DRIVECLUB Review: Greatness arrives

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.

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DRIVECLUB’s uncompromising visual fidelity is part of what makes it so inviting. As terrible a racing player I am, I can always count on stupidly gorgeous sights as a consolation prize. I’m always eager to jump into harder races and insurmountable challenges because time in DRIVECLUB’s world is never enough. I do wish there was more variety in the music. Fairly generic dubstep and EDM are fine, if somewhat bland, accompaniments, but I hear the same tracks repeat frequently. DRIVECLUB’s interface, on the other hand, is an aesthetic pleasure. Besides conveying all kinds of information with natural ease and connecting you quickly to all of its features, the striking red-and-black tiles feel perfectly tailored to comfortable living room play on the big-screen.

Multiplayer innovations and visuals worthy of a new console ultimately frame an unparalleled driving experience. The factors behind every facet of the driving experience are complex, from a car’s center of gravity and aerodynamics to a corner’s precise inclines and angles. But DRIVECLUB so perfectly rides the line between arcade sensibilities and simulation that all this emergence can exist without sacrificing the fun in nailing handbrake drifts and clean corners on feel alone. This feel is an always evolving thing, responsive to the introduction of new vehicles and new tracks, or of new vehicles to old tracks. DRIVECLUB’s mechanics are forgiving enough to let casual players rely on feel alone–we enjoy greater control over steering during drifts and braking, collisions don’t rattle our cars or disrupt our paths dramatically, et cetera. Meanwhile, racing buffs can put their knowledge to use wrangling the game’s detailed simulation.

For me, it simply feels great. Drifting is easy but near-impossible to master, a challenge within the broader challenge of winning a race, unbelievably satisfying when executed well even if I’m not quite sure how I did it. The A.I. is ruthless, adapting to my dirty knockaround tactics with malicious collisions of their own. Cars positively roar with power at breakneck speeds; the heart-pumping dance between maintaining control and wondering if you’ve already lost it is here in full effect. With more grip than cars at this speed could realistically have, you can find a balance of comfort and confidence in your driving that’s right for you. Damage from collisions is purely cosmetic, so you can go nuts and seek the most direct route to victory or check your impulse for precise driving that tames the track.

There are penalties for wanton collision and cutting corners, however. If the game detects that either happens to such a degree that it could grant an unfair advantage, your car’s speed will be locked for a time befitting the crime–one or two seconds at best, up to five or six for the worst offenses. These features are a clever way to encourage the unspoken conduct that guides racing in the real world, but the game’s detection sometimes misses the mark, penalizing for a “corner cut” that was accidental, like from a spin-out or being pushed off the track. These are big enough detriments to racing position alone without having your speed artificially reduced. Some accidental collisions register as penalties in the same way. My opponents would slow to a crawl before turns I knew I could throw myself into. With nowhere to go, I’d smash into other racers, incurring a collision penalty despite the wreck itself being penalty enough. Other times, opponents would smash into me–or, at least, be the primary cause of our collision–and I’d still be penalized for the contact. That said, I do appreciate the overall aggression of A.I. racers. The serious challenge they provide pushes me to race better and smarter instead of relying on go-to tricks and just skating by. I just wish this aggression didn’t come at the expense of other things, like stars awarded for clean laps in campaign events.

Objective stars are DRIVECLUB’s primary mechanism for measuring progress and performance in the single-player Tour series. Each event, from circuits and point-to-point races to time trials and drift challenges, poses a different set of two or three objectives like hitting a low lap time, finishing in the top three, or beating a face-off. Higher tiers of events, with more interesting vehicles and demanding opponents, require a certain number of stars, thus ensuring you’re at least learning some of the mechanics before harder challenges open. By itself, this isn’t a particularly interesting or innovative campaign structure, but with 225 stars to collect, it houses an impressive amount of content. The main draw of campaign events is the accrual of Fame, which simultaneously boosts your racer level and contributes to your Club’s level. Climbing in racer levels unlocks new cars and paint jobs, but there’s no in-game way to see what content gets unlocked at what levels. Same with Club levels–so far, Team Hayter (starring yours truly, Ernest Lin, and Glenn Gordon) has acquired new images for customizing our Club logo, but nothing else. I’m never sure what’s around the progression corner, lessening the importance of Fame somewhat. But all the ways it’s dispersed and taken away makes for seriously engaging races and, like the overall difficulty, encourages better play.

There’s just one more issue I could leverage against DRIVECLUB. While driving is about as accessible as a game founded in simulation could be, the game could do more to ease the learning process. I can work my way around corners in a way that looks correct, based on comparisons to A.I. drivers and my preconception of what good drifting looks like, but the game offers no indication that my methods are actually ideal or desirable. I suppose the campaign’s stars and emphasis on leaderboard standing implicitly teach good driving; if I’m earning these accolades, I must be doing something right. But with so much variability complicating the outcome of every action, tutorial modes that directly connect techniques with results would make helpful associations on which to build a “feel” of driving that’s at least better informed.

Despite these shortcomings, DRIVECLUB exhibits greatness. Photorealistic visuals and complex simulation elicit the white-knuckle thrill of rocketing alongside other racers in the world’s most beautiful, powerful cars. Player-created challenges like record times and mid-race face-offs foster a competitive spirit that keeps DRIVECLUB constantly interesting and fresh, especially for those less interested in live competition. A thoughtful interface connects you with other players and gets you into the game with ease while communicating much about your standing, progression, and accomplishments. It’s not merely that DRIVECLUB pushes social gaming to new frontiers. These persistent features make racing itself more interesting; no small feat, given that DRIVECLUB is perhaps the most successful hybrid of demanding realism and forgiving fun yet seen. DRIVECLUB changes the game. It is a truly next-gen racer. PlayStation 4 has another killer app. 

Score

9.5

The Final Word

DRIVECLUB blends the complexity of realistic simulation with inviting mechanics and gives just enough leeway to evoke heart-pumping power and intensity in every kind of racing fan. A graphical darling with fresh multiplayer ideas to match, DRIVECLUB is irresistible and pushes the genre forward.

  • Raju

    This game deserves 9.5 indeed.