Review: Driveclub (PS4)

Evolution Studios had success with the MotorStorm series on Sony’s previous console, so when they announced that they would be creating Driveclub for the PS4, I was excited. Driveclub is the first flagship racer for Sony’s current-gen console, and fittingly there has been a lot of pressure on the title to be something great. The game’s launch was even pushed back a year in order to make sure everything would meet expectations. Unfortunately, now that Driveclub’s here, the game has been an all-around disappointment.

Evolution has billed Driveclub as a racing game that both gamers who prefer simulations and those who are fond of arcade-style racers can enjoy. Personally, although I can go for either, I lean more towards simulations. One of my first PS2 games was Gran Turismo 3 and my preference for that style of gameplay has stuck with me ever since. Regardless, though, while there are some elements that work well, Driveclub would have been better off choosing a style and sticking with it. Going with a mix usually doesn’t work, and Evolution hasn’t been successful either.

Most cars’ handling is a mix between planted and loose, and this is usually tolerable, once you get used to it. The result is that cars often slide around the track, as if every cars’ tires are much too slick for the races they are running. Trying to prevent a car from going from a controlled drift to a slide off the track feels rewarding when done properly, but that pleasure only exists because driving can be particularly aggravating as the game’s looseness translates into a feeling of unpredictability. To me, driving games feel best when I feel like I’m in total control. If it’s just me to blame when things go wrong, I know I can get better: I need to brake earlier on this corner, I need to take a different line through this bend, etc. When a driving game is unpredictable, I don’t know what to improve. On several occasions in Driveclub, I’ve taken a corner and started excessively drifting, when I know I’ve taken another corner faster on the same track and have had more control. Did I just get lucky during those previous corners and something else factored in, or am I doing something wrong that I don’t realize? Or is there something different about this corner that I’m not considering? It’s an unsettling feeling, and unfortunately it wasn’t uncommon during my time playing Driveclub.

A result of Driveclub's unpredictable handling.
A result of Driveclub’s unpredictable handling.

That being said, sometimes it’s fun to just mess around and take advantage of the slipperiness of the game. The problem with this is that the game actively tries to punish you for it. It’s as if the developers designed the reward system for a simulation game, and almost everything else for a different, more arcade-y racer.  Here’s what I mean: The reward system for the game is called Fame, which can be thought of as experience points. You earn Fame by doing things like winning races, overtaking others, and driving clean sections and clean laps. You lose fame by hitting walls, driving off the paved track, and hitting opponents. If this was a simulation game where precision was a necessity and AI drivers generally avoided you, this would work fine. It doesn’t work when it’s not only easy to slide into opponents but also common for the overly-aggressive AI to run into you and make you lose Fame for it. As well, many of the tracks have narrow sections where I found that nudging opponents out of the way was the only option to get around them. Worst of all, because of how easy it is to earn Fame and how little is taken away for collisions, losing it doesn’t actually feel like punishment.

When I first got GT3, I was young. Back then, I didn’t really understand the concept of braking in a racing game because the only other racing game I’d played before then was the original Super Mario Kart. So, my tactic for winning most races was to have a severely overpowered car, and instead of braking into turns, going as fast as possible into turns at such an angle that I would bounce off the wall and retain enough speed to stay competitive. Or, if I was behind but needed to turn, I would aim for the opponents who were ahead, hit them as fast as possible, slam them into a wall, and, again, bounce off to retain enough speed to remain competitive. Looking back on it, the strategy is ridiculous and unsustainable, and eventually it stopped working because even if my car had something like 1200 horsepower, further in the campaign the opponents eventually got good enough where I couldn’t keep up. After some time I did learn that the “proper” way to go around a corner was to brake going in, hit the apex, and accelerate out of it. Yet, unfortunately for me, I developed a bad habit from my original strategy.

That habit cropped up again in Driveclub because sliding into cars is so easy to do, even accidentally. But Driveclub still could have a legitimate system to prevent this. Taking away insignificant amounts of Fame is not the answer. If I lose 200 Fame for a collision, but gain 500 for an overtake, and the result of this driving style is a win at any level of the campaign, aren’t you actually being rewarded for this behavior? Another way the game tries to discourage aggressive behavior is with collision penalties, which prevent you from accelerating for a short amount of time after hitting an opponent too hard. This can ruin an otherwise good performance, but because of Driveclub’s mechanics, it is easier to push the limits of that penalty than drive cleanly with perfect lines. And in the end, playing Driveclub feels like playing a racing game that wants you to be precise, makes it too difficult to do so, threatens you when you aren’t, but lets you win anyway.

Driveclub's environments are varied and beautiful.
Driveclub’s environments are varied and beautiful.

Other elements of Driveclub generally feel more polished, although some small quirks managed to confusingly slip through. This is evident in the look of the game. The first thing you’ll probably notice about Driveclub is that the cars and courses are gorgeous. Every car in the game looks great, from the outside to the dashboards inside the car. Even the way you get in cars is animated well, whether you’re getting into a Mini Cooper or a BAC Mono. Also, by having fixed tracks instead of an open world ala Forza Horizon 2, Evolution was able to maximize the visuals of every environment. Driveclub doesn’t have any real-life courses, so all of them were created specially for this game. All of them played well and all are varied enough to provide a unique experience.

The day-night cycle also does well to show off the visual power and adds to the challenge of the game. Most tracks are poorly lit at night, so you have to rely on either your mini-map or the subtle environmental cues to get around successfully. The tension of driving in the dark is surprisingly fun, and it is able to (almost) offset some of the complaints I have above. However, driving around some tracks near dusk produces a strange effect where the horizon straight ahead of you is incredibly bright, and the rest of the track turns dark. This can lead to harrowing sections where you can’t see the next corner even though it’s still light out, unexpectedly forcing you to play as if it was night, producing small but unnecessary cognitive dissonance. I know this is probably a side effect of the lighting system trying to do something else, but it happens often enough that I would think Evolution would have noticed and fixed it.

The limited visibility during night driving provides challenges and thrills.
The limited visibility during night driving provides challenges and thrills.

There is also a great sense of speed when driving, and this is particularly evident as you progress through the game. There are five different levels of cars in the game, ranked by performance. Each you move from one to the next in Tour mode, there is a noticeable change in acceleration and handling, which helps the cars feel differentiated. Again, though, some of the attributes of individual cars look odd. Each car is rated for acceleration, top speed, handling, and drifting. Intuitively, one would think that a Lotus Exige S (Lotus being a make known for light, nimble cars) would have significantly better handling than a two-and-a-half ton Bentley Continental GT Speed, rather than those two cars having similar handling ratings. Little things like this have me questioning the ratings, but having driven exactly zero cars in the game in real life, I can’t really say how accurate any of them are.

Speaking of Tour mode, it’s the main single player mode of the game, and it’s nothing revolutionary. The player progresses by doing well in races, not just in finishing first but also by completing challenges called “Face-Offs” like earning a certain amount of drift points or averaging a certain speed over a section of the race. Doing well earns stars, and the player needs a certain amount of stars to get to the next bunch of events. Racing in any mode earns the aforementioned Fame, which is used to level up and unlock new cars and car liveries. Certain cars can only be unlocked with Club Fame, which is exactly the same thing except it can only be earned if you are in a club and goes towards leveling your club as opposed to yourself. Tour mode is not all that long, probably with the intention of having the player join a club and focusing on multiplayer matches and issuing challenges.

DRIVECLUB
Multiplayer loading times have improved significantly but still can bog down the experience.

The thing is, multiplayer has had issues since launch which still aren’t fully resolved one month later. Evolution has implemented a number of back-end improvements since the game was released to speed things along, but considering multiplayer didn’t function at all on day one in a game that hyped its social features, it’s tough to praise them for their efforts. When it works, multiplayer races are much more competitive than Tour. As such, my aggressive driving methods tend to be less effective, although judging by the majority of others I’ve raced, I’m far from alone in adapting that style of play. Generally in online races, I’ve noticed several groups of players. You’ll get one or two people who have somehow mastered Driveclub’s controls and drive properly, i.e. hitting most apexes and taking good driving lines. Slightly behind them, but falling further behind as the race continues, there’s the group I find myself in: the decent but aggressive drivers, who have an idea of how to race well but slide around too much to beat the pros. Bringing up the rear are those who haven’t yet figured out how Driveclub’s cars handle or are having connectivity issues. While I feel like if I put the time in, I could inevitably get to that top tier, knowing that I’d have to put that time into mastering sub-par racing is discouraging. The multiplayer feature I was looking forward to the most was Challenges. Being able to send challenges to other players, friends especially, would not only make people want to commit the hours necessary to become better racers, but the friendly competition would also be fun. Unfortunately, Challenges are still inaccessible because of the server problems, but at this point I don’t think it matters.

In the short-term, those connectivity issues are haunting the game, but they can (and will) eventually be fixed. Driveclub’s long-term issue in my mind is that Evolution set up its social functionality to propel lasting commitment, but for people to want to continue playing a game for weeks and months, the underlying structure has to be worth it. More than the broken multiplayer, Driveclub’s driving is what let the game down, so even when everything works I won’t be coming back.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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