'Driveclub' is out for PS4 on 10th October
- 50 tracks across different continents and environments
- 50 cars at launch with more coming via expansions
- Hugely involved and detailed multiplayer, organised around 'Clubs'
Everyone is obsessed with making driving games social. Forza Horizon 2 took the 'road trip' and turned it into an online festival populated entirely by motor vehicles - like Glastonbury meets Pixar's Cars. The Crew wants you to drive coast to coast with your buddies. Mario Kart 8 wants you on the sofa next to them. Need For Speed has been plying this trade for years with dreams of drivable deathmatch, and now we have Driveclub, Sony's PS4 exclusive that wants to do some or all of the same thing.
Trouble is, driving isn't social. Not at its best, for me. Yes there is community in driving culture. But there is community in anything, whether it's model painting or hill walking, and that doesn't necessarily make the activity itself social. And yes, we've always played racing games against each other -- but as solo drivers, not as a 'team', whatever it says on the results page after the race.
As an experience, as a visceral activity, driving feels to me like a solitary, isolating experience, one in which you and only you wield the power of an engine and blast off into the distance, like a cowboy on horseback, making legends as you ghost from town to town, your enemies at your back and your way only ahead. Drive, drive…
Which is to say that while Driveclub is a totally satisfying driving game of the old school, featuring dozens of cars, varied tracks, customisation and everything else you'd expect from a convincing next-gen racer, it's core feature -- its reason to exist -- doesn't make much sense.
To go back to the core of the game for a moment, there is lots to enjoy. First off, Driveclub looks fantastic. It's not quite able to live up to its trailers in person -- what can? -- but baring a few cartoony elements and colouring choices, it's a slick-looking game which uses weather, rising- and setting-suns and atmospheric details to tremendous effect. There are 50-ish stunning, long and intricate tracks set from India to Scotland and everywhere in between, and the cars look stupidly detailed too. The sound is also very immersive and realistic.
The driving itself strikes a nice blend between realism and action-oriented drift-heavy corning. Compared to Forza Horizon 2 (at least on its default settings) Driveclub seems to edge towards a subtler, more circumspect use of brakes, and an arcady sense of handling but requires an overall smarter approach to driving. It lacks any kind of 'reverse time' feature too, which helps amp up the tension. And the AI, while not crowd-sourced in quite the manner of Forza, is smart and wily. Most of the single player races we took part in (after the first few creampuffs) were tight and aggressive, but not reckless either - and the game goes a long way to rewarding players who aren't necessarily first over the line but drive well and record good times.
The core of the game is really found in the multiplayer, which itself revolves around the concept of 'clubs'. By forming (or joining) a club you effectively work with your team to unlock cars, set and match challenges set by other teams, and pool your success to earn cars and perks.
Obviously this is asynchronous as well - you don't all have to be online at the same time - and the result is a more connected sense of progress in what might otherwise be a straightforward, dull game. The best elements come in the form of 'face offs', where highlighted sections of track force you to compete in smaller challenges - can you take these corners better than someone else, or beat their top speed on this straight/ - for your team, and its glory. (We should add that we only had a limited amount of access to the multiplayer experience due to pre-release server restrictions but what we played presented no problems.)
The cumulative experience is fun, tight, high-quality and engaging. As the PS4's flagship racer, it's totally solid and deserves to be a hit. It will also improve with time - it's fair to say that Driveclub's soul will emerge as racers come to know and love its quirks, tracks and clubs.
But as a game today it's also not particularly original, or surprising either. Again, compared to Forza Horizon 2, which can still throw in some shocks even after many hours of gameplay, what you see with Driveclub is pretty much what you get.
And on a subjective level, the ultimate problem, and one that none of the mentioned 'social' games solve, for me, is that driving itself isn't really at its best when its social.
Ultimately when I play a driving game I'm looking out for myself, and everyone else can get out of my way. I don't care if I'm racing against humans, AI or something in between, I just want to win, and feel the open road, and drive off into the distance. Driveclub doesn't quite let me do that in the way of Forza - or even Grand Theft Auto 5. And the clubs feel a little bit shallow, for now.
For that reason I felt a little bit like it was forcing me to stay put in a party, and all I wanted to do was screech out of the car park and away into the sunset. Once I was on the road, though, I had a blast.