The first PS4 racing game is visually stunning, but network issues and strict mechanics mean DriveClub isn't much fun
Available formats: PS4
DriveClub has had a torturous birth: originally scheduled as a PS4 launch title, it was delayed for almost a year before finally arriving at the beginning of October. However, major issues with server capacity meant many players were unable to get online, and the free ‘taster’ version for PS Plus subscribers is still missing in action. Three weeks after launch, we finally got behind the wheel to see whether there’s an enjoyable game behind all the connectivity woes.
From the outset, DriveClub puts you in the driver’s seat. Even before you reach the main menu, you’re thrown into a race, giving you a taste of things to come and showing off the game’s stunning visuals. Each car is beautifully modelled inside and out, with interior instrument panels lighting up authentically at night and dashboards reflecting convincingly in windscreens, while the tracks themselves are crammed full of details, spectators, flora and eye-watering vistas.
There’s plenty of variety, with five distinct locations, each with eleven separate tracks, and that’s before you take the dynamic lighting system into account. The developer has gone above and beyond here, uniquely generating the skies every time you play with fully 3D rendered clouds to accurately diffuse light from the sun as it moves across the sky. This presents its own challenge to drivers: racing into the sunset can be blindingly bright, obscuring your view of the track, while exiting a dark tunnel into the daylight can take a second before your eyes adjust to the brightness.
Night races are equally spectacular, with the stars in the sky accurately mapped using data from NASA. Eventually a dynamic weather system will add rain and snow, with conditions (and handling) changing mid-race, but even as it stands Driveclub feels like it has much more variety than Forza Motorsport 5‘s 17 locations.
^ We’re still waiting for dynamic weather, but when it arrives it promises to look spectacular
Once you get into a driving rhythm, it quickly becomes clear that Driveclub isn’t an arcade racer. There might not be mechanical car damage or tyre simulation, but overcook a corner and your race could be over; there are no handbrake turn rescues here. Slam on the brakes and it’s possible to come out the other side with only one or two lost places, but spin out and you’ll be at the back of the pack until the chequered flag. There’s a small amount of rubber banding, letting you catch up with the stragglers in the final few laps of a race, but one wrong move and you’ll almost certainly do yourself out of a podium finish.
The AI drivers all follow a regimented racing line, even when in a tightly grouped pack, which feels totally unrealistic and can’t match the lifelike driving of Codemasters’ Grid or F1 games, but they still put up a challenge. Passing the pack leader on the inside line might give you first place, but there’s a good chance it will battle back and take it from you on the next turn. Considering players are punished for making contact, the AI doesn’t mind clashing into you and sending you spinning into the barriers, either.
It’s such a shame, then, that developer Evolution Studios has gone out of its way to make the racing experience such a rigid one. Edging too far off the track will immediately start a three second countdown before your car is reset, colliding with other racers results in a power-limiting penalty, and cutting corners or brushing the barriers result in deducted style points.
^ Drift events in particular just aren’t much fun, with no tutorials or guides to help you perfect your technique
This militant structure carries across to the Tour mode, which slowly tests drivers’ skills with a series of individual races and small championships. Progression to the next cup means unlocking a new car class, but you can’t use the more powerful cars as soon as you’ve unlocked them – you have to complete the main event in each of the lesser cups first. We had a souped-up Audi R8 waiting in our garage, but no opportunity to drive it until we’d finished a humdrum race series behind the wheel of a Mercedes A Class hot hatch. No-one wants to be stuck in an everyday runabout when you’ve got a supercar waiting in the wings, but you have no choice until you’ve finished the right races, or earned the right Driver or Club Level. Evolution Studios’ previous effort Motorstorm was one of the most exciting and fun to play racers on the PS3, so it’s mind-blowing to see how the developer has restricted players here.
This decision was partly made to give gamers a reason to team up as the titular clubs. Gamers can increase their club level by racing, either solo against the AI or online against other players, with higher levels unlocking more cars and greater challenges. With 35 cars in the box, no custom tuning and no visual modifications aside from paint and decals, the only way to keep the content flowing until you reach the final few race series is to drip-feed cars.
^ The scenery might change as the light fades, but you can be sure the AI racers will still be stuck rigidly to the racing line
It all feels a bit unnecessary though, as there’s plenty here to keep you driving long after you’ve unlocked all the cars. Spot challenges, which pit you against one other PSN player in a quick head-to-head, are an excellent way to test your skills. They appear frequently mid-race and range from maintaining the fastest average speed on a particular section of the course, performing a longer drift, completing a corner cleanly or reaching a higher top speed. If you win, you earn a little extra fame to help you climb driver and club levels faster.
We would be a lot more forgiving if players were left to drive and get into a rhythm, but that’s not possible as you’re thrown back into the menu system as soon as you’ve finished a race. The sense of immersion isn’t helped by the questionable sound mix, either. Oddly weighted in favour of rivals’ cars rather than your own, the engine note sounds muffled and indistinct when driving from the behind-the-wheel perspective, and simply isn’t loud enough to give the impression you’re actually sat in the car.
If you prefer direct competition, multiplayer races let you square off against friends or random PSN opponents. Rather than select a particular track, you have to register for specific events which happen every few minutes. As you can’t do anything else while you’re waiting for an event to start, there’s a disappointing lull between races, which dampened our enthusiasm for the event itself when it finally set up a server and connected to other players. At the time of writing, connections were sporadic at best; you’re lucky if you can get into a game at all, as we were frequently met with disconnection messages. Evolution still has a long way to go until Driveclub is fully functional, which is a dismal state of affairs for such a high profile game. Right now, this isn’t the racer to buy if you’re looking to challenge other players, but we’re confident the server woes will be fixed eventually.
^ The in-car views are incredibly detailed, with every dial and light reacting authentically as you drive
As it stands, DriveClub is a competent and beautiful racing game, but it’s not a particularly fun one. Putting the numerous online issues, which have now only partly been fixed (three weeks after launch) to one side, DriveClub is seriously lacking in personality. The social aspects are minimal at best, the tour mode ends with absoutely no fanfare and the penalty system is far too restrictive. If you’re desperate for a PS4 racing fix there’s plenty of gorgeous scenery to drive through here, but it certainly isn’t able to bump Gran Turismo from its place at the top of Sony’s racing hierarchy.
We will revisit DriveClub when Evolution studios has completely fixed all multiplayer issues, and may revise our score accordingly.
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