Played on: PlayStation 4.
Available on: PlayStation 4.
The end of 2014 is perhaps best remembered in the world of video games as a new low point. Games were rushed to release for the holiday season and more than a few big titles suffered massive brand damage. Assassin’s Creed: Unity brought the franchise to its knees, whilst Halo: The Master Chief Collection ruined more than just a few childhood memories for gamers, who are only now just about able to get through the game’s online matchmaking, two months on from release. Then, of course, there was Evolution Studios’ Driveclub.
Driveclub has had a chequered past for well over a year. It was due to release alongside the PlayStation 4, with a free version available for all PlayStation Plus subscribers. The launch, however, was delayed because the game simply wasn’t ready. This caused marketing and pre-order chaos, but nonetheless the brave decision was applauded by many (me included) as it showed a positive change in game development for the new generation: releasing products only when they were finished, working and ready (how naive we were back in November 2013, eh?). Fast-forward from then to October 2014, and Driveclub was finally released to eagerly awaiting PlayStation 4 owners. And it was still a mess.
It’s surprising that Evolution Studios had such trouble making a racing game for the PlayStation 4. With their PlayStation 3 exclusive Motorstorm games being well-made and enjoyable arcade racers, it was expected that they’d have no problem bringing a more straight-forward racing game to Sony’s new platform. Evolution Studios are, after all, a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment and therefore this first party game should have had plenty of support, not to mention 11 months of extra development time. When Driveclub came out, however, servers buckled, the free PlayStation Plus game was delayed indefinitely (and three and a half months later there’s still no sign of it), and it took Evolution and Sony a long time to get the game to a working state.
Now, it might seem like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the game’s release and not reviewing it. That’s because it’s important to understand all the trouble Driveclub had both before it came out and after it hit shop shelves. The problems with Driveclub were so well publicised when it came out that I purposefully didn’t buy the game until after Christmas. I picked it up cheap (since it doesn’t look like I’m going to be getting my free version anytime soon) and when it was working better. Therefore it’s important to understand that my score is reflective of the game now (as at January 2015), not as it was when it released back in October 2014.
The thing with Driveclub is, despite all those problems, it’s actually a pretty good, if unexceptional, racing game. Whilst Forza Horizon 2 and The Crew are open world games, Driveclub takes a traditional racing approach with tracks and circuits. Unlike Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport games, or Sony’s own Gran Turismo franchise, Driveclub isn’t a track simulator though. In fact Driveclub is probably best likened to Codemaster’s Grid, or even Evolution Studios’ own Motorstorm series, in the sense that it blends tracks and circuits with a more arcade style of racing handling. It doesn’t, however, take arcade handling to the wacky lengths of Need For Speed or Burnout. What this means is you’ll still need to brake for, and take consideration of, corners, but you can still take them quicker than you ever could in real life. The handling is too grippy though, which means drifting is quite difficult and bumps and crashes seem inconsistent in their ability to slow you down. All in all it’s a more than functional balance between arcade and simulation, even if the experience is at times inconsistent.
Driveclub is most definitely a fantastic showcase for the PlayStation 4 though. The graphics are stunning with plenty of detail on show and the recently added weather effects really help to bring the game alive. It’s impossible to deny that Driveclub is one of the best looking racing games available; racing around a stormy Scottish loch, with the sun occasionally peaking through the clouds, is as great to look at as Forza Horzion 2’s beautiful southern European coasts. The frame-rate is also completely rock solid in Driveclub. It may only be 30 frames a second, but it doesn’t appear to waiver from this at all, meaning controls are consistently and reliably responsive. The only downside to Driveclub’s presentation comes from the myriad of menu screens that you have to navigate through to actually get into races. They’re just not that interesting, although they’re absolutely functional, and there does appear to be a lot of them.
Whilst there is a lot of fun to be had in Driveclub’s single-player tour, single races, and solo challenges, the game also touts a bunch of online and social features. There’s nothing ground-breaking going on though. Single-player tracks have challenges strewn throughout them, tasking you to beat other driver’s drift scores, or hold the perfect racing line for longer. Challenges set by members of your club are prioritised, and you can, of course, take your racing online against other real opponents. Being a member of a club allows you to access cars otherwise unavailable, and if you can find people to join your own club, you’ll even get to design your own colour scheme and emblem that can be used as a livery for any car. Driveclub’s online isn’t doing anything new (but then again every racing game relies on a version of Need For Speed’s Autolog now anyway), and you’ll need to work hard and have good friends as interested as you in order to reap the benefits of having, or being a member of, a club, but it’s still a good competitive online racer.
There are problems, beyond it’s troubled release, for Driveclub though. The AI racers unfortunately aren’t always up to scratch, even after several patches. You get penalised for cutting corners and causing crashes in Driveclub in the form of a reduction in fame points. These fame points are essential for levelling up and unlocking new and better cars. Whilst this encourages clean racing, the same rules don’t appear to apply to the AI, who often bump you out of the way as they speed past. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that these collisions are in no way your fault, but the game deducts fame points from you anyway. It becomes even more of an annoyance as the difficulty increases later in the single-player tours and the game challenges you to run perfect laps; thanks to the AI this is easier said than done.
The handling in Driveclub is a bit of an oddity too. Lying somewhere between simulation and arcade, Evolution Studios don’t quite get the balance right, failing to achieve the perfect blend found in Codemasters’ original Grid game. Utimately, driving just feels a little flat in Driveclub. In Forza Horizon 2 it is joyful, in Need For Speed Hot Pursuit it is loose and fast, in The Crew it is frustrating and not fun, and in Driveclub it’s just a little lifeless. The handling model works well enough but just falls short of making racing thrilling. You can’t create epic drifts, but you also can’t slow down too much for corners or you’ll be left behind. In fact nailing a track can feel a bit like a hit and miss exercise which makes the absence of a rewind mechanic, like the one found in Grid or Forza, all the more surprising. If this had been included it would have helped Driveclub a lot, especially by helping racers avoid the mistakes of that pesky AI via a simple do-over.
At its core Driveclub does a lot of things right, but mostly in a functional sense. If you want a (now) working racing game, that looks fantastic on your PlayStation 4, then you could do a lot worse then Driveclub. It’s better than The Crew, but nonetheless the racing in Driveclub feels a little flat. For all the great looking, competitive, and functional racing, it’s only ever good. Yes you’ll have fun playing it, but it lacks the joy found in Forza Horizon 2, Grid, or Burnout Paradise.
Forza Horizon 2 set the benchmark very high for new generation racing games, and perhaps I’ve fallen too in love with it. Love is blinding after all, but to me this joyous arcade racer showed everyone that racing games aren’t just about winning races, but about the driving journey: getting from A to B and loving every moment. Driveclub isn’t trying to create a driving game, but it still fails to capture the joy of getting behind the wheel and racing. It comes down to Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite word again: soul. Driveclub isn’t as soulless as The Crew, but it’s still a lot of laps behind the best racing games out there.
Functional and fun to play? Absolutely. The racing game you turn to in order to live out your race driver fantasies? No chance.
All images from https://www.playstation.com/en-gb/games/driveclub-ps4/