DriveClub's road to release has been full of potholes and some pretty nasty bumps to be sure.
The title was initially supposed to launch alongside the PlayStation 4 last November as a direct competitor to Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 5. It was delayed at the last second into 2014 and then delayed again earlier this year. Now that the game is finally out, has the road smoothed out?
The retail edition of DriveClub we have right now feels a bit like what I imagined the PlayStation Plus Edition would be like. That is to say, it seems like a great demo for a much bigger game. The problem is that this is, as I said, a full retail game. It isn't without its high points, but there's a lot of baggage weighing the good stuff down.
A Few Missing Parts
Fans of racing games will notice some pretty glaring omissions almost immediately when they boot the game up. For as forward thinking as DriveClub is, it seems backwards in many ways, like a backend from a ten-year-old game retrofitted onto a modern graphics engine with a set of online features.
Most apparent are the lack of elements like the braking lines we see available in games like Forza and Gran Turismo. The game tries to balance out this omission with flags alongside the track that indicate how sharp a corner you're approaching, but these flags aren't dynamic and don't take into account your speed.
It seems, like many elements of the game, like an attempt to be different from other racers just for the sake of being different. We see this feature in other racers because it just works and it does a good job of compensating for things like three-dimensional vision that we have access to in real life.
Missing, too, are basic options like brightness settings and even the ability to toggle car assists like stability management and anti-lock braking.
Talking about the cars themselves, there are crucial pieces missing as well. When you're selecting a car, you get some generic stat lines that represent its handling, speed, and braking relative to other cars, but you don't get important elements like what type of drivetrain a car has. Each drivetrain is handled differently on the track, whether it's front or rear wheel drive, whether the engine is in the front or middle of the car, or whether all four wheels have power going to them. Instead, you're left to figure this out on the track when your car spins out.
And then there are the cars. The cars that are there look great, but the roster is entirely European cars. I love Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and I think cars like the Beetle and Mini are fun as heck to drive. But to leave out the rich automotive landscapes of American and Japanese racing is in itself an almost unforgivable sin. I found this so stunning that I went back more than a few times to make sure I wasn't missing something.
Once you make it past these issues – all of which you'll encounter before you can really even get past the first few laps – there's still an actual game beneath them.
Things didn't get much better, though.
As much as racing games get dumped on for troublesome AI, it's been getting better lately. It's jarring then to drop into DriveClub to find myself back a few years.
The AI opponents in DriveClub run a very strict racing line, and, if you catch a glimpse of your opponents from a distance after you've spun out, you'll see something that looks very much like a multi-colored caterpillar advancing along the track, looking more like a caravan than a race.
If you should decide to interrupt that line, I wish you luck. It seems like the computer opponents want to stay in line no matter what. It doesn't matter if you're there. The cars will ram into you if you happen to be in the way. There's no sign that the other cars care the slightest about keeping what is ostensibly a $50,000-plus investment in drivable shape.
The reward and penalty system DriveClub uses, as a result, doesn't quite work. Games have used fans and fame before as a metric to track your advancement, but not only can you gain fame, you can lose it by going off the track or being too generous with your paint.
You'll be penalized, over and over, for other cars running into you. If your transgression is bad enough – say you try to cut corners or you drive into someone too hard – you'll be slowed down for a moment like a bad child put into a corner. But it doesn't matter if you cut that corner because the AI slammed into you, or that you ended up in that pile-up for the same reason.
What's worse is that the computer-controlled cars, from what I can tell, aren't subject to the same penalties. I wasn't even allowed to take my frustrations out on the other cars; I tried to turn around and drive in the wrong direction, and the game quickly reset me back to the right direction.
I was hopeful about the progression system in DriveClub going in, but it ended up being another source of frustration. Instead of making money to buy cars, you gain fame to level up. Leveling up gives you access to more and more cars. This is a break from the car fetishization offered up by Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but after playing those for so long, it feels limiting to know that I have to unlock the cars one by one. I can't even save up for a supercar, I just have to keep grinding until I get there – and that applies whether you're in Tour mode or Single Event mode.
To proceed to the next group of races, you have to complete a certain number of challenges which are denoted in the game by stars. You might need 66 stars to get to the next set of races in the game, and each race has three stars – cups have additional stars, too. If this sounds a bit like Angry Birds, you're not wrong. It feels like Angry Birds, too.
Many of the challenges are actually a lot of fun. Things like matching a certain speed or driving line within a race helped make a race worth completing even if I'd lost my place at the head of the pack. Too many of the challenges, though, revolve around obtaining a certain place in the race or achieving a certain time in a lap, and, as someone who spends literally hours improving his lap times in Forza Motorsport 5, I can say that some of these times are pretty tough to pull off.
You'll end up redoing some races time and time again, grinding for stars to proceed to the next area. I love redoing races a second time, but it's not fun if I feel forced into it.
Even the act of simply driving often feels dated and lacking.
The sensation of wheels to pavement is non-existent. DriveClub is intended to be an arcade racer, but the controls don't increase in responsiveness to match. Driving often felt sluggish. In trying to find a sweet spot between simulation and arcade, DriveClub ends up straddling the fence and gets stuck in the weaknesses of the two rather than borrowing from their strengths.
There is one great thing about DriveClub, and that's the visuals. Every aspect of the graphics is soundly rooted in this new generation of consoles.
One of the best parts of a long, point-to-point race is starting with a nighttime sky and racing into the sunrise. The night and day cycle is great looking at any time of day, and I'm surprised they were able to integrate changes into the game as well as they were despite it not being an open-world game.
The particle effects, too, are gorgeous. Driving through a pile of leaves sends it scattering. A paper bag blows by as you wait for the race to start. It adds something intangible to the atmosphere of the game, like the air feels a bit thicker when it's grey and gloomy.
The various nations in which the races take place make for some beautiful courses, too. The sheer number of different land features you can whiz by in a race is pretty impressive.
Yet somehow, it feels a bit sterile. Without an open world option to explore these gorgeous vistas, they're just vistas – backdrops painted on a movie set wall. The invisible walls crop up so fast, in fact, that it's jarring. I was afraid to go off-track more because of these walls than because of any racing penalties.
Regarding the tracks themselves, I think Evolution Studios has the right idea, but they're not quite there yet. The tracks are pretty, but not terribly memorable. As much as I enjoy racing on Laguna Seca and Nurburgring, just as I have been for most of the last twenty years of racing games, it's fun to get off of the standard stuff and onto some new tracks. Despite that, none of the tracks are memorable – something those aforementioned real-world tracks can boast. As soon as I finished a track, I forgot about it because the next track looked so similar.
Alone on the Road
Finally, let's talk about the online component. The game's big draw.
I didn't touch it.
It's not that I didn't want to. It's that, at the time of writing this – six days after the game hit shelves – the game is still so plagued by server issues and coding problems that I was never able to engage any of the online parts of the game. A few times it said I was online, but I couldn't even create a club – I was going to name it #dogeclube – let alone test my mettle against other DriveClub players.
Big online launches are often accompanied by hiccups, but what seems to be 100% downtime since launch is inexcusable. For this to happen after nearly a full year of delays is even worse as it's just another element that makes it look as if the game was forced out the door rather than completed to the team's intended specifications.
If you're waiting for a great racing game to hit the PlayStation 4, your best bet right now is to hope Gran Turismo 6 gets a remastered edition. DriveClub falls short in many small ways that pile up to become insurmountable. Whether it's the dated mechanics, mobile game progression, or the bungled online experience, DriveClub just doesn't have much to offer. If you're desperate for a racing game and unwilling to jump the divider to pick up the Forza titles, at least wait until this game gets a few patches before you pick it up. Otherwise, skip this one completely.
Disclaimer: We purchased a copy of DriveClub at launch using company funds. We played about 10 hours of the single player's Tour and Single Event modes but were not able to play the online modes due to server problems.
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