2014 is a year that most New Generation console game launches would prefer to forget. Many games launched with serious issues of one sort or another - broken online matchmaking, graphical or game breaking glitches or generally lacking in polish. While some of these issues could have been excused in 2013 for console launch titles, one year into the lifecycle it should not have been a regular occurrence.
These shoddy releases proved expensive as some of the studios and publishers had to make quick apologies to those who had bought their games, to protect their brand and credibility.
Assassin's Creed Unity publisher, Ubisoft, offered a large DLC pack for free to anyone who bought the game and anyone who bought the Season Pass got a current AAA Title for free.
Microsoft Studios and 343i, the studios behind Halo: The Master Chief Collection gave everyone a month extra Xbox Live Gold, the Halo 3 ODST Campaign and another Halo 2 Anniversary Multiplayer Map
Sony and Evolution Studios gave away two of it's premium DLC packs for PS4-exclusive racing game Driveclub to compensate players for their online woes.
There is an argument that the rushed state of the games on release are the result of a shift in the video games market to move to Pre-Ordering - selling the game on reputation or name alone before it releases - or the ease with which patches can be distributed to consoles.
Embargoes and Darkness
Games Studios and Publishers often use "Embargoes" with the press, an agreed date before which reviews are not published. In the dark times, embargoes were set very close to the actual release date and in some cases were set after the release date. This is usually the sign of someone not very confident in their game, that they are hoping that day one sales and branding will do the work to sell a title, and a day one patch might fix issues before word of mouth starts to cause a dip in sales.
The reason why this occurred is a topic for another day, but let's look at a shining light among the dark times of 2014. In fact, that's what we will call it from now on. For the new generation of consoles, expected to herald new levels of graphical fidelity, inventive gameplay methods and connectivity with other gamers, one game stands head and shoulders above its peers.
That game is Forza Horizon 2.
Playground Games were tasked with producing a sequel to the well-received Forza Horizon, itself an open world off-shoot of the successful Forza Motorsport series. For the purpose of this piece, we will ignore the Xbox 360 version of this game: It was a worthy title, but we want to focus on the New Generation of Consoles.
Forza Motorsport 5 had released as a launch title for the Xbox One almost a year before Forza Horizon 2 was expected to hit the shelves. It was a stunning game and undoubtedly one of the finest looking games for either Xbox One or Playstation 4 in the first year of release.
The developers of Forza Horizon 2 took the difficult decision early-on to target a framerate of 30 frames per second, half that of Forza Motorsport 5, but explained clearly that this was a requirement to allow for smooth streaming of the open world nature of the game. The game hit the magic number of 1080p and thereby sidestepped the "Resolution"-gate storm in a teacup. Lowering the framerate also allowed the team to add new features, such as dynamic weather to the game.
Openness beats Darkness
Microsoft and Playground Games were confident that they had more than a pretty game, they knew that they were ready to wow audiences that they released a demo almost two weeks before the release date of the game itself, and a sizeable one at that.
The demo had a large chunk of the map from the full game, most of Nice and the Cote d'Azur, a number of different types of race types and let users decide for themselves if it was to their tastes. It also featured a beautiful drive along the coast from Monaco to Nice, just to show off how beautiful and free-roam the game was.
For those press outlets and web sites providing reviews, Microsoft sent out the review copies early and reviewers had plenty of time to take their cars for a spin of the large open world map and to enjoy the beauty, the events and even the social aspects of Forza Horizon 2.
This is at complete odds with other games from the Dark Times that only shipped review copies the day before release or shipped them without multiplayer portions of the game - notably Destiny and The Master Chief Collection.
Then came perhaps one of the biggest swaggering moments from Microsoft and Playground Games as they allowed those with early access to live stream the game if they wanted to do so - a full week before release. Streaming of the game wasn't limited to an exclusive with a large publishing house or a specific site like OXM or IGN, this was open to anyone.
Actions like these inspire confidence in consumers. You wouldn't give all this access to a game if you were trying to hide something, would you?
While individual sales figures have not been released, I would be sure that the audience and sales of Forza Horizon 2 on Xbox One exceeded any internal expectations.
The Game that keeps on giving.
Not content with this, however, Microsoft have more in store. A full six months after release, Microsoft and Playground Games return to Forza Horizon 2 with a movie franchise tie-in with The Fast and the Furious to coincide with the release of the seventh movie in the series (purely coincidentally Forza Horizon 2 is the seventh game in the Forza series).
A standalone game, based on Forza Horizon 2, allows players to take on the same area of the map as the Forza 2 demo, earning cars for the Fast & Furious crew through thrilling and bizarre races or just to free roam around in the car of their choice. This standalone expansion is available free of charge for a limited time (until 10. April 2015) and would revert to a normal price of €9.99 after that.
The quality of the original Forza Horizon 2 shines through in this Fast and Furious skinned game: The stunning scenery and fluid frame rate would cause many a jaw to drop, the gameplay would entertain beginner and experienced gamer alike. Overall it would tempt many who would previously have been on the fence about the game to part with their hard earned cash - a process made easier by the easy 'Buy Forza Horizon 2' and 'Buy Forza Motorsport 5' options in the pause menu.
Looking forward with hope.
After the expensive and embarrassing list of games that were launched half-finished, buggy or just not being 'next-gen' enough, Forza Horizon is a master class in how to do it right. As we head into the second quarter of 2015 and start coming into the crazy E3 and Gamescom season when the big names come out again to beat their chests with what they have in store for next Christmas and beyond, we can hope that the lessons learned in the Dark Times will be used to the benefit of gamers on all platforms.
Just this week Microsoft and Remedy took the decision to push Quantum Break, a game teased at the Xbox One's reveal in May 2013, into 2016 shows that publishers may be ready to take the hit this year and ensure that a game is released correctly.
Let's look forward with hope to the Holiday season of 2015 and early 2016 with hope of true next-generation performance and features for our games and stand to applaud Forza Horizon for a job well done.