The old adage that proper car games fall into either the arcade or simulation category has always been an oversimplification. With games like those in the Project Gotham Racing series attempting to straddle both camps, merging realism with accessibility, this notion of separation doesn’t make much sense. Driveclub sets its GPS for a similar sweet spot.
Every racing fan will have their own preference of course. But the PS4’s first must-have racer does an excellent job of pitching the game’s mechanics at a level where racing requires planning and restraint but learning the mechanics comes naturally enough to new players.
To further emphasise the game’s racing-sim pedigree, races are completely confined to one of the 55 available tracks, with no short cuts or alternative routes in sight. The popular open worlds found in recent and upcoming racing titles like Need for Speed and The Crew seem a million miles away when your engine cuts out because you accidentally cut a corner.
When you enter your first race in DriveClub, it’s easy to be blown away by the level of detail in every aspect of the game. The snow capped mountains and crystal clear roadways are gorgeous and the picturesque locations promote the belief that perhaps photorealism isn’t such a far off goal after all.
The varied fictional tracks cover five locations: Canada, Scotland, Norway, Chile and India. Between these locales, there’s a wide range of layouts and climates. It’s almost a shame that most environments go relatively unseen at the astronomical speeds allowed by the range super cars. A run-through of the lap at less G-force inducing speeds is suggested to really appreciate the tracks.
As astounding as the game’s environments are, it’s the cars that are the real stars of the show and, whether you like to really put yourself in the driving seat with a first person view or cabin claustrophobia keeps you firmly positioned in third person, the level of detail is astounding and, dare I say it, truly next gen. Carbon weaves, and tire treads have been obsessively poured over and every inch of the 50 or so cars seems to have received an almost perfect recreation. That is, of course, except for each vehicle’s rear bumper which is most often obscured by a “There has been a problem connecting to the DRIVECLUB server,” notification.
As well as being one of Driveclub’s most disappointing features, the server issues that continue to plague online play have also highlighted its most interesting revelation: There’s actually something to Driveclub as a single player experience.
Single player “Tour,” races are laid out in a linear fashion, with each race differentiated by a joyful retro poster design. In order to progress through the events, players must earn stars by competing in races. However, winning isn’t everything in Driveclub. The majority of races offer one star for a podium finish, a further star for finishing quickly – either a single lap or the entire race – and yet another star for completing a more arbitrary objective.
These extra objectives range from drift challenges, to reaching a maximum speed during a race. They do an excellent job of keeping the boredom of repetition at bay. When you find, three laps in, that you’re not doing quite as well as you’d hoped, the challenge of taking a corner perfectly may be enough to keep you from restarting the race. If you find that you’re half a lap ahead on the other hand, the added difficulty of drifting round the final corner adds an element of peril to your otherwise assured victory.
In theory, these challenges should blend perfectly with the player created ones, but my experience with them has been less than ideal. By way of example, when racing online, a small dot may appear on the minimap informing you that your average speed around the next corner will be placed against another player’s, but because of the occasionally broken online services, you may find the score you’re tasked with beating is 6521 mph.
So far, glitchy challenges are the least of developer Evolution Studios’ problems. During my first few days with Driveclub – I’ve only spent time with the game after its worldwide release – I didn’t get online once and although server communications have improved, as of writing, it’s still taking upwards of half an hour to make a connection.
Once you’ve made it through the obligatory 30 minute warm up, online matches are fractious and chaotic with up to twelve racers each vying for pole position. Things tend to even out after the first few frantic seconds, but up until that point, Driveclub feels like a very different game.
Cars, paint jobs and club emblems are unlocked through gaining fame for yourself and for your club, but to add insult to injury the cars and items you unlock for your club are walled off while offline. Having unlockables based on your communal efforts is a fantastic idea, but until the online mode gets at least a modicum of stability, it’s virtually a non-starter.
The selection of cars itself is substantial but not quite mind blowing. While the Bentleys and Mclarens on offer are bound to get many piston powered hearts racing, the European bias and limited number of cars may leave some cold.
The potential to customise paint jobs allows players to put their own spin on vehicles without offering anything groundbreaking. Expect an excellent selection of paint jobs and colors, but no custom designed decals as of yet. The added bonus of a customisable driver is another appreciated feature, but the selection of malformed avatars and mid-life crisis clothing suggests it may have been a last minute addition.
Some issues, it seems, will always persist, as even the power of the next gen couldn’t prevent the inclusion of unnatural looking fans that repeat the same, short animation every lap. Elsewhere invisible walls do an excellent job of stopping you from careening off cliffs but do throw you right out of the otherwise engrossing experience.
In Driveclub’s long lead up to release, dynamic weather was a key feature that differentiated it from its peers, and the fact that this feature is missing at launch is disappointing. It does little to distract from the overall enjoyment of the game, but it’s a shame that it won’t be available for the next few weeks at least.
Driveclub had the potential to be the first racing game to truly take advantage of the next gen consoles and, although it still has the opportunity to develop into the game Playstation fans all thought it would be, for now it will have to settle for being a gorgeous well implemented driving game.
This review is based on a review copy of the game for Playstation 4 provided by SCEE.