Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
Driveclub is inexcusably broken. Despite an extra year’s development and £15,000 per vehicle interior, Evolution and Sony forgot to properly check if the online functionality was up to scratch. It isn’t, even after a massive amount of work and fix implementation post-release. Tests were done. "We ran a beta test and none of these issues occurred," Paul Rustchynsky, the game’s director wrote on Twitter. "We had confidence everything was ready. These issues were unexpected. We did run large scale synthetic load tests with tens of thousands of concurrent users and the tests were successful." Tens of thousands of concurrent users for a game which was due to be released for sale at the same time as a stripped-down version was made available to PS+ subscribers around the world. That’s Sony’s PS+ which at least half of all PS4 owners pay for, in part to play online, according to the electronics giant themselves. So that’s at least five million people who reasonably could have been expected to want to try Driveclub on day one. Even lowering expectations to something like ten percent leaves you with half a million, which is more than tens of thousands. Add to that those who bought the game - the only ones to date who have actually got it - and Evolution Studios and Sony messed up on the big PlayStation 4 exclusive this winter. It’s a shame, as the actual driving game on show is a remarkably fun and engaging arcade racer with the presentation quality of a simulation; one which would have kept gamers happy for a long time.
Driveclub is the game Evolution always wanted to make (sans online woes one presumes): a fabulous socially connected peon to car porn moulded into a fun and immediate arcade racer. It’s so hard to talk about what the game does right when so much of it is built upon the assumption online functionality would work as intended, but it would be unfair to focus only on what’s wrong when so much is done properly. Let’s assume for the moment it’s an offline racer and that’s what the aim was.
In Driveclub you earn experience points individually and when working as a team in order to level up and unlock cars - mainly cars - as well as paint jobs and other base customisation options. This is not a caRPG, merely a tool by which to delay the pleasure of driving a McLaren P1, or the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. You obtain XP by racing in various events ranging from a single event, the settings of which are designed by you - things such as time of day, number of laps, difficulty of opposition - to any one of many World Tour events where you might have one competitive challenge, be looking to obtain drift points, time-trialling or in a mini-championship. The tour, of course, is where the majority of the single-player time will be spent as you move from hot hatch rookie events all the way to the hypercar championships and Pagani drift missions once you’ve earnt the cars and the stars. The World Tour earns you stars if you achieve success. One time you might need to finish in the top 3 and hit a high speed; at others you might need to beat a lap-time. Typically there are three stars per race but these can be split per competition or averaged over a tournament, whereby some are retained for overall success (winning the championship, or getting a set number of points).
The progression and challenge of the World Tour is well set. As you move up the car types from hot hatch to supercar, performance and then hypercar, everything increases. Speed, acceleration, drift. It’s a nice learning curve and it pays to go methodically through the sets of events before tackling the next. Not only does this better prepare you for the forthcoming challenge, but it enables you to unlock more of the cars you’ll want to be driving in the latter game stages. There is a disconnect, actually. If you raced in the latest stage you’ve unlocked - by meeting the relevant criteria of number of stars and position in the rookie, semi-pro trophy and so on - you will be using cars well below those utilised by the AI. This mightn’t be a problem as the races themselves are not overly difficult - they’re pitched about right for a casual racer to progress in the main - but you won’t get to play with the big boys like the Aston Martin One-77.
This disconnect is a shame as you can level up all the way to fifty. You’ll probably get to the final races around thirty and after that the levelling becomes a chore, or a grind, as most would describe it. Level thirty is attained at around five million fame points. Level fifty is three times that. It’s a lot of grinding. Yes you can repeat World Tour events (although you only get fame for obtaining stars one time), or tackle any variation of a single race you like but that can get old. Multiplayer would allow fame collection, but that’s not working wonderfully yet of course. We will touch on that in a little while.
Fame then is the commodity you are after if you want to level up. You obtain fame based on race finish position, drifting, drafting, completing face-offs successfully Face-offs are in-race challenges whereby you’re tasked with achieving a greater drift score or average speed than the game sets, or has been set by someone else somewhere in the world. Fame is the currency of experience because your club is meant to be the most well known. Here’s where things get ugly.
On starting up Driveclub you start earning individual fame immediately. It’s brilliant. Levelling up is quick and regular early on. If you can get online you can create a club and invite someone to it, or accept a shared invite you have received. If you can get online. If not, you earn lots of fame for yourself and it’s forever lost to the club you’d like to join. If you ever do join that club then you can start earning fame and that’s awesome, except that the servers are so unreliable you’ll often be booted out just as you earn the megaton in fame. It’s meant to be added to the club’s earnings eventually but the cloud synchronisation often fails, unsurprising given the level of online incompetency on show, and you again lose that fame forever. This might not be bad for most users but club fame does bring something with it - certain trophies and, more importantly, desirable cars. You unlock new rides dependent on your club level as well as your own. This means you might not even be able to drive certain low level but fun cars if you’re not in a club. Even when you are in a club and you have unlocked a car, if you’re not online the game refuses to allow you to use it. This particular design decision makes less sense than most things but is entirely fitting with the game.
Other problems to do with the lack of stable and present online functionality is that you cannot see your statistics as an individual, let alone those of your club. You cannot see your club accolades at times and if you do none of them are progressing. Accolades are ways to gather extra XP; if you drive Volkswagen cars for so many miles you level up that accolade. The same for taking part in a drift event, or overtaking a vehicle. These provide big boosts to personal fame - and club if you happen to be both in one and connected to the servers - but any club ones are just not working. Often face-offs aren't working in single events or multiplayer races either. Leaderboards are starting to appear but they don’t update very often. Multiplayer racing itself seems to work fine unless someone in your race is having server issues, whereby their car becomes transparent and spontaneously changes places continuously in an attempt to quantum tunnel to the finish line. The actual multiplayer racing if you get in is good fun - but the mechanism to find a lobby and partake then repeat is slow and tedious, taking all the fun out of it. How much this is due to server problems or just the matchmaking code we don’t know. If you can get into any multiplayer race you’re doing well though.
The game’s presentation, if we disregard the lack of all the functionality that’s been promised, is excellent. Evolution have delivered a 1080p, 30 FPS marvel which looks every bit to have the best graphics on the PlayStation 4, with no obviously apparent latency between controller and car. The draw-distance is so big it’s imperceptible; the little effects are throwaway, such as the puffs of smoke on bits of dirt, or the celebratory balloons flying across the track. The sounds are less good. Whilst you do notice the difference between a type of car it’s often difficult to tell the difference between two hypercars, say, or two supercars. If you’re using the in-cabin view you’ll get more from the aural capabilities whilst using a behind-car camera will ensure it all tends to the mean. One thing which really frustrates, given the expenditure on each car’s in-cabin view, is the fact that whether you choose mph or kmh as your unit of speed, the dials read kmh. This does not help when aiming for a 160 mph top speed using the driver’s viewpoint. It’s a small detail but given Evolution have gone to such lengths to instill the right details into each car, you’d think they’d get this right.
Having the in-cabin views is a good thing, though surprising given what the game’s turned out to be. It’s definitely an arcade racer. You are not encouraged to follow the racing line; you do not get to fiddle about with your car settings. You choose a car and you race fast, drift, draft and barge. Aggression is key. The AI is also rather feisty. It seems early on that all the AI wants to do is sit on the racing line whether you’re there or not, but this later transpires to be only part of the story. Opponents will accede to your position if you’re battling each other ahead of a tight spot - it will drop back and have another go. It will purposefully ram you to get ahead. It’s not the most wonderful AI in the world - it doesn’t behave as individually as something in the Burnout games but nor is it the same as Gran Turismo’s NPCars which may as well not be there most of the time. Unfortunately the game penalises you more than the AI for doing similar things. If two cars hit you get a collision penalty. If you cut a corner you get slowed for a moment but they don’t. There’s rubber banding evident too, blatantly so. It impacts the game making it less fun. It’s inconsistent, it’s irritating and it detracts from the simple joy of racing very fast. A joy which is there in abundance, when you strip away everything else.
You can’t strip away everything else though - it’s far too pervasive. For a game that is designed to be a social event and built that way, the level of failure is perhaps the greatest seen in a long time - maybe ever. The lack of fully operational online functionality is hurting the game’s quality and there are so many things reminding you of this problem, not least the tips on each loading screen talking about everything online. Without any online functionality we’d have a really fun arcade racer that any fan of racing games - hardcore and casual alike - would enjoy playing. Driveclub is meant to be so much more though and that promise, remaining undelivered is what will destroy this game. It’s not yet available for PS+ subscribers but it is there for those who really wanted to play and enjoy it. Given the game outlay plus the cost to play online, what’s unavailable is shocking. The community will have moved on before it’s sorted. For that reason, and everything underlying it, what we have here is a potentially excellent game dragged down to the level of the mud you race in.