I’d really rather not be here, writing this review right now. I’d just as soon wait until Driveclub, a fantastic variation on the usual driving games, achieves the state it deserves to be in, a state I have every reasonable expectation it will eventually reach, a state I’ve enjoyed firsthand before the launch. But after a certain amount of time, a launch issue is no longer just a launch issue. For Driveclub, nearly two weeks after its release, that time has come.
After the jump, I come not to praise Driveclub.
My experience with Driveclub is odd. I first saw it at a Sony press event where they corralled grumbling journalists into a room and sat them in front of a row of monitors to have them race against each other. Who wants to do a multiplayer race in a game you’ve never played with cars you’ve never driven in a design based on persistent social shenanigans that aren’t in place? Besides, there was food downstairs and a playable version of The Crew tucked in another room where you could just do whatever you wanted in Ubisoft’s upcoming open-world driving extravaganza. I wasn’t actually given a turn at Driveclub, but I was sequestered in the room, apparently to be subjected to my turn later, which was forgotten when everyone went to get lunch. I watched the others play and I asked questions and I surmised that, boy, this was going to be an awful game. Here were the guys at Sony’s Evolution Studios who did the wonderfully whimsical Motorstorm games, but now straight-jacketed into a series of contained tracks minus any whimsy. You couldn’t even tune or upgrade your car. What kind of racing game doesn’t give you upgrades?
Later, as I was plowing across the open countryside chasing a dune buggy in the demo for The Crew, I considered it might be cool to have a car that always behaves like itself because you’re never going to modify it to behave like another car. That’s an issue with the usual caRPG. You get attached to your Honda Civic and you pour money and upgrades into it and pretty soon it might as well be a Maserati because it performs just like one. Its identity is a casualty of the gameplay demand that we must upgrade our stuff, that a sword must become a +1 sword that must become a +2 sword and so on. It’s never enough that a Honda Civic be always and only a Honda Civic. It must be a money sink, an open platform, the foundation for something fast and souped up, an aspect of an ever upwards level system. That’s the de rigueur marriage of car culture and videogame progression, all in one. If you build it, it will go faster and faster. No car deserves to be shackled to the specs of a Honda Civic.
So imagine my surprise when a copy of Driveclub showed up a week before its release. I’d been blacklisted by Sony for years at this point, yet here they were sending me a game I had little desire to play based on some preconceived notions I had while wanting to get my hands on The Crew demo. Why after all these years was Sony sending me this?
But to their credit, the developers at Evolution always knew how to do tracks with personality and driving physics with personality. So okay, let’s take this Driveclub thing for a spin.
It was a few days before Driveclub’s launch, but there were people online. Other press folks, devs, beta testers, and such. The tracks were full of dynamically generated face-offs, which are occasional challenges to either beat someone else’s drift around a turn, beat their top speed along a section, or closely follow their best line along a stretch. They were little dares that added life to any race.
Not that the races necessarily needed life. Evolution knows track design like no one else. These are some of the most vividly drawn and satisfying tracks since Codemasters’ Dirt 2 or EA’s Need for Speed: Shift 2, but with the advantage that they’re fully next-gen and doing some lovely stuff with changing light, including nighttime that’s actually nightime and not just bluetime. The tracks are a wonder to behold, visiting distinct places, with lovely layouts, and carefully arranged scenery. Around a dark Scottish loch, down from a snow-packed Chilean mountain into the barren tundra, around the garish colors of an Indian track with brightly colored fluttering pennants, along an icy Norwegian highway dotted with settlements, in the cradle of a thickly wooded Canadian valley. It’s not spectacle so much as luminescent scenery, and it’s what you get when you control where the drivers go and what they see. An open world will never command these views. This is pure Evolution, through and through, and it’s sublime.
Without any caRPG progression, Driveclub proceeds by having you race events to earn stars to unlock more events. And part of the beauty of Driveclub is that the stars aren’t always about winning. Sometimes you get a star for beating a particular face-off. Sometimes you get a star for attaining a particular lap time. Sometimes you get a star for finishing in the top 3. 3rd place is as good as any other. Sometimes you drive in Driveclub for something other than the usual goals.
Above and beyond stars, there’s fame, which is your accumulated score from how well you did on a race and the milestones you’ll periodically hit (10 races in a Volkswagen, 20 miles in Scotland, 300 meters drifted in German cars, etc.). These fame points determine your level, which in turn determine which cars you have available for any given event. And the beauty of fame during a race is that Evolution uses it to suggest you drive a certain way: well. You earn fame for driving clean, and you lose fame for driving dirty. Pass another car? That’s 500 fame. Bang into him while passing him? That’s -200 fame. So a clean pass is worth 500 fame, but a dirty pass is worth 300 fame. Going off the track — in addition to dramatically slowing you down — is also a fame hit. Banging into obstacles is a fame hit. It’s possible to be so bad at driving that you earn no fame from a race. Ultimately, you can drive however you want. But Driveclub will only reward you best for driving well.
To some players, this will be an outrage. They should play the innumerable other driving games that don’t care if you drive well. Driveclub is a game about doing well, with what you’ve got, without leaning on assists or rewinds or difficulty levels (it has none of these things). Each race is a specific car, a specific challenge, and a specific track. You will have to learn how a Volkswagen Golf handles and not just the BAC Mono. There’s a lot of stuff in Driveclub. You are going to be responsible for all of it. You are going to have to drive it all carefully. You might — brace yourself — even have to practice. You’ll be glad to know you earn fame for practicing.
The central mandate of Driveclub is driving. There is no open world faffing about, no collecting, no douchebag handler telling you where to go next, no DJ narrator, no partylife backdrop, and not a whiff of caRPG. You don’t own cars. You don’t upgrade them. You don’t even tune them. You drive what you’re given, because each race is a specific challenge. You drive Driveclub the way it was intended, or your don’t drive it at all. Sometimes the best teachers are the most demanding teachers. Everyone is free to go play on the monkeybars during recess. But I’m trying to get this chicane right without losing too much speed so I can set a 1:14 lap time and I am loving the way this Audi handles. Which is fortunate, because I can’t tighten the gears or loosen the suspension or add a weight reduction module or boost the engine. I can’t even use nitrous. This isn’t that kind of game. This is a game about me, a chicane, an Audi, and a 1:14 lap time. You can play whatever you want on the monkeybars. I’m playing Driveclub. And here’s my ebullient Tweet:
Would I be breaking the October 7th review embargo by saying Driveclub is freakin' amazing? Surprise of the year so far! #driveclub
— Tom Chick (@Qt3) October 3, 2014
So in the few days before Driveclub launched, I had a grand time getting better at the game, leveling up my driver, and even leveling up my club. A club can have up to six people in it, and it acquires experience and unlocks cars just like the individual drivers. I was throwing down challenges and taking up challenges, which are timed tasks you can do to earn fame. I loved how the face-offs added spice and sometimes distraction to the races. The multiplayer races were great for how you jumped into an ongoing parade of events by choosing the type of cars and races you wanted to drive. It was all working as expected and it would presumably explode with activity on launch day.
I was partly right. It exploded on launch day. Since its launch nearly two weeks ago, Driveclub’s online functionality has been almost entirely defunct. You can play single-player races just fine, but for the most part you can’t earn any credit for your club, much less even get into your club to invite other people. The club functionality seems to have flickered back on over the last few days, but the challenges are shut down entirely. It’s rare to see a face-off that isn’t a scripted part of a track (some face-offs are set in place as prerequisites to earn stars). Multiplayer races are a no-go. I’ve mostly been unable to get into them, but occasionally, I’ll race a few rounds and then get disconnected.
Communication from Sony has been horrible, as there’s no indication in the game why certain parts of the screen are greyed out or why certain things aren’t working or even whether they’re ever going to work at all. For the entire first week, a routine error message suggested the problem was with my network connection.
Driveclub has been a botched launch of the worst kind: one that compromises a fundamental part of the game’s identity and one that hasn’t been addressed by the developers or publishers in any way visible to those of us having problems. Psst, Sony! Facebook updates aren’t the place to stay in touch with your consumers. We’re all sitting here in front of your PS4’s booting up the game we’re trying to play. How about communicating to us over here?
Furthermore, it seems there are some missing features that have been promised down the line that are in remote pie-in-the-sky territory given the basic problems with online functionality. For a game this gorgeous, with so many choices for paint schemes, it’s odd that there’s no replay option. Apparently, one was planned for shortly after release, whatever that means these days. Furthermore, dynamic weather was intended to complement the dynamic lighting. Shortly after release, I suppose. I don’t mind waiting for sudden squalls, but it’s astonishing that we don’t get the usual tools to really appreciate what a beautiful game this is. Why would you ship without a replay mode? I guess the same reason you’d ship without working online functionality?
So right now what you’ve got with Driveclub is a grand single-player game with a set of demanding challenges on lovely tracks using distinct cars with uniquely appealing driving models. In other words, you’ve got the latest game from Evolution Studios, and a worthy successor to the games they’ve been making in the Motorstorm franchise, but one that has almost none of the online features that were intended to give it its identity. What you don’t have is the game they intended to make or any meaningful ETA as to when that game will be ready.
Inspired by real-world roads from diverse regions across the globe, the racing tracks in DRIVECLUB present a variety of different challenges for every driver, including whether or not the online stuff is ever going to work properly.