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E3 2014: DRIVECLUB Preview: A warm welcome to hardcore racing

on 15 June 2014

The untouchable Crash Team Racing is my favorite racing game ever, so I’ve never identified with fans of hardcore, simulation racers. Thankfully, DRIVECLUB is most definitely not such a game. When I went hands-on with Evolution’s PlayStation 4 showcase at E3 this week, I was surprised by how far it had come since last year’s show. The graphics and attention to detail, once impressive, are now positively astounding. More importantly, the driving, once loose and unapproachable, has been tightened to pitch-perfect response and distinctly arcade sensibilities.

That’s not to say DRIVECLUB isn’t a serious racer--on the contrary, there’s plenty of factors to consider in every turn. Cars react to wanton steering appropriately--on a given surface, in certain weather conditions, with particular aerodynamics, your car might slide out a bit, stay locked to the track, or lose control entirely. This unpredictability--perhaps less so to a driving enthusiast--was welcome, because the core steering felt so right. It was easy to acclimate to how early I needed to brake after only a few turns, and with the right touch and timing, I could manage my way around lesser corners confidently. On tighter corners, on more interesting slopes, and at higher speeds, things got messier.

But the important point is how these aspects of the hardcore racing experienced build on a comfortable entry point. The timing for basic driving might be forgiving, giving casual players a chance to stay somewhat competitive, but mastery will demand an unerring, laser-focused eye for the things that intensify racing at a simulation level. And I felt ready to take on these challenges, because my first race wasn’t a colossal, un-fun failure.

Granted, my ease of entrance to DRIVECLUB’s casual-hardcore hybrid racing could be thanks to my vehicle choice. The Ferrari I opted to drive was zippy and responsive, but the Aston Martin my partner Will Robinson drove seemed a bit more sluggish. Despite my car’s agility, it felt quite weighty and comfortably tethered to the track--except on diagonal, downward slopes, where the same amount of braking I’d mastered for flat-land turns would kick me into a power-slide. I’m especially impressed by the way this and a plethora of other mechanical oddities emerge naturally from the calculations and modelling that PS4 horsepower makes easier. Moment-to-moment thrills and surprises emerge from the exact replication of car data from manufacturers and the physical modeling of aerodynamics, weight distribution, and more. It’s the way all these things affect each other--not hard-coded if-then statements--that produces exciting variability in DRIVECLUB’s feel. I suspect even the most accomplished racing fans will learn something about car handling on the most technical level.