This is a tough review to write. Only a few weeks ago, I nominated DriveClub as potential Game of the Year.
Based on my first two encounters with the game, I was feeling pretty confident in my assessment. DriveClub surprised the crap out of me at E3 2013, which was a fine vintage for racers. Forza Motorsport 5 and Gran Turismo 6 were both on display, yet DriveClub more than held its own, and I walked away highly impressed.
Earlier this year, I had a second helping of Evolution Studios' new racer, experiencing a demo that showed the game was clearly benefitting from the extra development time it had been given. It didn't quite feel as visceral as the prior year's version, but it looked far better and was just as much fun to drive.
So yes. Coming into this review, I had high expectations. Maybe I set them too high? That's something I'll be trying to reconcile as I write this review, because to me, DriveClub has somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and fallen short.
I hoped the game would bring new racing formats, with exciting and dynamic options that would make the action rewarding and involving. Both aspects of the Forza franchise have been exploring this organizational structure to great effect recently, and I wanted to find similar innovation here as well.
Sadly not. DriveClub's single-player mode is perhaps the biggest lost opportunity since... well. I'm not even going to think back that far.
First of all, winning cars should be an event. You should feel excited and rewarded. These are moments to be savored as you see your latest four-wheel acquisition roll out of a showroom, beautifully lit and making you feel like you've achieved something. DriveClub is the antithesis of that. You start the game with a list of slightly faded out cars, which you unlock by leveling up. You probably know how it works: Win races, earn experience, increase your level.
It isn't bad in principle, but here it just feels like a complete afterthought. It seems the folks at Evolution Studios either don't know or don't care about making the player feel rewarded. Forza Horizon 2 has a slot machine when you level up. It's silly, sure, but it's also exciting and fun. Will you get a car on your pull? Or a measly 8.000 cr? I've yelled and whooped at it on numerous occasions. It's a dynamic loot drop system that you really look forward to. Who doesn't like to win stuff?
DriveClub just wafts the car you already knew you were going to get under your nose, and that's it. No mystery or anticipation. Just an old-fashioned mechanical system that doles out a car every time you grind another milestone. If you don't care about the way you win cars, of course this is all moot. However, I do. The "loot" aspect of winning cars — especially ones I don't know I'm going to get — makes the whole thing interesting and rewarding. Something like winning a Mini Cooper and then have to take it racing in some kind of hot hatch championship is fun. It's a racing narrative that leads me through the game, doling out mystery cars that should have me shouting in delight, and presenting racing challenges that feel interesting and involved. DriveClub does that in concept, but it does an awful job in articulating it. It just sucks the fun right out of the room.
Also, because you see the cars you're going to get from the very start, there's a feeling of you having to unlock cars (which sounds more like work) and not really winning them (rewarding and fun). Yes, the process of racing is entertaining, but with such lax treatment of the way you acquire and manage your cars, racing becomes racing for the sake of it, rather than something that feels rewarding and filled with anticipation. It's not even like you're earning money and can pick and choose. Nope. The car unlock is linear and predetermined.
However, while you don't have a choice about what cars you get and when, there is at least some choice when it comes to racing. Events are pretty straightforward — sometimes they're single-race affairs, and sometimes they might be mini championships. All have a main goal, and one or two secondary goals, such as surpassing a specific average speed along a stretch of track, or a drift score on a corner. Achieving any goal yields stars, and stars unlock more races.
It's a good idea; one that helps add a layer of interest to the proceedings. However, it's served up almost frill-free: Just a pictorial tableau of the races, and that's just about it. It's not even as engaging as Gran Turismo's first attempt at doing the same thing... back in 1997. To be honest, I'm flabbergasted that it's as poor as it is. Perhaps because Evolution Studios believes that players will be far more interested in the multiplayer aspects of the game, they didn't feel the need to create an enthralling racing structure for solo players. Perhaps they genuinely believe that this is an acceptable single-player offering. Either way, it's hugely impersonal and unimaginative.
When I played the early demos of DriveClub, I enjoyed the racing's arcadey feel. That's still front and center, and perhaps even a little more arcadey-feeling than it was before. Maybe it's because I've only played before using a steering wheel, or perhaps playing Forza Horizon 2 non-stop for weeks is skewing my perception, but in the cold light of day, DriveClub feels a bit clumsy and lacking in finesse.
Cars generally understeer, and the only way to coax them into oversteer is to be heavy-handed with the handbrake. This can make certain aspects of the game fun, but for racing I just found the handling just a little too bouncy for my racing style. It's only slight, but it feels odd, almost as though the car's bodyshell and chassis aren't properly connected. The chassis feels good, but the bodyshell is flopping around like (huge overstatement, but it gets my point across) a Jack-in-the-box after it's been opened.
Considering the way the game has been tuned more to suit the taste of the designers and less to model real life, having the option to detune to the way I like my cars to handle would make a huge difference in terms of my relationship with the game. I'd love to try driving with dialed-up compression and dampened rebound to see if I can make the car absorb bumps a little more effectively, and perhaps address my penchant for over-correcting mistakes with some modifications to the steering ratio and sensitivity. However, DriveClub offers no such control or handling customization.
In term of the tracks you'll be driving on, DriveClub is all over the place, figuratively and literally. Some tracks are fun to drive, while others just aren't particularly inspiring. It's hard to put my finger on the reason for this, but ultimately I think they don't seem to have been designed in sympathy with the cars' handling. It almost feels like the earlier versions I played had a different handling feel that was much tighter. That worked quite well with the tracks I demoed. But the production version of the game has different handling, while the tracks are still the same, so things just don't seem to gel - especially on the thinner tracks, where the wallowing suspension can make it hard to keep cars on the straight and narrow at high speed.
Further compounding this disconnect are some very questionably-placed landscape objects, seemingly positioned deliberately to catch you out and cause you to crash. While the racing would certainly be boring were it risk-free, slightly cutting a racing line and nailing a rock that happens to be right there... it just feels a bit unnecessary.
The AI competitors are generally good, but I've run into more than a few situations where I'm being bumped repeatedly from behind as I'm going flat-out down a straightaway. It almost feels like old-school Gran Turismo, where the cars followed a set line and would barge you out of the way rather than drive around you if you were holding them up. It's not quite that bad, but the AI does feel overly aggressive at times.
Something I really don't like are the warning sounds that continually ring during the game. I like the idea of having three seconds to get back onto the track if you run wide of a corner or are running along the verge to overtake, but the bell that counts down those seconds is phenomenally irritating.
The game uses a similar warning bell to count down the seconds while you're under a post-collision throttle lock, which further adds to the feeling that you're driving around with some kind of hyperactive, bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa riding shotgun. Note to Evolution Studios: Next time please give us some options on the alarm bell stuff.
DriveClub generally looks gorgeous, and the Scotland levels in particular are excellent. However, while the lighting is often stunning and photo-realistic, the dynamic lighting changes, particularly contrast, is sometimes overly aggressive. It can be very difficult to see into the distance on some tracks, especially on fairly circular tracks where you're spending time driving into and out of the sunlight. The continual changes in contrast almost makes you feel like you've developed nyctalopia.
The omnipresent lens flare here is a particular pet peeve of mine. A first-person view is meant to represent viewing through the eyes of the player. Can you remember the last time you saw lens flare while looking at something? Exactly. Lens flare 'til your heart's content on the cinematics, but please don't stick lens flare into "my" cornea. It just feels a bit old-fashioned.
After FH2's one-dude show, it's nice to have driver customization options here... but like the other presentation aspects of this game, it feels like an afterthought. This sort of feature is always a nice addition, though hardly essential. If you're going to do something like this, however, at least make it fun. Give us stuff to win. Helmets to wear or cool clothes. I know it's trivial, but it enriches the experience between the player and the game.
DriveClub's multiplayer facet is where Evolution Studios believes the richest, most meaningful experiences are to be had, and perhaps they are. All their effort seems to have been poured into making this side of the game as vibrant and interesting as possible. It's certainly a commendable effort, and players are able to throw down challenges based on their own best times, create specific races and engage in multiplayer car club races.
Basically, it's a smorgasbord of racing — as much as anyone could possibly consume. It works well, and the constant dynamic insertion of challenges into whatever race you're in helps make everything exciting and stimulating. Despite the occasional wobby handling, some rough edges, and tracks that aren't as exciting as they should be, DriveClub is still fun to drive. It's just a shame that it lacks any kind of feeling of reward or progression.
At this point I think you've probably already worked out whether this one's for you. DriveClub is a decent racer that clearly needed more time in development to polish it up. Perhaps we'll see some additional features being patched in some way down the road. I hope so. You can see the potential here, but DriveClub just hasn't quite realized it.
Looks superb, despite some overdone high contrast lighting effects.
The music is fairly generic electronica, the car engines and effects are the right kind of crude and rorty, and the alarm bell warning sounds are exceptionally irritating.
Stylish-looking, but generally lacking imagination and creativity. The racing structure is way too simple and one-dimensional. The multiplayer aspect is almost completely the opposite: Packed with pretty much anything you want to do.
There's no doubt that DriveClub will foster a vibrant racing community, but some might wish for a more sophisticated endgame structure.
A great multiplayer racer, but quite dreary as a single-player game, DriveClub feels like it needed more time in development to polish out its dings and flaws.