The arrival of Forza Horizon 2 marks the first salvo in the titanic battle for next-gen console supremacy which Microsoft and Sony will join in earnest this Christmas. Microsoft has a bit of ground to catch up – so far, the PlayStation 4 has outsold the Xbox One – but Forza Horizon 2 strongly suggests that we shouldn’t count it out. Many driving game cognoscenti already preferred the spin-off Forza Horizon to the parent Forza Motorsport games: Playground Games is a British developer, and it managed to inject some British humour into the previously so-dry-as-to-be-bland proceedings. And with Forza Horizon 2, it has created one of the slickest, most polished games that we have ever seen, yet it retains a sense of cheekiness and is so well structured that it will keep you immersed and occupied for many months.
Forza Horizon 2 is a proper open-world driving game – so much so, in fact, that it encourages you to drive across fields of vineyards and so forth. Like its predecessor, it employs the device of centring the action on a car-based festival called Horizon – this time taking place in the lush surrounds of the French and Italian Riviera. Which, thanks to the jump to the Xbox One, is rendered in achingly seductive glory – just driving around in Forza Horizon 2 feels like a cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Proceedings start with you delivering some exotic metalwork from the ferry; you then get a choice of cars with which to make your mark in the races that comprise the festival. Which, this time around, are grouped according to car type, and based around six hub towns. Even moving between hubs is fun – everyone accompanies you on a so-called Road Trip, forming a giant cavalcade of supercars. It’s what you would imagine an early Gumball Rally to be like.
As ever, there’s an almost bewildering amount that you can do in the game. You’re constantly earning Skill Points, the game’s equivalent of XP, by speeding past cameras, pulling off drifts and near-misses and so on. These can be cashed in for a vast array of perks, and whenever you level up, you get a spin on a slot machine that could win you a car or loads of cash. The usual point-to-point and multiple-lap races are present and correct, as are off-road efforts in which you go from checkpoint to checkpoint, which requires plenty of concentration; if you miss one, you might as well restart. Barn finds have returned, and there’s a whole new series of challenges called Bucket List, which puts you in some of the rarest, most exotic machinery ever made and whose objectives vary in a satisfying manner.
The ability to rewind time when you make a mistake is a reminder that Forza Horizon 2 is an arcade game, rather than a sim, and it comes in handy when you encounter the game’s Achilles heel: twitchy handling. Admittedly, that twitchiness disappears to a major extent in four-wheel-drive cars, but in anything powerful and rear-wheel drive, you have to work hard just to keep the car pointing roughly where you want it to. There’s a Gran Turismo-style engine which lets you upgrade individual elements of the cars, so you often find yourself upgrading the suspension of a car you’ve just acquired to its highest level. The cars feel noticeably less planted on the tarmac and grippy than those of Drive Club. Which is a real shame, because otherwise, Forza Horizon 2 approaches perfection.
The multiplayer side of Forza Horizon 2 is largely faultless – you can free-roam to your heart’s content, visit Car Meets (which are most interesting if you’re into the car customisation side of the game) and hang out with any Car Club you join. But the standout thing to do is the online version of Road Trip, which plunges you into four events, with your competitors driving hell-for-leather between races, and Skill Points you pick up in those sequences affecting your overall standing in the Road Trip stakes.
Forza Horizon 2 is a brilliant game – it would walk a 5/5 rating if it wasn’t for that rather fundamental problem of the cars’ dodgy handling. Nevertheless, that’s the only aspect in which Drive Club is noticeably better than Forza Horizon 2, and you can head to the mechanic in Forza for suspension tuning, so it trumps Drive Club in every respect (even without the server issues that Drive Club is currently struggling with, which Sony will surely sort out with alacrity). In this battle of the arcade-racers, bragging rights go to Forza Horizon 2 and the Xbox One.