First unveiled alongside the Playstation 4 at the console’s announcement in February 2014, Driveclub has suffered a troubled birth. The racing game, developed by Evolution Studios of MotorStorm fame and published as a first-party title by Sony, was originally scheduled as a PS4 launch title but has since been delayed multiple times with rumours that the game had gone back to the drawing board to be completely overhauled late in development. With the game finally on shelves nearly a year after it was first due to be released, Driveclub has a lot to do to win back sceptical gamers, particularly given that it has had the misfortune of going head to head with Forza Horizon 2 on Xbox One.
First impressions are quite positive. The on-track experience in Driveclub follows the well-worn template used by console racers since the original Gran Turismo on PS1. You undertake a series of races against AI opponents, either as single events or multi-stage tournaments, and compete in time trials to earn ‘fame’ points in order to level up your driver and unlock more cars in the game’s single player career mode. Each event involves a variety of sub-challenges, such as hitting a given top speed, negotiating a tricky section of the track without error or achieving a particular lap time, which can be completed to earn extra fame.
While sitting slightly closer on the spectrum towards simulator than arcade racer, gameplay in Driveclub is firmly geared towards the beginner, with generous driving assists switched on by default and the correct racing lines and braking points subtly signposted in-game. Things can be made more challenging by turning off assists but it’s clear that the game’s audience is more likely to be the lapsed Gran Turismo fan of the PS1 or PS2 era than the serious petrolhead.
Unlike Sony and Microsoft’s flagship racing franchises, Driveclub eschews licensed tracks in favour of an eclectic range of global locations – Canada, Chile, India, Norway and Scotland. While the individual tracks are themselves nothing to write home about, the settings of each have a wonderful sense of place, with India and the northern European tracks being particularly scenic and atmospheric.
The game’s weather effects and lighting engine occasionally combine to deliver rare moments of magic. There’s something special about driving under the Northern Lights on a narrow mountainside track overlooking a yawning fjord in Norway or being temporarily blinded as the brilliant sun breaks through the clouds and rain on the shores of a Scottish loch. It all adds to a verisimilitude that Driveclub can otherwise lack.
While Driveclub’s core gameplay is in the main robust and satisfying, it's also plagued by numerous small frustrations. Though initially something of a boon to beginners, car handling feels excessively grippy, making it difficult to initiate drifting and shave valuable fractions of a second off lap times. This is compounded by the harsh and seemingly arbitrary speed penalties for going offroad and even taking corners too sharply.
Too often, the game’s invisible hand takes over just as you brake late going into a corner to get an edge on an opponent, effectively removing control of the car. Unfortunately, Driveclub’s AI drivers aren’t subject to the same punitive measures and can attempt to muscle the player off the track with reckless abandon. The net result is a game that rewards playing it safe rather than trying to eke out every conceivable advantage. Rather than taking risks to tick off all of the challenges for a particular event, the game seems to encourage you to return again later in a more powerful car to complete them with ease.
It feels as though the same reductive approach has been taken to progression through the game’s single player career mode. Acquiring new cars is strictly linked to levelling up your driver or multiplayer club – there’s no marketplace that allows you to spend your earned fame on new motors - and the rewards you receive are predictable, usually just adding a little more horsepower and enabling you to do the next series of events.
There’s also no option to upgrade or tune vehicles in your existing garage meaning that you are usually forced to choose the latest car the game has deigned to reward you with just to stay competitive with the AI opponents in the next race. While Gran Turismo in particular has often been guilty of overwhelming the player with too much choice, Driveclub goes too far in the opposite direction. The slow drip feed of new cars isn’t helped by a pretty thin campaign, lacking in events and variety.
In the face of the somewhat anaemic single-player experience, Driveclub’s multiplayer component is left to pick up the slack. Here it fares somewhat better, particularly if you can find a steady group of friends to form a club which will allow you to race competitively or cooperatively to unlock exclusive cars and paint schemes, most of which are better than comparable rewards available from the single-player races at the same point in the game.
The asynchronous multiplayer challenges - competing for best average speed, section times and more against random players from PSN – that appear occasionally when playing alone are also a nice touch and add some much needed variety to the sometimes sterile solo races. While the social features do help to make Driveclub a more compelling package, it’s unclear at this stage how long the game’s community will stick around for.
Ultimately, Driveclub is a solid enough racing game, albeit one that’s beset by some significant limitations. Casual fans of the genre are likely to have an enjoyable enough time but if you’re looking for a title to plough hundreds of hours into, this isn’t it. Alongside the embarrassment of riches that were Forza Motorsport 4 and Gran Turismo 6 on the last-gen consoles, Driveclub feels anaemic by comparison and the core driving experience, although fairly satisfactory, simply doesn’t match to that of the genre heavyweights.