Driveclub was pegged as one of the big PlayStation 4 launch exclusives: a slick, social sim-lite racer that would show off the new platform's myriad enhancements.
But then it was delayed just weeks before release. Now, nearly 12 months later, we're finally playing it – considering how flawed it still is, we can't help but wonder what kind of condition it was this time last year.
Which is not to say that Driveclub is a mess or should be avoided. It's not, and it needn't be. But this straightforward and unexpectedly superficial racer fails to make a very strong impression, and certainly lacks any sort of distinctive personality. And that's a great shame.
Fast and fine
That's totally surprising, since the game hails from Evolution Studios, the team behind the wonderfully raucous MotorStorm series. Perhaps switching to a realistic racing approach sapped some of the enthusiasm from the team, because what's here is a dry, menu-centric affair that comes off a little undercooked in spots.
On the asphalt, Driveclub certainly holds its own, with fast, precise circuit and sprint races on tracks inspired by real-world locales. Without driving assists available, zipping around the courses requires a subtle touch, lest you spin out on a hairpin and spend the rest of the jaunt playing a typically futile game of catch-up.
As in something like Forza Motorsport, Driveclub puts an accessible spin on the sim genre: it's fun, but not terribly frustrating in the early hours. You can pick a ride – including real-world desirables such as the McLaren 12C and Ferrari F12berlinetta – and start cruising easily enough, but staying on the track and actually competing for the checkered flag requires nuanced braking and careful approaches to turns.
Join the club?
Driveclub's hook comes from social racing and integrated challenges, which are appealing additions. Most notably, you can create a crew for you and five of your online buds and rep your team across the Internet. That also means it's possible to take your six-driver club into a race against another like-sized squad in the 12-player online showdowns and work together to block paths, nudge foes into barriers, and secure a team victory.
That's awesome if you can get your whole club online at the same time and find the right competition. But even in the off moments, your squad's collective progress in all types of races (even single-player ones) add to the club ranking, which helps unlock additional cars, liveries, and more down the line.
Driveclub also uses its online-connected nature to pull quick-hit challenges into all of your events, adding a little arcade-style flavor into the otherwise traditional events. At certain points on each track, you'll encounter drifting, high speed, and racing line tests that pit your score against that of another online player – either a friend or a random. The challengers' scores can occasionally be well outside what you could actually pull off in a given span, which is annoying, but generally they're fun little tasks that can spice up a race even if you're struggling at the back of the pack.
Some players will surely be so enamored with the team concept that they'll invest hours and hours into Driveclub, but it's a shame that there isn't a more enticing core game to truly enable that community layer.
Sadly, the game is downright drab in moments. The single-player career mode simply finds you amassing points by clearing a listing of events – races, time trials, and drift challenges, each with secondary objectives – and unlocking cups to complete. The approach is strongly reminiscent of EA's Shift 2: Unleashed from early 2011; in fact, quite a lot of the overall experience here (sans social elements) recalls that game, but that was three and a half years and a whole console generation ago.
Beyond the simple career, Driveclub offers only single races and multiplayer matches to tackle, again with no real personality built into the design. Lacking depth extends past the races themselves and into the garage, where the cars can't be upgraded or tuned beyond the livery designs.
In many respects, Driveclub seems content to be a very slight game that leans hard upon its social functionality, but the lasting appeal of social play depends on having a really rich core experience. And that's not here.
Inconsistent presentation proves a real surprise. The vehicle exteriors are nicely modeled, and there are impressive effects in spots: dazzlingly lit tunnels, bursts of confetti tossed onto the track as you approach crowds of spectators, and windshield grime that becomes visible as you turn towards the sun. Evolution's ambition to tap into the new-gen hardware shows here and there.
But it doesn't feel like they followed through on all of their plans. In fact, some areas look downright unfinished. The pre-race location overviews are almost uniformly disheveled, with scenery that looks comprised of clay and half-dried paste. Elsewhere, the repeated environmental elements look like placeholder assets that never got replaced in time for the retail release.
The on-track scenery doesn't look so rough, thankfully, but the lighting is frequently a distraction. When playing in cockpit view, the interior is often so dark that you can't make out the details. And the wild shifts are curious: you'll complete a turn and shift from full illumination outside to a dim dreariness. I don't long for uniformly lit locales that never change, but Evolution went way past the point of subtlety in its pursuit of realism, and the result takes away from the experience.
That said, Driveclub does intentionally shrug off reality in one area, and it's actually a neat addition: many events speed up the passing of time so that each lap represents a different time of day. You may start a race in total daylight, but the final lap is in pitch-black nightfall. That gives the action an extra sense of dynamism at times, and while a weird tweak, it's at least an interesting one. Evolution's planning to add similarly dynamic weather in a post-launch patch, which should have an even more interesting and fun effect.
Visual inconsistencies aside, Driveclub is a perfectly solid racer – but for Sony's first big foray into the genre on PlayStation 4, we expected a lot more. The team dynamic adds an engaging perk to the solid simulation racing, but there's little depth and energy around the experience, as exemplified by the bog-standard career, lack of non-visual vehicle customization, and sleepy menu-driven design.
After playing something as joyously designed and boldly styled as Forza Horizon 2 on Xbox One – which itself has a club component – it's tough to run into a racer that feels so conventional and borderline tepid. That may not be much solace to PS4 owners, but alas.
There's fun to be had here, but I expect that most players will be plenty satisfied by the free PlayStation Plus version – with fewer tracks and cars – and not feel the strong need to pay for the full release. That giveaway is a gambit that may not work out well for Sony, as Driveclub doesn't strongly earn the upgrade.