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With the two big names in console racing games – Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport – taking a year off to work on new sequels, this winter’s lineup for digital driving fans has an unfamiliar ring to it.

The next few weeks sees the release of brand new titles Project Cars, Driveclub and The Crew, and we’ll be giving them all extended reviews on TopGear.com. But first up is the return of one franchise you will already be aware of: Forza Horizon.

The first instalment remains a much-played and rather under-rated classic here at Top Gear HQ. While there’s always room for shaving tenths of a second off your lap-time at the ‘Ring in hyper-realistic simulators, sometimes all you want is a consequence-free hoon around some beautiful roads in a priceless supercar to loud music.

The sequel’s premise is just that, and will be familiar to Forza Horizon veterans. The single-player game centres around a mythical music festival stuffed full of supercars and car owners, which acts as the centerpiece for a host of road-trips, challenges and races. Essentially a less douchey version of the Gumball Rally. You’re the new guy who has to race his way to the top.

There are, however, some major differences for number two. The action has shifted from Colorado to the south of France and northern Italy, including a rendered version of the city of Nice. Top Gear fans will need no reminding how much we love driving in this part of the world, and the Xbox One’s added grunt means it’s been stunningly realised in 1080p and 30fps, from Route Napoleon-style mountain passes to café-packed seaside marinas.

And this time you can go anywhere. Literally anywhere. There are no barriers in the entire map. In fact, only the second race we played (out of over 700 in total) had us ploughing a mint Toyota Supra through a series of vineyards and cornfields in fauna-unfriendly pursuit of several other JDM classics.

We failed. And the improved skill of your opponents is another upgrade: Forza Motorsport 5’s Drivatar system is now fully integrated, so you’re racing against avatars with the driving styles of your online friends. Which is our case, is uniformly aggressive, unsporting and untidy.

The car lineup is over 200 strong and takes advantage of the hard work Turn 10 put into Forza Motorsport 5: as well as your usual P1s, LaFerraris and Huracans, there are old Capris and Group B rally cars via much off-road exotica. And for the first time in a Forza game there’s also day/night cycles and weather (although it’s worth noting that a lot of this graphical wizardry is only on the Xbox One version, not the 360 which will arrive later).

Aside from the car noise, which is superbly done, Rob Da Bank of Radio 1 and Bestival fame has curated eight Grand Theft Auto style radio stations to flick through while you’re smashing a growling Lambo through trattoria tables on the Cote D’Azur. 

We had two hours with a finished version of the game, getting as far as we could through the single-player campaign, which was less than 1%. There’s potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay, and that’s before you jump into the online modes, which you can now do at the press of a button (we didn’t get the chance to try those out).

As any driving game review on TopGear.com immediately unleashes a heated tirade over the realism of the handling physics in <INSERT FAVOURITE GAME HERE>, let’s get one thing out of the way: this isn’t iRacing or Gran Turismo or even Geoff Crammond’s Formula One Grand Prix. You’re often drifting McLarens through vineyards for virtual skill points. Your damper setting isn’t front of mind (although all the options to tinker with your car setup are there under the same menu as Forza Motorsport).

Creative director Ralph Fulton says that the physics engine is “the Forza Motorsport handling with the edges smoothed off”, which is an accurate way of describing the slightly arcadey feel to cornering, but in this case it suits the game. Fun first, realism second. And with all the driver aids turned off, it remains a tough challenge.

We were forcibly ejected from playing after two hours, and have high hopes for this one. It’s released on September 30 on the Xbox One…

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