Nintendo’s Wii U has Mario Kart 8, Microsoft’s Xbox One has Forza Horizon 2 and now Sony’s PlayStation 4 has DriveClub. 2014 is the year of the platform exclusive racer and of the three, Driveclub is the least impressive offering, but still a very good game in its own right.
Developed by Evolution Studios (MotorStorm), DriveClub is an arcade racer that sticks to the road rather than the off-road setting the developer previously dabbled in exclusively for PlayStation platforms. It features 55 tracks scattered across five locations with 50 cars and plays smooth as silk even though it’s framerate is locked at 30FPS. The mechanics control well and the game looks and sounds like a high octane racer, especially when moving up to faster, exotic cars. As an arcade racer though, there’s a lot of bumping and grinding and sometimes, depending on the event, you’ll frequently need to restart a race.
There aren’t many vehicles in DriveClub compared to other car racers but Evolution does a wonderful job of realizing their selection and surrounding it with impressive presentation values. Before each race, players see their driver avatar step into the vehicle, and playing from the interior perspective and looking around the dash feels great. The level of detail here is an example of what DriveClub does right and it’s further emphasized on the reflections on the car’s paint to the beautiful backgrounds of the international tracks. DriveClub is truly a next-gen racer in that sense.
From a shoreline village in the sunset and cloudy mountains, to a thick forest and snowy hills, DriveClub has some of the most diverse locations we’ve seen in a modern racer, further enhanced by dynamic weather, debris (look, balloons!) and day/night cycles that transition throughout races. Look too closely though, especially in the pre-race tracking shots of courses, and you’ll see ugly low-res road signs, goofy looking trees and shadows turning from pixelated lines into smoothened ones. When racing, you thankfully don’t see any of that and it looks wonderful. And there’s something special about seeing the sun go down, partially blinding you while driving towards it, then later seeing the bright tail lights of your vehicle and fireworks as you approach the finish line. Even the damage models look amazing. And be prepared, you’ll probably see a lot of car damage while playing.
Driveclub is an easy to pick up racer which makes it highly recommendable to PlayStation Plus subscribers since they’ll get 10 vehicles and one of the locations to try out for free. From there, they can upgrade to the full retail version for more. Be warned though, the difficulty ramps up significantly as you progress through the game’s main Tour mode.
This is where it becomes clear that Driveclub doesn’t quite live up to its potential. In addition to the standard Tour mode, laid out across a slick interface, there are standard single races where players can choose their course, mode and ride, and multiplayer which is set up as a series of events that launch every few minutes. The Tour consists mainly of single races, with a few time trials, drift sessions and championships in between (these consist of multiple races strung together) and DriveClub finds some interesting ways to still make it feel like you’re playing with and against others.
The goal in the Tour mode is to collect stars from each event. There’s usually one for placing near the top, one for hitting a certain benchmark and one for a challenge, the latter of which involves competing against others. The challenges appear during any given race, tasking players with following a blue line for a few seconds, hitting a certain drift score on a sharp turn, or maintaining a high average speed for a section of the track to beat the record of another online player. It’s a social feature that throws a spin on typical track navigation, but one that can sometimes be a frustrating distraction in highly competitive situations and another indicator in an already-crowded HUD (you can thankfully turn off some of the displays) that will take your eyes off the road. A predetermined number of stars are needed to unlock the next segment of Tour mode. It’s basically the system from Super Mario 64.
Simply by playing the game players are earning experience towards their player level and at each level a new vehicle is unlocked along with paint patterns. Bonus experience points are easily earned during a race by passing other vehicles, driving safely, drafting, etc., but you may frequently lose some points as well for off-roading or colliding with other cars. Driveclub will even slow down your car speed if you try to cheat a corner or collide with another vehicle too hard. It’s mostly rewarding, except for when AI vehicles bump you into a bad spot and the game punishes you for it during a time-sensitive lap.
The other layer to this is the Club system, the signature of DriveClub. The game encourages players to form or join a club. These little guilds max out at six players but by players simply playing, they’re helping each other in the club, raising the overall club level. Club levels also award their own subset of cars so if you don’t join one, you cannot unlock all the vehicles.
The progression system in that way is limited. There’s sadly no player choice in unlocking vehicles or paint patterns and most of the time a vehicle is unlocked, it can’t be used in the next batch of Tour events. Instead, you’re mainly filling out your collection for single races and multiplayer, or giving you a few more options for earlier events in the Tour. That’s sometimes needed as well because you likely won’t be getting all the stars at each event when you’re around the halfway point of the Tour. Some of the cars are just better than others and you need them to meet all the challenges.
In the end though, Clubs are essentially a leaderboard-driven gimmick but it is nice to share a custom logo and paint scheme with friends if you know others playing the game. There’s not much for players to do otherwise in terms of customization since only pre-existing paint patterns can be used. It feel lacking when there’s also no upgradable car parts that players may expect after playing the Gran Turismo titles. Even the driver avatar options are embarrassingly limited and appear tacked on.
DriveClub is easily accessibly and highly recommendable, even for no other reason than the simple fact that it’s the only new racer available on PS4 this year. It’s slickly designed and just plain fun to play. There’s room for improvement on the car selection, progression and customization, but what’s there is a fun racer with some interesting social options that dedicated racers can take advantage of.
[Note: At the time of publication, the DriveClub servers appear to be down since launching. The game’s Tour mode is still playable, but the Club, Multiplayer and Social options are not.]
DriveClub is available exclusively on PlayStation 4.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.