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DRIVECLUB Review: Greatness arrives

on 7 October 2014

I can’t stop playing DRIVECLUB.

My favorite racing game is Crash Team Racing, which says a lot about my interests in the racing genre. I appreciate tight, absolute precision, not subject to variability or complexity so boundless that it affects every turn and collision in unexpected ways. I value something that’s easy to pick up and learn, and relatively easy to master, but still gives way to surprising outcomes over time. I like to play against A.I. opponents, bettering my own play by understanding their behaviors and keeping unpredictability out of the game.

But I can’t stop playing DRIVECLUB. As a truly next-gen racer, it draws me in with novel concepts of social play, challenges my bias with the most inviting welcome to simulation racing in existence, and grounds the experience with instantly enjoyable racing that feels memorable and capable of mastering despite its invisible complexity.

DRIVECLUB’s hold on my gaming attention--I’d be playing right now, if not for this review--owes a lot to the way it smoothly integrates the play and achievements of others into your game, supplying a virtually endless amount of content. You’re constantly alerted to challenges supplied by other racers based on their times or point totals in a given event. Whether invited as an individual or for your Club involvement, there’s extra Fame--DRIVECLUB’s progression currency--to be won for trying to beat the posted times. If nobody’s issued a challenge to you directly, you can jump into Community Challenges posted by anyone out there on PlayStation Network. And a novel approach to competitive multiplayer, in which you register your interest in upcoming scheduled events, makes DRIVECLUB feel like a real racing league.

Even mid-race, the ambient presence of other players is felt. DRIVECLUB loves throwing mini-contests called face-offs into individual races. These appear randomly and challenge you to score more drifting points on a given corner or hold a higher average speed over a stretch of track than your friends, yourself, and the community at large. Nail these challenges, and you’ll earn bonus Fame. If not? You’ll get another chance on the next lap, but if time’s up, you can always start your own challenge to share with other players and reclaim bragging rights. And from the very start of a single-player campaign event, you’re informed of your friends’ times or scores, grounding the event in a competitive spirit before the face-offs or challenges have even begun.

It cannot be emphasized enough that these elements wouldn’t make DRIVECLUB so irresistibly compelling if they weren’t so well-communicated. A “progress update” upon booting the game alerts you to which challenges have ended and how you place. Jumping into a race, accepting challenges, viewing your progress toward accolades with Fame bonuses, and inviting friends to your party are never more than a few button presses away--often less. Recent achievements by you, your friends, and the gaming public are displayed in an activity feed below the main menu; from each entry, you can jump into the event in question, view the racer’s profile, invite the racer to your Club, send a challenge of your own, and more. These options and elements are arranged thoughtfully and appear intuitively--one might expect they could jump to related features from other interface elements, but so few games make navigation so fast and easy. Even when these updates appear mid-race, whether a Face-Off comparing your cornering to another player or a newly arrived challenge, they’re tastefully integrated into the HUD and say their piece without lingering or distracting.

All the better to witness DRIVECLUB in all its breathtaking glory. To say DRIVECLUB is among the best-looking games ever made is an undersell; by my eye, DRIVECLUB is the most photorealistic game yet produced. I’ve been playing for dozens of hours, and its detail continues to astound me. Accurate environmental reflections dazzle cars rendered in magazine-cover splendor. The faint reflection of your dashboard on the windshield can be seen when weather conditions make sense for this phenomenon. Sunsets and sunrises are capable of blinding, and my eyes cling to roadside lights during night-time races for context removed by the realistic absence of ambient light. In the scant few seconds before a race begins, as my character would step into my chosen vehicle, I could appreciate the subtle flecks of reflected light in paint, the satisfying clunk of a door handle being pulled. And as my character took her seat, I could damn near smell the leather. That’s to say nothing of audio, captivating in its accuracy, muffled from a view inside the cockpit and subtly different depending on the exterior camera angle.