- Purist approach to racing
- Strong competitive social elements
- Scenery often stunning
- Great arcade feel
- Slightly old-school structure
- Infuriating AI
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It’s all too easy to damn DriveClub with faint praise. Emerging just after the launch of Forza Horizon 2, it’s less of a crowd-pleaser and more of a slow-burner. It’s a beautiful-looking game, but not as glossy or glamorous as the Microsoft racer, and where Horizon 2 is all about simple thrills and the freedom of the open road, playing DriveClub is a more rigorous pursuit. It’s social aspects are fascinating, but a harder sell than Forza’s on and off-road racing festival. For a game that’s forward-thinking, DriveClub can be surprisingly old-school.
By now, you probably know the basic concept. In fact, the title pretty much sums it up. DriveClub is all about social racing: joining a club, driving for that club, and sharing the glory with your friends. In terms of structure, it’s not dissimilar to a dozen racers of the last generation, with several tiers of events, taking in point-to-point races, circuit races, time trials and drift challenges. Each event has its own objectives, and by completing these objectives you unlock further tiers of events.
However, in Driveclub you’re not only competing for first position or a lower lap time; you’re competing for Fame - both for you individually and your Club. You get fame for the normal things, of course, but also for beating bit-sized challenges known as Face-Offs, where you’re tasked with cornering better than another player across a section of the track, or beating their average speed. They'll pop up on the track and monitor your score/speed/drift in that section. If you beat your buddy or your nemesis in the Face-Off, you get massive points for you and your team mates.
As your fame builds you level up, unlocking new cars from the game’s selection. What’s more, your fame contributes to that of your club, pushing it up the ranks and up the leaderboard, so that you’re always contributing to the tally. As your club ranks up, new cars also become available to the members, meaning it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the tally growing.
Thus in Driveclub you’re always trying to do two things at once: win the race or get the lowest time in the time trial, but also succeed in any challenges thrown your way. To be honest, the challenges will often play second fiddle. The time trails become very tight as you get higher up the ladder, even if you're a skilled driver with a kick-ass car. Face-Offs can become a barely noticed pop-up as you speed through a series of S-bends on your way to the finish line. Yet at other times they can become the focus, allowing you to pull something back from even the most miserable performance, or grab a little extra glory from your latest triumph.
Were Driveclub’s racing no good, all the social stuff wouldn’t make a difference, but past the first hour or two it gets very good indeed. Driveclub’s strength is that, beneath the social layer, it’s a purist’s racer. You pick a car, take it to the course and try and get it to the finish line before anyone else. There’s no tuning or upgrading, no real options for AI difficulty or handling, and no sneaky way to rewind the action and retake the corner you just span out on.
Some may think that's a pro for DriveClub, especially as developer Evolution aimed to make a driving game that is accessible to everyone. But, it does have its limitations for those who are well-versed in driving games and looking for that edge.
The handling straddles the line between arcade and sim territory, and while first impressions are that it leans too far towards the arcade side, that changes as you move up from hot hatches to executive touring cars, sports cars, supercars and track toys. Driveclub is no Forza 5 or Gran Turismo 6, but it’s a little more realistic than a Ridge Racer or Need for Speed.
The tracks also help its cause. Set across five regions – India, Canada, Scotland, Norway and Chile – they provide a strong selection of high-speed circuits, soaring mountain tracks packed with treacherous bends and twisting, dusty layouts that will have you spinning and drifting with the best of them. The scenery is frequently stunning, especially as the time changes from day to night and there’s no shortage of variety. To go from the brooding landscapes of the highlands to the bright colours and sun-dappled foothills of Tamil Nadu can be a real aesthetic treat.
Of course, you can argue that Driveclub’s purist approach is a weakness. There’s no framework beyond going from one event to another, and lots of players like to tweak the handling, or have the option of upgrading their car. But then that would be to spoil the social aspect. The intention is clear: to make sure that each race, each time trial and each challenge is met – bar the choice of car – on a level playing field. You win fame for you and for your club by driving better than the other players, not by grinding for credits and upgrades or switching driving aids on and off.
The social stuff doesn’t end with the head-to-head challenges. Finished a race and feeling pleased with yourself? Post it as a challenge to the world, or to the friends in and outside your Driveclub. If they beat it within the challenge period, they get some glory. If they don’t, the glory comes your way. Cleverly, you’re not pushed to post a challenge immediately after racing, but can access a history of recent activities and post from there. When a player takes your challenge you’re alerted, giving you a chance to go back and post an even better time.
That goes for Face-Offs too. You can set mini-challenges for your friends and the world of racers with DriveClub. It could be a corner challenge that you'll need to reach a specific point score on a tricky hairpin, a drifting challenge or even an average speed Face-Off around the twirling bends on the mountainous paths.
Although there are the more conventional multiplayer aspects, which let you set a race time for you and your buddies if some of you are currently embroiled in a long race. It is far more stripped back than alternate facing titles, and has more of an old school pre-Motorstorm feel to it from Evolution. But to be honest, it feels like working solo for your Club is far more important in DriveClub. It's definitely a more solitary racer, despite its unique social network structure.
We can’t say enough that Driveclub can be a brilliant racer. It’s fast, thrilling, challenging and (mostly) fair. The sound is fantastic, to the extent that the decision not to cover the engine noise with music by default seems absolutely right. It can feel a little bleak at first, but you'll soon realise the detail that the devs have gone to for a realistic sound.
The graphics don't have the shine or clarity of Forza Horizon 2, but there’s some superb, atmospheric lighting and an awful lot of detail, particularly in the forests of Canada or the rugged mountain tracks of Chile. The cars are beautifully rendered, both inside and out, with a choice of cameras that should please arcade racers (the external views) and serious drivers (the fantastic cockpit views).
Yet it's sometimes evident that Driveclub lacks a little soul. For all that scenic beauty, it hasn't quite got the wow factor that a next-gen titles should. Just look at games like Horizon 2 or even The Last of Us Remastered, and their water and lighting effects stand out in a way that Driveclub's don't.
The car line-up is pretty special. Driveclub doesn’t try to compete with GT, Forza or even Horizon 2 when it comes to quantity, but with the likes of the Aston Marin V12 Zagato, the Ferrari California and the Pagani Huarya around, the quality is never in doubt. The worst thing you can say is that some of the cars feel a little too skittish – is the Audi TT RS Plus really that prone to rattling around the track? – but in general cars handle as you might expect them too, and the arcade handling makes them brilliant to drive.
All the same, Driveclub doesn’t come without some aggravations. The AI, for example, can be exasperating. Sometimes it’s perfect, giving you the kind of fast, demanding competition that makes each race a high-stakes thriller. Sometimes it’s pitifully easy. You pull ahead in the early stages, and no-one has a chance of keeping up. At its worst, however, it’s teeth-grinding, temple-throbbing, Dual-Shock 4-through-the-window infuriating.
In some cases, the early stages of the race become a fiesta of clangs and crashes, as everyone trades place with everyone else and you hope for a miracle to make your way through the pack. Alternatively, you’re pushing hard for first position in the last stretch of the race, jockeying for position with the guy just up in front, when the guy in third steams up behind you, smacks into you as you’re trying to corner, then sends you spinning off the track. And because the AI has a horrible habit of bunching up, you go from 2nd to 8th in roughly half a second. It’s time to hit restart and repeat the whole race. Why? Damn you Driveclub AI, why?
We’re also not so sure about some of the night or twilight races. Sure, it’s good to challenge players with limited visibility, but does the track have to be quite this hard to see? For one event we had to close the curtains and turn screen brightness up to full just to see the tarmac. Either that’s a problem, or the game needs a toggle to set the lights on to full-beam.
It’s testament to how good Driveclub’s racing is that these irritants don’t seriously spoil the ride. It’s the kind of racer that has you swearing that you missed that time objective by 0.2 of a second, or that keeps you coming back to try and beat a friend who’s come in two seconds ahead. It’s the kind of racer where you’ll spend an hour repeating one event, not because you can’t complete it, but because you could complete it a few seconds faster if you could just iron out some mistakes on that sudden uphill corner or fast downhill bend. Like we said, it’s a purist’s racer – albeit for purists who aren’t bothered by an arcade handling model.
What’s more, there’s potential in all this social stuff. True, it’s not entirely unique – EA’s Autolog has been doing this stuff for years – but Driveclub does an impressive job of making it a focus for the gameplay, and of using team cooperation and healthy competition as a spur to keep you coming back to the game. We’ve yet to try the companion app, but it’s not hard to imagine how getting an alert that your challenge has been beaten will push you back to restake your claim.
Driveclub’s strength is its killer combo of stripped-back racing and social features, pushing you to keep going back to the track for personal glory and the glory of your team. If it lacks the glamour, freedom and exuberance of Forza Horizon 2, there’s compensation in the fierce competition on the track. The AI can be annoying, and not everyone will get the game’s approach, but if you engage with the game’s strong social angle, there’s a great racer in here to enjoy.
Read more: Xbox One vs PS4
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