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Zynga’s latest comeback strategy is a gorgeous mobile racing game

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The Fast and the FarmVille

CSR Racing 2

Over the last few years Zynga has tried many tactics to get a foothold in the mobile space, a platform where it has struggled to replicate the same success it saw on Facebook. Those tactics have included everything from acquiring popular games like Draw Something and Words with Friends, to adapting franchises like FarmVille, and even creating new titles like the strategy-focused Empires & Allies.

Today comes perhaps the company’s most ambitious title yet: CSR Racing 2, a drag racing game from developer NaturalMotion, which was acquired by Zynga in 2014. The original CSR Racing and its follow-up CSR Classics have been downloaded more than 190 million times, and at one point were earning an estimated $12 million each month. And Zynga is hoping that by tackling a genre which is not currently dominating the charts, it can carve out its own space. “We believe that racing as a genre is underserved [on mobile],” says NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil, “and has been underserved for a couple of years.”

CSR Racing 2

The most striking thing about CSR Racing 2 is its visuals — this isn’t a game that looks like it belongs on your phone or tablet. While the streets you’re racing on look a bit low-fi, the cars themselves are rendered in wonderful detail, comparable to what you’d see on a modern console. A large part of the game’s appeal is simply the car porn aspect: when you buy a car you can check it out from every angle, and even pop open the hood, doors, and trunk to get a better look, a bit like Forza Motorsport’s “Forzavista” mode. For the first time in the series, the cars feature fully detailed interiors and engines, and there are copious customization options, from new paint colors and liveries to decals and license plates. I’ve been playing the game on an iPad Pro and it’s fun simply to pan the camera around your fully-tricked out car.

The game itself is pretty straightforward. The only type of race featured is drag racing, and you don’t have direct control over the car’s movements. Instead, the car drives autonomously, and your job is to shift gears at just the right time, while also managing when to hit a speed-boosting dose of nitrous. It’s like The Fast and the Furious, but without the danger. The gear-shifting mechanic is fun, and the races are short enough to work well on mobile, but there also isn’t a lot of depth to the actual racing. It gets monotonous after a while, which is par for the course for most racing games, to be fair. There are plenty of different race options available, from competitive multiplayer to a single-player mode with a barebones story, but the racing itself always feels pretty much the same.

Like in most racers, CSR Racing 2 starts you out in a relatively low-level car, and the idea is that as you win races (and cash), you can upgrade that vehicle and eventually expand your garage to include flashier rides. It’s a slow process if you don’t want to spend any real cash, however. In fact, the main sticking point with the game is its multiple forms of monetization, which can be overwhelming. There’s the gas that depletes as you race, serving as the now-standard energy mechanic in free-to-play games, as well as several forms of currency and even rare parts that you can use to upgrade your cars. It can get confusing, and the game constantly pesters you with pop-ups for special in-app purchase deals or to watch an ad for some free currency.

CSR Racing 2

CSR Racing 2 is a much bigger production than its predecessor, with a bigger team, including a new London studio helmed by former Codemasters VP of Development Julian Widdows. The attention to detail is so great that the art team has a full-time staffer dedicated to getting the paint colors perfect. It’s not the kind of production that’s typical of mobile, especially in the free-to-play space, where games are often pushed out quickly and then regularly updated to fix any potential problems. The game has been in the works for some time: NaturalMotion was acquired by Zynga two years ago, but CSR Racing 2 will be its first release since then. The studio is also working on the strategy title Dawn of Titans, which seeks to distill epic fantasy battles into something you can play while waiting for a coffee. It’s expected to release this year, though no date has been set.

“When the acquisition happened a couple of years ago, there was some concern that we’d be forced to release our games before they’re ready,” says Reil. “Back then, I trusted that this wasn’t going to be the case, and I think that trust was correct, because if you look at our games, we have not rushed them out. We’re trying to get them right, we’re trying to make them really special for our players, and that’s a commitment and really a big shift that happened at Zynga.” New CEO Frank Gibeau, who took over for Mark Pincus in March, seems to echo this sentiment. “Our success will be determined by the quality of games delivered rather than the number of games launched,” he said during the company’s most recent earnings report in May.

Zynga still has a number of more stereotypical free-to-play titles in the works, including multiple mobile slots games and licensed titles based on the Wizard of Oz and Ice Age. But with games like Dawn of Titans, Empires & Allies, and CSR Racing 2, the company is at least showing it’s willing be ambitious at times — now the question is whether that ambition will lead to success.

CSR Racing 2 is available now as a free download on both iOS and Android.