Driveclub is the first splashy, big-budget, heavily promoted racing title for the PS4. It was initially supposed to be a launch title for that system almost exactly one year ago, before a series of delays pushed the debut back until, well, last week. The product of the minds at Evolution Studios (you might recognize the outfit for its MotorStorm and WRC franchises), Driveclub has been touted as the driving/racing game most perfectly crafted to take advantage of the social, always-online nature of this new generation of consoles.
The eponymous "club" is the hook on which the game hangs; a collection of you and five of your tightest gamer homies, winning races, creating and completing challenges, earning money-like Fame points and all wearing the same paintjobs. With all of that wrapped up in what the studio calls an "incredible, authentic and immersive driving experience," and powered by Sony's impressive hardware, expectations for Driveclub have been high to say the least.
So, fresh from a few weeks of non-stop Forza Horizon 2 play – the surprisingly direct competitor for the Xbox One – I booted up and got to work. (Yes, guys, this counts as work).
No sooner had I started playing than the creeping certainty of disappointment began to descend.
Cars have been handled nicely in terms of rendering, though still without the inch-over-inch perfection of the best competitive titles.
Driveclub starts you off seconds before your first race is set to begin, with nothing more than a probable understanding of how racing controls usually work, and that aforementioned expectation of a lot of fun to be had. After all, this game was delayed by a year, right? Certainly the developers spent the time making sure every last tire, exhaust note and circuit corner was dialed in?
Not so, sadly. Visually, the game immediately struck me as a level below the rich, glossy environs that envelop the latest iterations of the Forza series. That's a high bar, but one which Driveclub can't quite clear. The landscapes around the tracks, even in the meandering cut scenes that precede each event, are pretty enough in the broad view, but break down into a lot of fuzzy edges and overly dark vistas once the action begins. Cars themselves have been handled somewhat better in terms of rendering, it must be said, though still without the inch-over-inch perfection of the best competitive titles. You catch some of that in the gameplay footage below, but it's more evident if you've just booted up Horizon 2 for comparison sake.
Even the not-quite-there graphical presentation is better realized than the physical rules that govern each race run in Driveclub, however. I tested the game with the help of AutoblogGreen's John Beltz Snyder – probably the single most enthusiastic video gamer I know – and he and I both immediately keyed in on the very weird steering feel.
The "on or off" steering was the most dominant part of the gaming experience, tricky to get used to and wholly unsatisfying even when I had.
Said JBS: "Because there's not much progression in the steering, I felt like I needed to compensate by being really good at braking, and timing my turn-in." For me, that "on or off" steering was the most dominant part of the gaming experience, tricky to get used to and wholly unsatisfying even when I had.
Driveclub asks players to select cars based on four attributes – acceleration, top speed, handling and drifting – none of which are graded in any numerical detail. Other games use this kind of thing as a quick reference, too, but DC also leaves off any information, specific or relative, about things like engine placement, weight, or horsepower and torque. I find this lack of obvious and easy-to-add information kind of maddening, especially considering that the cars' physics model has seemingly been wrought from just those four core factors. Mid-engined cars might offer snappier direction changes than front-engined vehicles, in general, but in specific those cars with a high "drift" rating, regardless of layout, are easier to slide/less stable in turns. Maybe that makes sense to someone at Evolution, but not to me.
All driving games have their own universe of handling traits of course, and I could almost sink into the cars of Driveclub, despite its mediocre effort here, if it weren't for the shocking paucity of selection.
There are fifty cars in total that are available to drive in Driveclub. Fifty. There are no American cars, no Japanese cars and certainly no Korean or Australian cars. It's a Euro-only paddock here for the PS4's first big driving game, and a thin one at that. Consider that Forza 5 was dinged for having just over 200 cars (all of which were perfectly modeled, by the way), or that Gran Turismo 6 on the Playstation 3 now offers a selection of around 1,200 vehicles, and you'll start to understand my exasperation. A car selection this narrow is simply unacceptable from a racing game in 2014.
A car selection this narrow is simply unacceptable from a racing game in 2014.
My rant is almost over, but I can't miss mentioning that there's virtually nothing that can be done to individualize your car, too. All vehicles that I encountered came with exactly one manufacturer-spec color to choose from. There is a fairly robust editor for designing your own livery, which you can share with your club, but nothing so deep as the Forza tools along the same lines, and many of the options are locked away until you attain more levels. Oh, and there's no way to mechanically modify or tune your car, period.
You might think that with all of the aforementioned rough edges, the club structure that's at the heart of the game must be pretty deep, right? Clubs are groups of up to six players, who can basically earn Fame points collectively and unlock a few vehicles that are untouchable for solo players (That's right, you have to unlock the majority of the fifty-car garage... did I forget to mention that?) Club members can also create and compete in challenges against each other or rival clubs. Said challenges really only exist in the same gameplay formulations as the single-player game – head-to-head and time trial races with drifting events and some in-event mini challenges. I did enjoy seeing, throughout the play test, challenges offered and lap times bested by my clubmates, but even that feature set has been making the rounds in games like Need For Speed Rivals and, of course, Forza, for years now.
The truth is that the club structure adds a layer of interest and complexity to the game. As co-tester Snyder put it, "The social cornering, average speed, and drifting challenges within the races are excellent features. Doing well at them goes toward helping out you club, and they give you a reason not to simply abandon a single-player race that you've totally blown."
The social cornering, average speed, and drifting challenges within the races are excellent features.
I agree with that, but ultimately the club play doesn't feel up to the task of carrying the title as a reason for being. Frosting, with no cake.
What's more, for a game that is intended to be extraordinarily social, the online experience offered is average in the best case, and has proven to be pretty terrible in the early going. We played some pre-launch online matches, and were quickly stymied by the old school, wait-in-a-lobby style of matchmaking. "It should simply be way easier to race your friends live," John complained.
Making things a whole lot worse, game servers have suffered failure after failure since the October 7, when the title hit shelves. Never a great customer experience, though an increasingly common one in the world of online play these days. The thing is I read about the server issues, but I never experienced them firsthand, because I'd basically lost interest in spending time with the title already.
When Gran Turismo 3 debuted in 2001, the lure was strong enough that I scraped together my scarce funds from a college-student, part-timer budget, and laid out almost $400 for console, game and memory card (remember memory cards?). GT3 wasn't the best iteration of the series ever, but it was certainly good enough that I never regretted spending that cash.
This isn't the game that makes me have to own a PS4.
I know the world has changed since then, video gamers are older and richer, titles far more numerous and diverse, but I still believe that those kinds of 'anchor' titles are critical around the transition from old to new console generations. Misplaced or not, my expectation was that Driveclub (with its full-fat, $60 price tag) had the potential to be that kind of game, but I was just plain wrong.
I think that the racer will get better as the server issues stabilize, as downloadable content enriches the car and track selection, and as the player-field improves the depth of the club/challenge idea. But this isn't a game that makes me have to own a PS4. Looks like I'm going to have wait on Gran Turismo to play that role, yet again.