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Driveclub review

Social Distortion

Driveclub puts me in an awkward position.

Playing through the game for review prior to its Tuesday launch, I encountered a few hiccups with the game’s online and social features—not drastic issues, for the most part, but serious and frequent enough that I wanted to test everything out in real-world conditions before I settled on a score.

And, well, we all know how that turned out. Since launch day, the Driveclub servers have had more downtime than a retired sloth. I’ve put in a dozen extra hours messing about in single-player events I’d already completely in the hopes that I’d eventually slip through the cracks and somehow make it online. I’ve come close once or twice and had the green text pop-up telling me I’d regained connection, but as soon as I made it back to the menu, I was greeted by an army of infinitely spinning circles that made it clear I’d been misled.

It’s a real disappointment, because for better or worse—and I’m more and more convinced it’s the second option—Driveclub needs its online functionality to be in any way worthwhile. Without its clubs, challenges, and multiplayer, Evolution Studios’ PS4 debut is really just a decent racing game that’s seriously lacking in content.

First, the decent. Driveclub’s handling model takes a bit of adjustment, but once you get the hang of things, it’s a lot of fun. Perhaps closest in feel to Codemasters’ Grid series, cars demand that you stick reasonably close to the racing line to make the best time around corners, but there’s a lot of leeway for recovery if you break too late into a turn. As you work your way up from hot hatches to hypercars, you’re gradually forced to contend with the increasing potential for under- and oversteer, which makes for a natural, clever way to ramp up the difficulty with a smooth learning curve, rather than the aggressive gaps in AI competence that sometimes spoil other racing efforts.

Equally smart is the decision to telegraph the severity of upcoming turns with flags along the side of the track—green means you’ll likely be able to toss yourself around the corner if you hit the right line and let off the accelerator a little, yellow means you might need to brake a bit, and red is reserved for sharp Ls and hairpins. I’m a big fan of this approach, since it allows you to keep your eyes on the track and away from your minimap while still letting you tackle an unfamiliar track with confidence. It’s a bit curious, then, that they’re entirely omitted from several courses, forcing you to learn them the old-fashioned way and leading to a strange disconnect on some events.

Still, there’s a strong enough foundation that you’ll wish there were more content to make use of it. In the absence of the multiplayer races and social challenges (which I’ll get to in a bit) there’s really just the Tour mode—consisting of 47 events and five championships—and custom races against AI. For the most part, the Tour makes good use of the different vehicle restrictions, event types, and tracks to provide good variety. There are point-to-point races and time trials, races and hot laps on circuits, and drift events, all of which feel different enough from each other to justify their existence—though the scoring mechanics for the drift events is so hilariously ill-conceived that’s it’s almost always more beneficial to spin out or hit a wall than smoothly round corners, which takes a bit of the fun out of those competitions.

The larger downside is that it’s over far too quickly and offers far too little challenge. Though each event has optional objectives that you can complete to earn stars, presumably to encourage repeat visits, they’re usually simple to achieve with minimal effort on your first try. My first pass through the Tour earned me 224 out of 225 stars, and that’s with far less restarts than I’m used to employing in a racing game.

The 55 tracks are attractive and well-designed, but it’s not a particularly deep or varied selection, considering the entire lot is split between five locations that mostly serve as visual themes (Canada, India, Norway, Scotland, and Chile) and more than half are the same courses run in reverse or alternate layouts of the same circuits. Some players may be bothered that all of the tracks are “inspired by” rather than actually based on real-world locations. I, however, am more concerned that the weather effects never have any impact on road conditions; they merely change the lighting and the look of the clouds.

The vehicles essentially fall into the same boat. They’re gorgeous to look at and fairly true to their real-life counterparts on the tarmac, but at 50, there’s just not the huge selection you expect from a racing game. Then again, there were times when I felt like there were too many cars on the roster: Since there are usually one or two standout vehicles in every division, there’s little reason to experiment and find one that best suits your driving style. You’ll likely grab on to one early in an event tier, thanks to the generous, linear, XP-based unlock system and never bother messing with any others. Because the only customization is cosmetic—a few dozen garish pre-set paint jobs and decal options—there’s no reason to stay loyal to an old favorite when a better option comes along.

What makes this bungled launch a tragedy, though, is that Driveclub’s currently dormant social features actually do a lot to make up for those shortcomings. I was skeptical going in—and I’m still not convinced the game needs to constantly vomit notifications at me like some sort of ‘roided Facebook—but after accepting an invite from a stranger to join a random club, I found myself growing oddly attached to our progress. It’s cool to know that everything I did helped out Gang Unit (as we were cheesily known), and I soon started logging on just so I could dive into the challenges and represent us against the rest of the world.

In fact, the entire challenge system is a stroke of genius. Any event you complete can be turned into a challenge that you can send out to other players or clubs, with your time or score serving as the benchmark everyone else must beat. The more players that compete, the greater the XP rewards for placing high on the leaderboards. Since there’s a lot of leeway to fiddle—and since you’re competing asynchronously against other players of variable skill—it never feels terribly repetitive. Even if you can’t come in first, putting in a strong showing will still net you rewards, so it’s usually worth it just to see if you can do your personal best.

I’m also a huge fan of the in-event face-offs, which automatically pop up on certain parts of the track and task you with outshining another player in one of three areas: drifting, cornering, or speed. The bonus XP isn’t hugely encouraging, but the bragging rights are, and the game does a phenomenal job of selecting competitors who’ll push you to improve upon your own performance.

The standard multiplayer, at least in my limited pre-launch experience, was less promising, but that largely came down to technical issues. Despite repeated attempts, I was unable to ever find a full match—in fact, with the exception of four races, I would drop out whenever there were more than three players in a lobby. That made things, unsurprisingly, far less enjoyable than I imagine they would be under optimal conditions, especially because the scoring system for team races seemed entirely built around having a full match. Any time that event type is raced two-on-one, the shorthanded player will always lose, even if they finish in first, since they’ll get 15 points for their position while the slower team gets 12 and 10 for finishing in second and third.

It’s a frankly absurd oversight. Beyond the problems that may or may not be sorted with future server work and patches, I also routinely felt like I was winning races simply because I’d unlocked a better car than my opponents. That’s kind of a big no-no, especially when there’s no level-based matchmaking (or even any way to tell what level your opponents are).

With all that in mind, you can probably see why Driveclub presents me with a lot of thorny problems in terms of this review. At the moment, the absence of functioning servers means it offers hardly anything to recommend, but that’s an issue likely to be resolved sooner rather than later. Even if I go off of what I was able to experience successfully before everything fell to pieces, I’m probably still not getting a full picture of how the game might turn out in the end. Ultimately, though, I can only judge based on what I’ve experienced firsthand.

That’s been something of a mixed bag. From a foundational standpoint, Driveclub has the makings of a good racer, with solid on-track action and some ingenious ideas thrown into the mix. Its social side is interesting and engaging enough that I can see them attracting a lasting community, but I’m worried that the lack of content will eventually cause even that appeal to fizzle off. Even beyond the glaring server problems that have plagued the launch, I can’t help but feel like this game needs a lot of love and continued support from Evolution Studios if it’s ever going to live up to its potential and the promise of its design. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my hours of racing in Driveclub, it’s that a botched sprint off the starting line doesn’t always spoil your chances of taking the first-place finish—but it does mean it’s a hell of a lot more difficult.

★★★☆☆

Driveclub’s social features help elevate an otherwise unexceptional racer, but the dearth of content and some curious design choices keep it from rising too high.

Developer
Evolution Studios
Publisher
Sony
ESRB
E – Everyone
Release Date
10.07.2014
Driveclub is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Code/hardware was provided by Sony for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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