Time to brace yourself for a battle royal over inter-console bragging rights this Christmas, as Sony and Microsoft square off. It’s a particularly interesting situation, since although the PS4 has so far outsold the Xbox One, Microsoft believes it has a superior line-up of exclusive games heading into the festive season. All of which makes DriveClub an absolutely vital game for Sony, since it’s directly going head-to-head with Forza Horizon 2.
Like Forza Horizon 2, DriveClub is very much an arcade-style driving game, but that’s pretty much where any similarities end. DriveClub eschews any sort of storyline, choosing instead to drop you straight into the racing, which takes place on virtual versions of real roads plucked from countries including Scotland, Chile, Norway and Canada. These can be configured into everything from long point-to-points to tight, compact tracks. Its basics are impeccable: the cars feel gloriously planted on the road and satisfyingly grippy (noticeably more so than those in Forza Horizon 2) and it looks fabulous, with all manner of flashy visual effects showcased by a dynamic weather system, which produces glowering skies, low sun that can sometimes blind as you crest hills and utterly convincing rain and snow. All of which is done a less glossy and more realistic manner than Forza Horizon 2.
But DriveClub’s attempts to differentiate itself from other driving games are less convincing. The heart of the game is a clever system which doffs a cap to social media, and throws an initially bewildering amount of challenges created by real people rather than artificial intelligence, plus multiplayer races, at you. Commendably, creating your own challenges and propagating them to either friends or the world at large is dead easy – you can control weather conditions, time of day and so on. Scheduling looms large, and you can, say, set up bespoke online races with your immediate mates which you enact at prearranged times (with the help of an accompanying app for Android and iOS).
You can dive into straight races, time trials, point-to-points and drift events (the longer point-to-points and ability to trigger drifts with a touch of the handbrake evoke the spirit of Ridge Racer, except with real-life cars), plus multi-race events, usually split into cars manufactured in particular countries. During races, you frequently encounter DriveClub’s most innovative aspect: Face-Offs, which take place on small chunks of the track and invite you to average a higher speed than your rivals, take a more perfect line around corners or drift for longer. You can ignore those if you’re in an intense battle to overtake, but they prove a good extra source of Fame points, the game’s take on XP. Whenever you level up, you get a new car, and while you start with a selection of hot-hatches, exotic machinery like Spykers, Maseratis, Bentleys and Ferraris soon comes your way.
Another key element of the game is car clubs. You can set up your own or join somebody else’s, and you earn a parallel stream of Fame for every club-based race, which brings yet more cars and rewards. The end result is a truly social feel – even though DriveClub’s troubled development period, which saw it delayed, has allowed rival games like Grid Autosport and, indeed, Forza Horizon 2 to add support for car clubs also.
The end result is that there’s a world of fun to be had in DriveClub, and it’s a mighty good game, but it doesn’t take racing games to a whole new plane of existence, which is a touch disappointing. It lacks a coherent identity – its ingredients, which are impressive, don’t convincingly gel into a whole, whereas Forza Horizon 2 has a distinct, inimitable personality. And in some minor but noticeable respects, it drops the ball – there’s no fanfare to accompany its relentless country-hopping, for example. PS4 owners will love it, for sure, but it doesn’t strike us as possessing the magnetism required to commit the undecided to buying a PS4 rather than an Xbox One. All of which, at least, means console-watchers can buckle up and await an even more intense face-off between Sony and Microsoft this December.