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Driveclub’s racing contests force you to treat the road with respect.
You’ll find no easy difficulty settings here, no points for hitting other cars, no enticement (or even capability) to rocket off into the landscape as you see in Forza 2 Horizon or other, more forgiving games.
Sony’s new racer, a $60 PlayStation 4 exclusive from Evolution Studios and launching today, harkens to the tradition set by Gran Turismo and the realism-at-all-costs school of driving games. That’s why, when it sometimes fails to reward skill above all else, it feels like Driveclub cheats you.
But the racer’s replayability is nearly as legendary as its last race series, and for those willing to put up with the occasional quirk, Driveclub represents the best racing game on the PlayStation 4. I played the retail version using a standard controller on Sony’s prerelease servers, which the company was still updating at press time.
What you’ll like
A custom club experience that matters
The “club” in Driveclub refers to the social aspects. While it’s possible to play offline, I don’t recommend it. Some of the objectives in most race collections almost require the cars unlocked by club membership and play over the PlayStation Network.
Starting or joining a six-person club requires only a few button clicks. You can keep your club closed or open. Even if you allow strangers to join, it’s up to you how much you interact with them.
So what’s the point, you ask? The clubs offer several key gameplay enhancements. First, the accolades and experience your club collects unlock cars and paint jobs that aren’t available in the collection you earn with solo play. Clubs can also issue challenges to each other and to the public (as can individual drivers), and these challenges add significant entertainment.
Sadly, racing in challenges is far more interesting than creating them. The limited choices and the lack of customization make them easy but unrewarding to set up.
Facing off for fun and profit in solo and multiplayer
Standard 12-player multiplayer races are available as well, though Sony’s matchmaking servers had issues for most of the pre-release test week. They often dropped connections as recently as Sunday. Those multiplayer matches I was able to enter went smoothly and posed the typical additional challenge versus the A.I.
In solo and multiplayer races, you’ll see face-offs: mini-challenges based on computer-assigned times, your own earlier records, or other players’ records.
These test your cornering, drifting, speed, and time against those earlier marks, and offer fun minigames within the overall driving challenge. It’s a great use of Driveclub’s social nature to extend meaningful gameplay.
A wide variety of courses
Driveclub offers dozens of tracks, primarily country roads, that open up in collections based on the points you earn in competition and your overall level. The scenery varies widely, from snow-capped mountains to palm-tree-strewn deserts, and the courses themselves offer terrific challenges.
Little interferes with your view of the road, in keeping with the serious take on the driving. You’ll see confetti, leaves, dust, perhaps the occasional plastic bag. Spectators will crowd the corners of some contests, but they’re definitely background noise, with clunky five-year-old animation styles.
Don’t think that Evolution’s previous success with the MotorStorm series means you’ll be off-roading: Invisible walls keep you from plunging off the edge of high roads, and going off the pavement for more than 3 seconds places you firmly back on the asphalt with a small penalty.
Oh, those cars
The terrific car selection in Driveclub includes hundreds of real models representing a huge variety of racing metal. They are beautifully crafted, smoothly animated, gorgeous creatures.
The damage modeling when you crash into things is pretty rudimentary, but the way your headlights sweep and reflect along the side of a Alfa Romeo 4C when you nose it out of the way on the track is breathtaking.
The dozens of models open at the start include many I’ve owned in real life (think Mini Cooper S and Jetta Turbo), and the driving experience delights even when unrealistic.
Among cars you unlock, I could live without a few — I’d be happy to never see another race with the Hennessey Venom GT in it, that slippery bastard — but most offer tradeoffs that lead to greater rewards. (Hello, Ferrari FF.)
Paint jobs are nearly infinitely varied, with hundreds of colors to choose from, a huge variety of patterns you earn with your skill, and badges for various accomplishments. Unfortunately, paint is the only thing you can customize on Driveclub’s cars.
It’s all about the skill, baby
It’s strange, but I would classify Driveclub as more sim than arcade racer. It deducts points and gives penalties in an unforgiving, almost punitive way. Leave the track for the shoulder, get hit by another car, nudge another vehicle yourself, cut a corner, all will result in penalties.
The result is an environment that rewards precise driving and encourages you to keep upping your game. The difficulty will reward you for long hours of play, and keep you coming back to master races that haven’t fallen even after a dozen attempts.
What you won’t like
Playing catchup with the A.I.
Cars demonstrate amazing handling in Driveclub — as long as you’re the one behind the wheel. Obnoxious catchup A.I. tarnishes this game. You can blow by a computer-controlled car in an early race, and it will suddenly develop the ability to hang right off your bumper, nudging you out of line in that crucial hard turn. Other times cars will just lose speed, allowing you to pass, for no visible reason.
If you fall behind, you’ll find that every other car in the race has obligingly formed a single-file line, nose-to-tail, waiting for you to suck less. They’ll only start jockeying for space when you enter their midst.
That difficulty, yo
I loved that Driveclub aspires to a higher difficulty level than most casual driving games. But my love became disgust when that difficulty seemed arbitrary or unfair.
I could dramatically cut one corner and receive no penalty at all — and then barely clip another and get dinged. The catchup A.I. screwed up more clean runs than I could count. The difficulty gates between each set of races felt incredibly inconsistent.
In several cases, the process of beating the last race series to open up another set of courses was so difficult that I had nearly all the objective points I needed to reach the next series after that within a race or two. A car that was all but necessary to meet objectives in one particular race might not become available until tens of levels later.
A third-person camera that ruins your drive
Driveclub’s first-person bumper camera offers the sense that you’re swooshing inches off the road at incredible speed. Bearing down at 150 mph on a Maserati that spun out and is now facing you in the center of the track will make you gasp. The other first-person views (hood, dashboard) are equally pleasant.
But don’t bother with the third-person camera, even though it offers you the best view of your gorgeous automobile.
It obediently follows the car like a dog on a leash, swinging wide for turns. It actually follows you backward if you back up after wiping out, making it impossible to see where you’re going. If you don’t like playing driving games in first-person, approach Driveclub with caution.
The PlayStation platform has always hosted tremendous driving games, and Driveclub tries hard to live up to that legacy. The parts that are exceedingly well-polished (gorgeous cars, skill-based driving) make those that trip up (ugly A.I.) all the more disappointing. It sets a high bar for the inevitable competitors to follow, but like an inexperienced driver on a hot lap in a solo challenge, it’s sloppy in the turns.
This game doesn’t reward casual players, and I expect that it’ll eventually be overtaken by more creative competitors. But it offers a solid experience for the committed, first-person racing game lover.
If that’s you, I’ve listed your score below. If you don’t like driving in the first person or want a driving game that forgives less-than-perfect play, knock 10 points off.
Driveclub is available Oct. 7 for PlayStation 4 for $60. Sony Computer Entertainment America provided a copy for this review.