Review: Driveclub – Extreme Graphics Crowned by Super-Tight Gameplay

on October 7, 2014 8:55 AM

Driveclub has been a long time coming. We were supposed to be racing on its roads almost a year ago, at the launch of the PS4, and now we can finally judge its quality with our own eyes. They say Shigeru Miyamoto once commented “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Could Driveclub be the ultimate evidence of the validity of that legendary proverb?

When you first launch the game, you’re immediately thrown into the cockpit, and you suddenly get hit right in the face by Driveclub‘s graphics. It’s hard to describe them without using too many superlatives, but we can easily say that Evolution‘s new game sets a firm benchmark for visual fidelity.

The only small issue is a slight aliasing here and there on the screen, but Driveclub‘s visuals are poetry in motion, and that’s exactly their secret: Evolution focused its efforts on effects that enhance the look and feel of the game in motion. Advanced blur, deliberate focus imperfection, spot-on camera shaking and much more lead to the fact that screenshots simply cannot convey Driveclub‘s beauty. As soon as those pixels start to dance on your screen, they become almost magical, pulling you in like few games ever managed.

Both the environments and the cars are beautifully detailed, showing a love and attention to every little element that really do justice to the definition of “next generation.” It’s hard not to just sit there for a while turning the camera around the car to take everything in, while the game’s vistas are so beautiful that at times end up being distracting.

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The true clincher, though, is the lighting engine. Everything in Driveclub is dynamic: light, shadows, clouds, reflections… You could call it a “simulator of everything,” because the game does its best to force your PS4 to simulate the world around your car in a spectacular way. That’s actually funny considering that the game itself isn’t a simulator at all, but it’s obvious that Evolution’s engine goes much beyond its present incarnation.

Since the sky is dynamically generated, with clouds that move around without a pre-calculated route, it’s hard not to want to just sit there and watch as time progresses and light and shadow give way to each other in a never-ending and ever-changing cycle.

Sunrises and sunsets seem to come straight from postcards, while nights can be pitch black and scary, exactly like nights should be, avoiding the usual habit of making them brighter to help players keep their situational awareness. Driveclub wants to make you lose your bearing at night, as you keep your eyes peeled on the small area illuminated by your headlights and the world almost literally hurls itself in your face. The sensation of speed and danger is just amazing.

Speaking about that, you really want to play Driveclub from the cockpit view. It’s not that the external views are bad. The game’s cars are downright lovely, but their cockpits are simply amazing, modeled and textured with painstaking and loving care. At times they are hard to distinguish from the real thing, especially in some lighting conditions. More importantly, the sensation of speed perceived from inside the car simply cannot be traded off.

The advanced lighting engine is perfectly matched by the desaturated color palette. Evolution tried to paint the world with realistic hues, laving the task to make it truly shine to the light (or lack of thereof), and creating one of the most photorealistic experiences ever seen on a console.

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Ultimately, Driveclub’s graphics can be named generation-defining, at least for now, showing that consoles can come close to immersing us into an environment that could be mistaken for real. There still are some telltale signs that we’re looking at a game (like the aliasing I mentioned above), but they’re getting less and less noticeable.

Audio is equally top notch, with every small sound made by each car recorded in excruciating detail. Racing games often end up with unsatisfying sound, especially for the engines, but Driveclub doesn’t fall short, creating an experience that deserves to be listened with the right setup. My 5.1 headset really sings the pistons’ song right in my ears, and I can’t get enough of it.

To be honest, I’d be a liar if I told you that I know much about the soundtrack. Besides the fact that it’s not really my taste, I turned it on for a few minutes and immediately switched it off again. It’s good for those that like it, but what you really should listen to is the sound of the engine, and I can’t agree more with Evolution’s choice of keeping the score off by default.

There’s one word to describe Driveclub‘s gameplay, and it’s “tight.” You’ll read this word repeated a lot in the next few paragraphs, in both positive and negative ways.

Handling and physics feel extremely tight and solid. Driveclub is not a simulator, but its inner workings are definitely based on realistic data tweaked to be more fun, but not excessively forgiving.

The way each car handles just “feels” right. Higher powered supercars and hypercars are a challenge to tame. Tail-happy rides will spin on you if you don’t respect them, and horsepower requires practice and patience to be truly mastered. Yet, I can’t remember a single occasion in which I lost control where I couldn’t exactly and immediately tell what I did wrong.

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Newbies to the genre will find “safer” cars that will lead them to grab that platinum with relative ease (besides a couple slightly more difficult trophies that can be achieved with patience and some luck), but enthusiasts are provided with plenty cars that will challenge their skills and driving instinct but will provide great satisfaction when mastered.

Braking performance (with ABS, as there’s no brake locking) and weight shifting are especially well simulated, and considering that they are the most important element in a racing experience, they add value to the whole game. Learn the braking points of every course, and you’ll be well on your way to the top.

This leads us to a rather interesting design choice: there’s no racing line in Driveclub. It appears only when you’re performing a face-off (and even in that case, it’ll hardly be the best line), but you’re otherwise left to your own devices in devising the best line for every turn and the best braking point. A measure of help is provided by the differently colored flag (red, yellow and green) placed on the side of the road and indicating the severity of each corner, but that’s only a safe estimate, as I found myself managing to nearly floor quite a few “red” turns by taking the perfect line and shifting the car’s weight just right. Experience and instinct are everything, especially in some of the circuits, where the flags are absent and you have to use your own judgement.

It’s hard to dictate whether the absence of the racing line is a positive or negative element. It’s really a matter of taste. Personally, I find it refreshing, but I know many would prefer to have the option available. If you’re used to it, it might make the experience a lot more challenging at the beginning, and trial and error might be frustrating, but hopefully it’ll make you a better driver in the long run.

The “Tight” definition also fits the AI very well, as your computer-controller opponents are definitely challenging, especially at the higher levels of difficulty. They defend their lines well without blocking too stubbornly, and they’re rather aggressive at cornering and overtaking. At times they can get a little bumpy, but the largest majority of the crashes I experienced were  my fault, and the way the AI cars interact with the course just feels very natural.

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Racing against the AI is also challenging because of the lack of mechanical customization for your car. Since you’re forced to drive stock, you can forget the ability to just brute force past difficult opponents by maxing your car. If you’re used to do that, you better be prepared to struggle.

The whole racing experience feels very solid, and very dense in the way it stimulates the player to improve. It continuously drops challenges on you to encourage you to improve your times and performance. You can ignore them, and at times you’ll even have to ignore them in order to win a race, but they provide a constant stimulus that turns boredom in a rather alien element in Driveclub.

Those challenges, named “Face-off” form the basic aspects of the game’s social gameplay, as you’ll actually be pitched against the performance of other players, and not about artificial times and scores set by Evolution. Succeed, and the next time you’ll be pitched against a better opponent, pushing you past your usual limits.

Another element that makes the gameplay definitely interesting is the environment itself. All the tracks are fictional, which means they’re created on purpose to be fun, and they are. Not only they feature an interesting mix of terrains, which often forces you to adjust suddenly or end against a wall, but they feature plenty traitorous little bumps that will send high powered cars flying, and a very interesting variety of track widths.

Many driving games feature very wide tracks, to the point of them being actually wider than their real counterpart in order to make overtaking easier. Driveclub has no qualms in presenting you with extremely narrow track sections where overtaking is nigh impossible and even just staying on the road will put your reflexes to the test.

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The lighting engine itself isn’t just for show. In many games lighting is optimized for visibility, but Driveclub takes another approach. Be ready to drive in realistic lighting conditions that will require some getting used to. It’s extremely pretty, but it also adds to the challenge and to the variety of gameplay.

Unfortunately the game can be considered “tight” even in a negative meaning, as some features and options that many have come to expect from racing games are simply missing: there’s no replay and no photo mode. Even if both are in the works, we have no idea on when they’ll be available, and considering just how beautiful Driveclub‘s graphics are, it would benefit from the presence of those features enormously.

Track variety can be considered sufficient, even if not exceptional, but the lack of any Japanese car and the presence of a single lonely North American car makes little sense. While I do understand that European cars are considered by many the best in the world, and that Evolution is an European studio, a more cosmopolitan approach would have been welcome. Again, the developers promised more variety to come, but for now there’s no Nissan GTR, no lancer Evo, no Mustang, and it hurts.

One of Driveclub’s major selling points is its social element, with clubs that prompt players to race together and share the glory and rewards. The idea is interesting, and definitely comes with potential, but it’s very hard to judge at the moment, since the community still needs to grow and prosper for it to express its full potential.

Asynchronous multiplayer is definitely fun, with the aforementioned face-offs continuously fed to the player as long as he’s online, and with the ability to pull up any race you’ve ever played and share it as a challenge to friends, acquaintances or rival clubs, returning a leaderboard between those that have been challenged.

Those are possibly the best way to learn a track and to improve your performance, as they will pitch you against the ghost of the current best between the participant to the challenge, and chances are that if you actually need improving, you’re going to meet someone better than you are. By learning from him, you can definitely shave milliseconds (or even seconds) off your personal times.

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Direct multiplayer is decidedly less original, with team races mixing things up a bit, but ultimately it’s not that different from what any racing game got you used to. Netcode is quite good, even if unfortunately you’ll often find yourself battling against bumpy and unfair opponents simply because of the lack of private lobbies (and this definitely features between the negative meaning of “tight”).

The game simply offers a continuously rolling playlist of events to race, but you’re unable to influence any of them, or their settings, which is quite a pity.

Customization is a bit hit and miss. Driveclub completely lacks the ability to influence the mechanics of your cars. There’s no part swapping or tuning, and this might figure as a shortcoming for those that like that kind of gameplay. Personally, I’m conflicted. While i do enjoy tuning my rides to the tenth of degree of camber, I can see the value of racing on an even field. It makes races closer and the experience, again, tighter, in both a positive and negative way.

Visual customization is definitely better, allowing you to unlock and select liveries, emblems and other minutiae. It still doesn’t offer incredible levels of creative freedom, but it does its duty, and allows you to go into races with a personalized style or bearing the colors of your club and the emblems of your successes.

You can even customize your driver, which is something very few racing games offer, even if, to be honest, the option is marred by the fact that the character models definitely did not receive the same amount of manical attention poured on the cars. They’re pretty much all quite unsightly, ad you’ll probably find yourself choosing the lesser evil.

Driveclub isn’t a perfect game, but it’s most certainly one of the most beautiful (if not the most beautiful) game ever released on consoles, also featuring one of the tightest, most fun and stimulating driving models you’ll find on the market. It definitely succeeds where it counts, but it’s a bit lacking in the frills department.

We’re presented with an extremely enjoyable experience unless you’re into ultra-realistic or ultra-arcade simulation (basically, if you’re into iRacing or Need for Speed and won’t enjoy something in between, get out of here), and it was definitely worth the wait. Ultimately Driveclub is a game with a big and lovely soul, but Evolution needs to put some more meat on its bones for it to realize its full potential.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.