Review: Driveclub

Throughout my time with Driveclub, the new PlayStation 4 exclusive racer from Evolution Studios, a single scene from the fourth season of The Wire kept coming to mind. At the beginning of “Refugees,” up-and-coming gangster Marlo Stanfield audaciously steals a lollipop right in front of a security guard, causing a confrontation between the two. The security guard attempts to assert himself, telling Marlo about the honest life he’s trying to lead for the sake of his family. After blatantly ignoring the his statements, Marlo suggest that the security guard’s presence is completely non-existent, leading to one of the most memorable exchanges in the entirety of The Wire:

Marlo: You want it to be one way.
Guard: What?
Marlo: You want it to be one way.
Guard: Man, I don’t want it to be…
Marlo: You want it to be one way.
Guard: Man stop…stop saying that.
Marlo: But it’s the other way.

In his mind, the security guard was in charge, but in reality, Marlo’s ruthlessness and infamy gave him full authority over everything in his environment. This exchange functions as a direct metaphor for DriveClub‘s fatal flaw. Players may initially feel as though they have complete control over their surroundings until the environment, AI, and structure reminds them that the only thing with any semblance of power in DriveClub is DriveClub itself.

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Once touted to be a PlayStation 4 launch highlight, Driveclub was met with a delay of nearly a full calendar year. While it’s unclear precisely what caused this delay, the final product still ultimately feels like a glorified console launch exclusive. Players can hop into a number of races, time-trials, and skills competitions to contribute to their overall Fame Level. Everything one does is on display in Drivclub, as its much-touted social features allegedly bring the single-player campaign (Tour), online multiplayer matches, and Club-based challenges together. There’s never any explanation as to who you are or why any of these events are occurring, but that’s relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Your goal is simply to drive fast, finish well, and, most importantly, drive clean.

Driving cleanly is, without a doubt, the single-most important aspect of Driveclub‘s moment-to-moment gameplay. Players are expected to stay on the road at all times, never bump into another racer for any reason, maintain control at all costs, and never touch any of the barriers surrounding each track. In order to police this, Driveclub has tied player progression to the aforementioned Fame system, which is nothing more than a cleverly-renamed experience bar. A Fame score sits at the top of the screen during every event, constantly increasing or decreasing based upon player actions. For instance, passing another racer will cause a 500 point increase, while colliding with another driver will net a 200 point decrease. Drifting and drafting cause variable increases to one’s score based upon the amount of time spent in these conditions, with drafting behind another player being the easiest method for rack up massive totals. That’s right, the best way method for getting a high score in Driveclub is actually to stay behind someone else, as there’s no score addition for leading a race.

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While this score-based experience system might seem intriguing at first, Driveclub‘s abysmal AI makes earning high marks somewhat of a crapshoot. Although you’re expected to drive as cleanly as possible, the AI-controlled racers seem to take great pleasure in driving straight into you. Players might find themselves in first place, only to have a computer-controlled car slingshot forward, seemingly out of nowhere, directly into the back of their cars. Because there’s no rewind mechanic, the result is often a race completely ruined by one collision. Because Driveclub‘s Tour objectives, which reward players with stars that unlock future events, often include finishing in the Top 3 or achieving blazing-fast lap-times, it feels as though the AI is only there to prevent progression rather than provide competition. What’s worse is that players are docked the same amount of Fame when another car collides into them as when they collide into a competing racer. When one considers that new cars are only unlocked through reaching certain Fame Level milestones, it’s easy to see how Driveclub‘s downright atrocious AI-design directly prevents rewards.

Driveclub might be able to get away with its bloodthirsty AI if its desire for clean racing didn’t directly penalize players for racing outside of its predefined, sterilized rules. It’s the equivalent of a mother forcing her children to “play nice” in a field full of rabid dogs and kidnappers. Whenever a player cuts a corner or gets into a severe collision with another vehicle, his or her accelerator is turned off for up to five seconds. In racing games, every moment counts, as one-tenth of a second could mean the difference between a win and a loss. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with turning off one’s accelerator for gaining what some might determine to be an unfair advantage. There is a massive problem when the AI directly causes massive penalties to players who never strayed outside of Driveclub‘s rules. Because computer-controlled drivers seem to seek out contact, one might endure enormous penalties simply for being hit from behind. If a player is spun-out near a corner by an out-of-control driver, giant accelerator penalties often ensure simply due to cutting a corner during a crash. Again, with no rewind feature and a “Reset to Track” option that only seems to work when one is completely stopped, it’s not uncommon to have dozens of concurrent races ended through no fault of the player.

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Drivers are also subject to invisible barriers surrounding nearly every inch of every track. Instead of being able to navigate back onto the road after drifting off-course, it’s not uncommon to be completely spun out by a wall that literally doesn’t exist. Combine this with the constant penalties and overly aggressive AI, and you have the makings for more race-ending mishaps. What’s even more infuriating is that the same off-track area can affect the same car in different ways. In one instance, a player will be driving along a dirt section like it’s nothing, but be launched into the air or spun out by the same area later on. It’s a shame that Driveclub puts such a heavy emphasis on clean racing while inserting a number of downright dirty variables.

Unfortunately Driveclub‘s much-hyped social features, essentially its calling card, leave something to be desired. Players have the opportunity to join six-person clubs and compete in various challenges across the Driveclub universe, all while contributing to their Club’s Fame Level. Again, this Fame Level is just a simple group experience system that unlocks certain cars. Most of these challenges are glorified versions of various Tour missions in which one has to beat a certain time, win a race, or earn a high score. While Club and Solo challenges do add a level of replay value to Driveclub, they essentially function as nothing more than a series of leaderboards. Players can create challenges and share them with individual drivers, or the community as a whole, thus creating a time-sensitive rankings page for a given event. Online multiplayer racing is available in both team and individual settings, though racing against others online is neither better nor worse than that any other current-gen racing title on the market. To recap, the “vaunted” social connectivity of Driveclub is not much more than a large selection of dynamic leaderboards, very standard multiplayer racing, and an extra experience bar that six players contribute to, rather than one. These features are certainly of interest to competitive racers, but they don’t bring nearly enough to the table to make up for Driveclub‘s downright maddening gameplay flaws.

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Much has been made of Driveclub‘s visual flair, being that it aims to blow the mind and eyeballs of every gamer to give it a shot. On a macro-level, this is a flat-out stunning graphical marvel. From thousands of individually-mapped trees, to impressive day-night cycles, to constant barrages of vibrant color, Driveclub certainly makes use of the PlayStation 4’s increased horsepower. However, when one starts to look at some of its finer details, an uglier picture starts to emerge. While every car-model is beautifully realized in virtual space, some of the damage effects lack realistic depth. It’s not uncommon to see one’s rear bumper display almost two-dimensional damage patterns, thus sullying a previously gorgeous product. Pre-race flyover scenes often highlight some of the ugly textures masked by high-speed action, with mountains and buildings looking decidedly unsightly. Driveclub‘s character models are especially jarring, with jagged limbs and strange animations providing awkward pre-race distractions. Sure, the draw-distance is insane and the overall world-design is wonderful, but smaller details prevent Driveclub from being the ultimate visual showpiece for the PlayStation 4.

For a racer that seems to combine arcade and simulation influences, there’s a staggering lack of customization options in Driveclub. The “Garage” simply allows players to create “custom” paint jobs using a number of predetermined patterns and colors. Limited paint options aside, a number of interesting designs can be created using Driveclub‘s editor, though none are as interesting as some of the creations in Forza Horizon 2. There is no semblance of performance tuning options available at this time, meaning that players are stuck with the standard cars they unlock. If a given car’s braking or acceleration isn’t up to snuff, too bad. This is an unfortunate oversight (much like the soon-to-be included dynamic weather) that essentially prevents players from using their dream cars if a faster option is available.

It’s worth noting that Driveclub‘s Hybrid-composed soundtrack falls somewhere between boring and mind-grating. While Evolution Studios has suggested that in-race music is disabled by default because of how proud they are of their audio-design, it certainly doesn’t hurt that players don’t have to hear hours of bland, lyric-free electronica. If ever there was a title that had the potential to sell Music Unlimited memberships, this is it.

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Closing Comments:

Driveclub makes a strong case against the popular argument that delays make for better video games. While the Club system is vaguely interesting on the surface, no amount of social connectivity can mask the anger-inducing gameplay problems that frequently arise. Though nothing in Driveclub is inherently broken, its forced combination of clean racing and horrible AI have the potential to frustrate players more than any minor glitch could. Add this to the lack of any meaningful customization options and missing weather system, and you have the makings of a disappointment. If you’re considering buying Driveclub without giving the free PlayStation Plus Version a try, you’re likely making a big mistake.

Platform: PlayStation 4