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I can beat the train. Yes, those are probably the last words of an optimist, but they also acted as my mantra in one of the best missions in Forza Horizon 2.

Microsoft and developers Turn 10 and Playground Games are back with another take on open-world driving. With the Xbox One powering Forza Horizon 2, the sequel is giving players dozens of classic rides and powerful supercars to explore Southern Europe. As in the first Horizon, races aren’t limited to tracks, and you can explore the world however you choose.

Forza Horizon 2 debuts Sept. 30 on Xbox One, and an Xbox 360 version from developer Sumo Digital will hit on the same day. Like most of you, we were more interested in the new-gen version, and we got behind its wheel to see if it could deliver a couple hundred horsepower’s-worth of fun.

What you’ll like

Awesome challenges that’ll make you holler

Let’s go back to that train.

Forza Horizon 2 has plenty to offer: four-race championships and speed traps that keep track of which of your friends drove the fastest through a particular section of the map. But Horizon 2 reaches its zenith during its specialized races and challenges. In one of these excellent missions, you must outrace a train barreling down its track at top speed while you’re in a 1968 Lancia Fulvia rally car.

It’s an intense race. You never lose sight of the train shooting down its straight path even while you twist and turn to stay on the road. Every time you reach a checkpoint, you can kinda gauge how fair ahead the train is. All the while, you can see your rank as second place out of two … the train is in first, and it remains in first until the final turn.

Forza Horizon 2

Above: Racing across the countryside in Horizon 2.

It’s unfair. The train conductor isn’t worried about steering, but I have to perfectly nail the final 90 degree turn to the right in order to give myself a chance to win the race, and I know I’m going to lose. I can see the finish line — it’s a couple hundred yards away, and the train has me beat. I don’t give up. I’m having too much fun. So, I gun it. The car shifts into top gear and fights for every last bit of speed.

And it’s not until I’m on top of the finish line that I realize that I actually won … by a tenth of a second.

I actually stood up and cheered.

Forza Horizon 2 has a number of these incredibly high moments. Even when it dips into the valley of its “standard” gameplay, you’ll occasionally get that exhilaration from a close race. It helps that you have so many different kinds of cars (rally, SUVs, saloons, and more) as well as race types (dirt roads, city streets, race tracks). It also helps that the Drivatar system has returned. Just like in Forza Motorsport 5, your Drivatar is an A.I. version of you that will race against your friends even when you are offline. I have no idea how accurate the artificial drivers are to the real thing, but just seeing my buddy’s name above a car that keeps trying to shove me off the road is enough to get my competitive juices flowing.

If you get bored with those races, you’re never far from something else fun to do.

Smart Kinect integration

If you do find yourself driving around aimlessly without something to do, well, you should talk to ANNA. That is the acronym (Automated Natural Navigation Assitant) for Horizon 2’s in-game global-positioning system. It is one of my favorite things in a game ever.

I hate the part in triple-A games that force me to scroll through menus and decipher busy maps to find the next bit of fun. It makes me feel like I’m in some terrible cartography class every time I come across a new map in blockbusters.

Well, Forza Horizon 2 has a map, and it can be indecipherable at times, but that doesn’t matter because you can just talk to it and tell it what you want to do.

When I got near the end of the main championship run, I didn’t want to waste any time between races. I would simply say, “ANNA, nearest event,” and Horizon 2 would load up the coordinates to guide me to my next race. I never had to stop driving. I didn’t have to look at anything that wasn’t the road right in front of me. It is so delightful, and the Kinect understood what I was saying maybe 95 percent of the time.

ANNA has a number of different voice-command options. Another one of my favorites is: “ANNA, what should I do?” This will force Horizon 2 to offer you the chance to go find a hidden car or participate in one of the aforementioned challenges.

You can bounce around from event to event without ever having to really interact with the menu interface. Hell, you don’t even really have to think. More games need this. More games should let you say “video game, take me to more fun” — and then do so.

Excellent use of Xbox One’s controller

Horizon 2 doesn’t just use the Kinect well. It also is one of the best games for the Xbox One controller, and it’s all about those force feedback-capable triggers.

Different cars handle in wildly varied ways in Horizon 2. That’s no surprise. One of the quickest ways to learn how to drive a BMW M1 after an hour zooming down streets in a McLaren is to feel it. My biggest problem is that I always lay on the gas pedal. This can cause some cars to spin out uncontrollably. But you can keep any car on the road as long as you let off the right trigger just a touch when it starts to vibrate.

That vibration means the car is losing it. If you get the hang of that feedback, you’ll have an easier time with every car — which is just one more thing that goes to making Horizon a joy to play.

Forza Horizon 2 Launch Trailer

What you won’t like

Cockpit view feels disconnected from reality

Horizon 2 is gorgeous. The landscapes, the cars, and the crowds are all impeccably detailed. This includes the car interiors. In between races — when I didn’t need a wider field of view — I loved cruising around in my cars using the cockpit view. This is gives you a first-person look inside the car.

At first sight, every cockpit in Horizon 2 is amazing. You can see leather in a classic American sports car and the digital gauges on a new sports car in glorious 1080p. But, when you start taking sharp turns or going through fields, you quickly notice that the cockpit feels disjointed from the ground.

Real cars bounce and sway and adjust with every pit and hole in the ground, but Horizon 2’s cockpits don’t. They glide like a cloud over every terrain. This is probably a stylistic choice by the designers, but it’s one that is hard to ignore once you notice it.

If I’m playing in first-person, it’s because I want the full experience of driving a car — even if that might mean some unpleasant bumpiness.

Conclusion

I’m not a huge car guy, but Forza Horizon 2 makes me realize that I am someone who loves driving. It combines all the best elements of car culture and empowers players to take and leave the things they enjoy. For example, it has deep tuning options for you mechanics. You can adjust the level of air in your tires if you want. And if you don’t, then don’t even think about it.

On top of that, the open-world is ideal for multiplayer. Gamers can team up with friends and explore the European countryside and even enter championships and events together.

All of these elements work together to make one of the best racing-game experiences I’ve ever had. I like Forza Motorsport 5, but I adore Horizon 2.

Score: 90/100

Microsoft provided GamesBeat with a retail digital-download code for the purposes of this review. Forza Horizon 2 debuts Oct. 30.


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