DriveClub is an interesting one given the widely reported and lambasted problems. I waited until the initial launch server bugs were fixed and the weather patch had been released before picking it up, and immediately wished I’d had more faith in Evolution Studios. Their work with the Motorstorm games was excellent, and it should have been obvious that a new generation driving game in their hands would be a safe bet. Believe it or not, DriveClub is probably the best racing game I’ve played in the last year, but with not much competition is that really saying anything?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a simple arcade racer because on the surface it seems like it – there’s no fanfare in the menus, nothing fancy in selecting events, and a total lack of setup options before you go racing. Not that it matters in the early stages; hopping in the limited selection of lower powered front wheel drive cars means it’s all about learning the scoring mechanics, race types, how the tracks are structured and what the AI are going to be like. There’s nothing surprising in them: fame points are awarded for overtaking, drifting, drafting and beating random player challenges; races are either against opponents, time trials or drift events; tracks are a mix of lap circuits and point-to-point courses; and the AI is
a pain decent competition. It all screams arcade racer up until you get chance to drive the more powerful cars – then you’re in for a surprise.
Whilst the game never fully arrives at full simulation mode, there’s definitely more Gran Turismo than Ridge Racer under the hood. Not only are the cars beautifully rendered, you also find that they handle and respond as you’d expect these vehicles to. Move from a nippy but stable VW Golf to a BMW M5 and someone who’s had no experience with a rear wheel drive will likely slam the accelerator on full sending 335 bhp to the wheels, and the car into a wall. Skip that step and go straight to the the Hypercars and it’s all going to get messy very, very quickly. So DriveClub makes you wait. And wait. And wait. Unlocks come with ranking up by gaining the aforementioned fame points, and in fairness it’s a steady progress that works alongside the “career” mode side of things. Pick a single player race series and aim to complete the objectives and earn stars, with more events opening as your star collection increases. After a few events there’ll be a championship series to complete, and then you can move on to the next, more difficult string of races. It works, though this is where simulation over arcade kicks in because the difficulty curve is a steep one, requiring learning the tracks and the cars and backtracking over previous events to maximise your earnings – both for the star count, and for the points to rank up and open a car quick enough to beat the competition.
The biggest challenge to overcome is the AI and the race balancing, which is where the arcade aspect comes back into play. You are never able to lose sight of your opponents, or pull away from them either. It’s quite well implemented but the “rubber-banding” is there and more times than I care to count it caused me to go from first to near last in the space of seconds. Avoiding collisions and the edges of the track will help you maintain lap times and score more points, but that won’t stop opponents from running into your rear end and pushing you into the tiny bit of gravel that scrubs all your speed off. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll end up with a penalty, usually docking points from your total, but sometimes a speed restriction for a few seconds. Until you learn a track layout you’ll get used to hitting the rear of other cars too. There are no corner guides or braking zones highlighted, these have to be figured out, which is refreshing and frustrating in equal measure. Refreshing because this is an arcade game; frustrating because the simulation handling means being off line or at the wrong velocity will cause you to slide off the track into a barrier (sometimes invisible in the case of the tracks with scrubland edges). The perception of loose road contact has an advantage though, it’s terrifying at high speed in the dark when it’s raining.
If dry track surfaces weren’t challenge enough with the powerful cars, the patch to add weather into DriveClub has brought with it a totally new dimension to the experience, as well as wet rounds and driving snow and rain. Most of the tournament races are dry so you need to head to the single player race setup to have a go, and I lost track of time in there playing with the options, having a go at time trials and single races, and taking lots of pictures (the inbuilt photo mode is great, even if there are no replays to use it with). Put a particularly good lap or race together and you can issue it as a challenge to the community as well as friends, though not directly to your own club, which is a bit weird. Which brings us conveniently to the major aspect of the game, the passive and active social interaction – cause of scorn at launch, and not entirely fixed 2 months later.
Playing through single player and earning fame points also benefits whichever club you are in, and creating or joining one is a simple case of following the on screen instructions. As the club points are accumulated, more vehicles are unlocked for use and more paint jobs and decals are made available so that you can really go to town customising the look of your clubs cars. Whoever joins the club uses the same paint job and contributes to the overall performance. There are solo and club challenges to take part in which are set by all DriveClub players, and can be sent after every event by picking the option on the end of race menu. Taking part will net you and your club fame points, with more awarded the higher up the rankings you are. Alongside fame points, there are accolades like picking to drive with a particular manufacturer, drafting distances, and winning races; all can be added as stickers to your custom paint job to show off your skills. None of the accolades are earned lightly though, expect to put some serious work into getting them.
The trouble with the club system is that the servers are still a bit flaky, and as everything social is linked to them it can make or break the game. Over the Christmas period network issues I opted not to play at all because I’d not be earning any points for my club with the PSN being sporadically available. Turns out I needed have worried because the game arbitrarily takes the points away anyway. Three times my club’s got to level 10 and unlocked the BAC Mono, only to have loads of points disappear and progress start from halfway through level 9 again. At first I thought it was me imaging the same cars unlocking over and over again, and it wasn’t until the trophy dinged for hitting level 10 that I was actually able to check the error. Very frustrating for everyone in the club because their contributions are being wasted too. In game challenges for average speed, drifting and cornering are also linked to the servers and I’ve seen plenty of occasions where instead of the challenge start point there’s just a loading message and nothing happening.
Multiplayer works though, mostly. The game crashed on the community screens a couple of times (not sure if this was server related or not), but being able to race real live human beings is pretty easy, and a lot of fun. One thing I’ve never understood though is the insistence of some games to have a timeout once the leader has crossed the finish line. In DriveClub’s case there are 30 seconds to get to the end, which can be near impossible if you’ve been racing against someone who’s perfected the lines of each track and knows their car handling inside out. You can accept being beaten online, it’s a matter of course for everyone who ventures there in any game, but being given a DNF result for something that is in no way your fault is very annoying. I’m not talking about being back of the pack here, there were several games I played where out of 8 players, only the first two got over the finish line before everything timed out.
Niggly bits aside, DriveClub is a good game. Maybe not a great racing game, but certainly good enough to recommend at this point in time. There’s nothing else available on PS4 like it at the moment, and there won’t be until Project CARS lands later this year. To compensate for the less than stellar launch, free DLC cars and tournaments are available for download, which will add to its longevity – not that it needs it, rarely are things repetitive, and usually only in the time trial events where you’re trying to best yourself. Visually it’s stunning, loading times are at a minimum, the menu music is Evolution’s trademark perfect selection, and the whole thing is slick. It’s such a shame that the server problems are still present, they really do let down what could have been an essential purchase.