s fantastic open-world racer. The $20 price tag runs higher than the traditional car pack, but there’s a lot of content packed in this three-gig download. In addition to the expected new events and vehicles is the meat of the expansion, the titular Storm Island. Unlike the base game’s more European-styled environs, the newest locale is a mercurial spot where temple ruins and ionic columns rest amidst thickets and hills, where thick fog and tropical storms can suddenly turn a lovely afternoon race into a nasty, muddy slog.

As on the mainland, the Horizon Festival hosts the tournament and updates players as they progress through the circuit. The tour features six tiers that are each comprised of four championships that culminate in a new event type, an extended, hazard-filled race called the Gauntlet. In addition to the Gauntlet, there are four other new event types scattered throughout the tiers, and all have been designed with the pack’s primary pillars in mind: weather and off-roading. Extreme Cross Country adds stormy weather to the traditional Cross Country event type, while Cross Country Circuit adds additional laps; Rampage are point-to-point sprints that take place on off-road courses dotted with obstacles; and Brawl once again takes players off-road in circuit races that are also filled with smashable objects. New rally-style body kits have also been added to the garage to ensure that newly acquired vehicles are prepared to handle all of the bumps, dips, and hills. And with some of the roughest courses in the series, players definitely need these new parts.

More so than in the base game, the events in Storm Island will have players sliding, drifting, and soaring around similar-looking but difficult-to-wrangle tracks. Paved portions quickly give way to muddy tracks or open fields, with each car jostling about as drivers attempt to navigate the uneven ground. It isn’t uncommon to spin out or flip a car in the final stretch because of a slick patch or sudden incline, or have to perform an emergency maneuver after noticing that an opponent has caught an unexpected amount of air and is about to make a crash landing on the player’s hood. The odd farm house, patch of woods, overgrown valley, and especially the new weather effects add to the challenge of simply staying on course, much less head of the pack.

Surprisingly, nasty weather does not always have the expected effect on gameplay. Howling winds, for example, sound terrible but have no influence on how the car controls, despite causing nearby trees to bend like reeds in a stream. However, as with the other weather effects, they do impact the player’s performance, as the sounds generated by severe gales and thunder add to the confusion as well as mask the sounds of other vehicles, making it difficult to determine the position of the other drivers. Similarly, the rain hits but doesn’t blanket the windshield while in cockpit view, nor the screen when in an out-of-car view, but it does make pavement slick and masks sharp turns and obstacles. Fog is especially effective at making wooded areas controller-gripping tricky. Gauntlets make the perfect tier-cappers by combining several of these elements into one long race, with heavy storms restricting visibility, particularly at night, and making it even more challenging to navigate the varied terrain.

Additional supplements include a new barn find, 90 new events, a new car meet, and five new rides: the 2013 Robby Gordon #7 Speed Energy Drink Stadium Super Truck, 2013 Mini X-Raid All4 Racing Countryman, 2014 Ford Ranger T6 Rally Raid, 1981 Ford Fiesta XR2, and 1992 Mitsubishi Galant VR-4. For those unsure about the specifics of rally or off-road racing and looking to just hop into some new rides and tackle the wilds, the series’ traditional helpfulness makes this a snap with parts specifically labeled as those best for the expansion. A pop-up text box even notes when a vehicle’s load-out isn’t optimal for the upcoming races. This approach is much more in line with my playstyle, and I appreciate how easy the game makes it to get behind the wheel and get to driving—though in some respects, I wouldn’t have minded if the game was more challenging.

As nice as the weather effects look and as much as they add to the general mayhem caused by a dozen cars screaming through overgrown fields and between narrow tree-lined paths, I would have preferred a more pronounced impact on the course itself. Drifting all over the place because of the slick roads and mud made would have made for a natural fit with deformable tracks, especially those championships that feature heavier trucks, with their additional weight causing even heavier wear on the course. The idea of trying to stay ahead of the pack in order to avoid rutted turns seems right up the expansion’s alley, as does the possibility of lower vehicles struggling to get out of heaps of churned-up grass and mud. Having to fight against the elements is an enjoyable challenge, but having to fight the consequences of the elements would have been even more so.

This isn’t to say that the new championships won’t tax the player’s skill or their nerves. In fact, I restarted more races on the island than I did during my entire run on the mainland. The limited visibility, treacherous turns, destructible obstacles, and mix of car types will definitely lead to more than a few restarts and shameful rewinds. Frequently adjusting to new car types against such a variety of difficulties is a trial in and of itself, and while it feels great to finally get the hang of a new ride, that can definitely lead to a few humbling wrecks. In my defense, I’m pretty sure American muscle cars were never meant to be treated like massive four-wheelers.

Forza Horizon 2: Storm Island is essential for fans of off-road racing. For those virtual drivers who prefer paved routes, there will be less of an incentive to take the $20 plunge. As a fan of those sorts of races, though, I got a lot of mileage out of the new events. While they don’t make a permanent impression on the courses, the weather effects add to the natural challenge presented by such rough terrain and make for a nice addition to the series. The price might seem steep, but there are hours of fun to be had on that unwieldy, temperamental isle.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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