Stalling at the finish line
As the Gran Turismo franchise was still clinging to the PlayStation 3 last year, the launch of the PlayStation 4 passed by without a racing title. That launch title was supposed to be Driveclub, the latest effort from Evolution Studios, creators of the Motorstorm franchise. Following a long delay, the game finally arrived on PS4 this month. Rather than offering offroad mayhem, Driveclub aims to position itself as the more accessible alternative to GT and help expand the garage of exclusive racing titles on PlayStation. But even with so much additional development time, Driveclub is an underwhelming experience that lacks in-depth features or engaging content.
Offline career Tour mode is split into a few sections, each offering a decent number of events to play through. There are classic races with up to 11 opponents, sprints, time trials, and drift challenges. It’s stock-standard, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Your career progression has a classic feel, in that you earn up to three stars for any given race, and a certain number of stars are required to unlock the next set of events. You usually get one star for finishing in the top 3, and then additional stars for completing specific tasks during the race – such as reaching a designated top speed, beating a best average speed through a section, or following the racing line precisely through a section.
There are no difficulty settings, but most players should have no problem reaching the final championship by earning a majority of the stars in the campaign. You may be required to go back and attempt some races again, when you’ve unlocked better cars. If anything, it feels like the finale comes rather quickly – probably in less than 10 hours. For a racing title, that’s concerning, and Driveclub is certainly not a game you want to pick up for a lengthy or deep career mode. All you do is a bunch of standalone races, often themed by car class or manufacturer, without any real connection between the events or the cars.
Vehicle selection includes 50 cars, split into 7 different performance categories. It’s a fairly limited number, though more are promised via free and paid DLC. The game focuses primarily on European makes, so while you’ll see the familiar Audi’s, BMW’s and Ferrari’s, there are more rare selections, such as Gumpert Apollo Enraged, Marussia B-2 and Savage Rivale GTR-S. Unfortunately that also means there is no space for Chevrolet, Subaru, Nissan, or Lamborghini. Japanese and American car fans need not apply.
But the cars that are present are wonderfully recreated, complete with an animation of the player getting behind the wheel. All of the interiors and exteriors are nuanced and precisely reproduced in-game, down to the dashboards accurately displaying the metrics. All you can do, however, is create some custom liveries. There are no mechanical aspects to tweak, and you just get an arbitrary rating for each car’s top speed, acceleration, handling and drifting. During races, your car will get banged up a bit with the metal deforming and paint scratching off, but the damage model is purely visual and has no impact on performance.
There is no currency in Driveclub to purchase cars, and instead they are simply locked behind your driver experience level. This means that you could be facing an event in career mode that requires a car you haven’t unlocked yet, even though you’ve earned all the stars possible so far. In order to increase said level, you’ll be earning Fame points during races. You get some by simply achieving a podium finish, or completing various accolades – progression meters that track how much you’ve raced with a certain manufacturer, how many times you’ve completed an event type, and so on. The rest is earned by your actual driving performance.
Earning Fame when racing is a straightforward, but sometimes frustrating. Similar to games like Need for Speed Shift before it, Driveclub grants players Fame for racing cleanly, plus performing stunts such as drifts, reaching top speeds, and drafting. However, touch the edge of the track, or bump into an opponent, and points are deducted. The system is clearly aimed at a simulation style of play, but Driveclub lacks the handling model or physics to match it.
The car handling sits somewhere between Gran Turismo and Dirt franchise, but it’s neither a good sim like the former, nor an accessible, realistic driving experience like the latter. Cars feel heavy, which is nice, but seemingly understeer on corners. Drifting can be awkward, and your Hyper car’s rear end will kick out on every turn. Yet it’s still relatively easy to get straightened out, even as you lose grip, and braking performance on all cars is too good to be realistic. It’s an okay experience once you get used to the handling, but the game isn’t done yet. Cut a corner or bump into an opponent with too much force, and the game arbitrarily removes the ability to accelerate for a few moments as punishment. It’s an annoying system, but not terrible if executed correctly. However, Driveclub is wholly inconsistent in its punishments, so it becomes a matter of remembering what corners you can cut that the game seemingly ignores, rather than trying to drive cleanly.
It’s a bad idea to drive cleanly anyway, not just because of the car handling, but due to the AI problems. The artificial, generic drivers that will compete against you in Driveclub are a rude bunch. It is hard to recall a more aggressive, yet simplistic AI in any recent driving game. They will slam into you often and at full force, whether it’s while cornering, or even just accelerating down the straight - instead of just passing. And it’s not because you swerved into their racing line, but rather because of sheer aggression, or because you have a slower car. Yet at other times, you can just swerve in front of them and cause them to brake, abusing their basic intelligence to hold on to your position. Of course each hit will take away from your earned Fame. The AI also rubberbands – catching up and passing you on straightaways, but slowing and letting you pass them on any bends or corners. Get ahead early or start competing on the last lap, the AI will never be too far behind or ahead. Because of this, you’ll always be looking in the rearview mirror, and driving aggressively; Fame deductions from collisions be damned, clean laps aren't good enough to win.
Anytime you go off track, an instant and annoying 3 second timer appears, urging the player to return, or be faced with a reset that will put you at a significant disadvantage. Besides losing Fame points by bumping into the edge of the track, you’ll also be at a great risk of clipping the environment at an awkward angle and spinning out. Instead of having a proper racing line, the tracks have flags of either green, yellow, or red color on most corners, as a visual guide for the players. Unfortunately these flags are often meaningless as to how hard you should or shouldn’t break, nor does even the AI follow their suggestion. In addition to inconsistent physics during collisions and arbitrary penalties that slow you down for too long, the tracks have awkward elevation changes that could send you flying into the air at the least opportune moment. And you will crash frustratingly often, especially during the late-game events using the fastest cars in the game. Maybe because you get forced off the road and clip the side of the invisible wall on the track, spinning you 180 degrees; or maybe because the developers decided to put a jump right before a turn and you land awkwardly. The worst part? Driveclub lacks a rewind system, so one mistake will cost you the race most of the time. You can catch up for a top 3 finish if you make the error early on, but midway through or later, and first place is out of reach.
You’ll be racing across a variety of well designed tracks, located in different parts of the world. These tracks are fictional, but are based on real environments, from Norway to India. Driveclub offers impressive backdrops, but that seems to be the standard for any track-based racing game these days. These distant vistas are mostly static, but they impress with some details such as thousands of individually placed trees in Canada, and so forth. While there are over 50 tracks in total, with variations depending on race type, most are quite similar to others in the same geographic region. Further, despite early marketing materials, Driveclub lacks precipitation, so the roads are always dry and clean. This too is said to be coming via a patch at a later date, though.
Being designed and promoted as a socially-involving experience, Driveclub failed to launch. It took a full week for online connectivity to become available, and even at the time of publishing this review, not all features are consistently accessible. It’s unheard of for a racing game, let alone one that’s aimed to be social. When you do finally connect, players can join clubs. These titular Driveclubs are aimed at getting groups of people together to compete and earn rewards. Any Fame you earn offline (but only while connected to the servers) will also go towards increasing your club’s level. This actually unlocks about 5 more cars to be used in the game that are not available via any other means. Further, being a part of a club lets you participate in Face-off challenges during races – these objectives appear on tracks during Tour and multiplayer races, as described earlier. But instead of earning stars, you’re getting your name on leaderboards depending on how well you perform these challenges. It’s a neat idea and a good alternative to the traditional ranking systems.
However, Driveclub’s mechanics are not too far from Need for Speed’s Autolog. Face-offs are engaging, but do grow repetitive. Clubs themselves are only limited to 6 players, so rather than being a social game in a sense that you can meet new people, Driveclub is more about small teams of pre-existing friends competing against others and each other. The Fame you earn only gets credited to your club if the servers are online, and not retrospectively. Players are free to join and leave clubs at any time and as frequently as they want, so there’s little reason to be loyal, and most will flock to open-membership, high-level clubs just so they can unlock the specific cars. Which, by the way, will become inaccessible again if you leave a club, or just can’t connect to the servers.
One major positive point for Driveclub’s multiplayer seems to be just how smooth it is. In fact, it probably has the best netcode that we’ve seen so far on a next generation racing title. In other games, the player’s own car and the environment are responsive in real time, but cars of other players usually teleport and spaz around the track. Not so in Driveclub – the entire online racing experience has no visual or performance hitches, making it indistinguishable from single player modes. When the servers are finally stable, the game will likely offer the best multiplayer racing from a technical standpoint.
Many major exclusive releases for the PlayStation 4 have focused on producing incredible visual fidelity, and while Driveclub is a good looking title, it is not overwhelmingly impressive. The cars, both inside and out, look good but there are notable imperfections and jagged lines on the contours. Natural environments are realistic, though as mentioned before, largely lifeless. Having said that, the game does manage to create good atmosphere, particularly thanks to lighting effects and a day/night cycle. Driveclub’s overcast days slowly transitioning into night look impressive, complete with occasional fireworks and even auroras. Effectiveness of the day-to-night transition is clearly recognized by Evolution Studios, so it is a very frequently used effect in the Tour campaign. Audio design is a bit of a mixed bag. The soundtrack is primarily techno, with no standout tunes and far too many remixes of the same intro cinematic song. On the other hand, audio effects from satisfying growl of the car engines to the crunches of collisions are great. Finally, it should be noted that the game loads very quickly, from navigating the menus to jumping into a race.
Driveclub seems to be caught between two worlds, and it has firm footing in neither. Is it a simulation or an arcade title? It could be the former – as demonstrated by discouraging aggressive driving, cutting corners and causing collisions, going off track, using a flag system instead of a driving line, and offering no option to rewind time. There is no music by default in races, the AI is aggressive, and environments are sterile. But at the same time, Driveclub leans heavily in the arcade direction as well – the handling model is forgiving and not accurate enough to be considered a simulation, car stats are basic, there is no mechanical information or customization, no damage other than visual, and the tracks have uneven surfaces to encourage more thrills. The end result is a game that’s short on features to appeal to simulation fans, and overly punishing for arcade fans. If you’re still undecided, our advice is to wait until the free PlayStation Plus Edition of Driveclub becomes available, and see for yourself if the full game is worth a purchase.