15 October, 2014

Review - Only One Hand On The Wheel In Driveclub

PlayStation exclusive racer Driveclub forgot to slow before hitting the hairpin launch, leaving behind the smell of burning rubber and melting servers… Which are still flaky a week after launch, making finishing this review pretty difficult!


Driveclub inhabits an uncommon area of the racing genre, both in terms of the game’s style and the nature of the driving. It lacks the detail and sophistication of a console simulation racing game, such as Gran Turismo, but it’s also certainly not an arcade racer, like Need for Speed or Burnout.

The actual driving in Driveclub is extremely tight, the cars stick to the track in a less than realistic way. Of course, higher performance cars become much harder to control, but braking is for the most part swift and effective, the cars very much control the way you want them to, but not necessarily like they would in reality. As a result I was able to pull off corner-cutting drifts in pretty much any car with very little effort, which was extremely satisfying. Getting to grips with driving on the racing line and mastering drifting is usually a slow process for me as I approach a new racing game, but in Driveclub I felt proficient just a handful of races in.

This made my initial despair at the lack of assistance options quickly dissipate. There are basically no assistance options available, you can opt to drive in manual or automatic and that’s pretty much it; no AI driver settings, no racing line, no ABS and no rewind during races. Now that’s not to say I feel all racing games should have features like rewind, but it was a huge part of why I enjoyed the Forza: Motorsport games, on the Xbox. Such features expedited your progression – if you made a mistake on the last corner you didn’t have to re-run the entire race. Similarly, an on-track racing line isn’t necessary, but the lack of AI tweaking and extremely basic driving options definitely feel like a substantial oversight.

However, the lack of a rewind function, and racing line may have in fact had a very poignant impact on my driving, in a positive way. I certainly approached races in a much more cautious manner, and observed the track a lot more keenly, there were times my attention slipped of course (and so did my car), but I feel like I naturally became a better driver for not having such assists. I suspect the idea behind such assists is use them until you feel proficient without them. Of course I never turned them off for more than a race at a time, because then I would actually have to adjust – they made me lazy and dependant, whereas Driveclub imparted it’s lessons without me knowing, or struggling.

Driveclub uses coloured flags to mark approaches to corners, indicating loosely how severe the turn is, allowing you to gauge how much you need to break – or drift. I think it is a more elegant solution than simply displaying the racing line on track, whilst remaining accessible. The AI drivers are aggressive to say the least, tough it is a good way to practice before going online, because just like real players, the AI will smash and bump you around the track with reckless abandon. It can be pretty fun bounce off other cars in order to take corners faster, but the novelty soon wears off when they plough you into barrier on the home straight. The AI are not bad drivers, they simply stick to the racing line a little too closely, they won’t overtake you, just rear end you until you spin out, which is amazingly frustrating because there is nothing you can really do to prevent it.

Driveclub features fifty cars at launch, spilt into five categories based upon their performance. Fifty cars is a pretty lacklustre showing, with manufactures like Ford nowhere to be seen. The developers have stated however, that they will provide several cars free to download in the future, in addition to those included in the Season Pass. The cars are unlocked in a linear progression and are tied to your Driver Level and your Club level, so there are no tough choices to be made, you simply unlock cars. When compared to Xbox exclusive, Forza Horizon 2 (released October 3rd 2014) that features over two hundred cars, or Sony’s other big racing title Gran Turismo 6 (released December 6th 2013) which launched with over one thousand cars, Driveclub feels awfully thin on options and content.

This is compounded further by the lack of any kind of tuning options, or meaningful customisation. The cars are static; tires can’t be swapped out, engines can’t be tweaked, you cannot even choose from different manufacturer colours for the cars, there's just the one default. You can set custom pain jobs to be applied to any car, but this is not a free-form editor like the kind found in the Forza series for years now, you can only choose from a pretty small selection of patterns, and change there colours. Similarly, a Club emblem can be design and applied to these custom paint jobs, but the emblem editor is just as restrictive; you can choose from a list of shields, flourishes, and symbols, and change the colour of some aspects of the components, but you can’t add text or reposition the existing components on the emblem (you have some size control).

The tracks on the other hand are not lacking in quantity or variety, there are fifty-five in total, spread across five different and distinct regions; Canada, Chile, India, Norway and Scotland. All of the locations are captured in quite stunning detail, though I can’t speak to the accuracy of each  location and track, they are very distinct and unique. Whether in the rocky deserts of Chile or the snowy valleys of Norway, the environments are packed with detail, the smaller features like buildings and plants, walls and fences are all appropriate to the location and culture.

The cars themselves look spectacular in detail too, the interiors in particular show an impressive level of precision, but Driveclub’s true strength is the superb lighting and day/night cycle. Whether looking at the car or the environment that surrounds it, both are brought to life by the stunning lighting technology; sunrises and sunsets very much dictate the mood for the race. Racing during the day will net you some glaring lens flare, driving through a copse of trees will cause the shadow and light to flash across your dashboard, just as it would in real life. Of course, racing at night you are treated to the cones of headlamps and glow of hazard lights – and brake disks, if you’re really going at it. The way the track is illuminated in what is largely pitch black darkness, is dramatic, but it is the small touches; the manner in which the lights from cars behind you will cause the interior to glow and shadows move naturally, that truly makes it feel special. The fidelity of the various materials, and their light reflecting properties, both inside and outside of the cars, plays no small part in how great Driveclub looks.

Despite Driveclub’s awesome time and light options, there are still no meaningful weather options in the game; sure you change some cloud, but all it really does is make the sky more grey, actual rain has yet to be implemented. Evolution Studios, the developer, have pledged to patch rain into the game, regardless, its current absence is disappointing.

Though I can’t personally attest to each car sounding accurate to the real thing, they do sound fantastic, and very distinct from one another. The throaty roar of the car as you accelerate, and the screeching of rubber on road as you pull off a drift is excellent, enhanced further still by the audio shifting. The timbre of the sounds change dramatically as you shift you’re perspective around, or into the car; go to the front and you’ll hear the wind whistling past, take the driver’s seat, in first person, and the engine roar is dulled and muffled in a realistic way.

Driveclub features three race types; races (racing alongside other drivers, lap based or point-to-point), time trials and drifting. All are featured in the Tour Mode, that'll have you unlocking stars to progress, it also does a good job of letting you get to grips with the driving, starting with hot hatches before moving on to the faster cars. Unlike Tour, single events allow you to choose time and weather settings and are fundamentally the same as the multiplayer races. When I was finally able to access multiplayer (this game still has significant server connection problems), getting into a race was fast and I didn’t notice any lag, or other performance problems. All of the race types and game modes feed into your Driver Level, to unlock additional cars.

To unlock the rest of the cars, your Club level must be increased, this is where Driveclub’s social features play in, there is a little more to it than just leaderboards. Specifically, challenges, these allow you to take you fastest times and highest scores, and forward them to your friends, or your entire Club. Clubs can contain up to six drivers, and the more drivers competeing in the challanges the better the experience point gain. The Club creator can design an emblem and paint scheme for the Club, in all, the Club feature is a neat twist on online leaderboards and a progressive way to handle social interactions in a racing game.

Driveclub is a tight driving game that doesn’t always seem to know what it is, it straggles a middle point between the two traditional sides of the racing game genre, neither simulation, nor arcade. The resulting product feels lacking in some significant areas; the number of cars, driving options, and customisation are all disappointing, however, it teaches you the intricacies of racing well, with a very approachable learning curve. It is also presented with stunning attention to detail; both in terms of the car’s visuals and sounds, as well as the environments and weather. At the time of publication Driveclub’s online feature set, which includes the games defining social features are intermittent at best. Many of the core elements in Driveclub are good, occasionally great, but it’s problems are legion and elements that are in many ways considered genre standard either don’t exist, or feel incomplete. 

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