Sony-owned Evolution Studios' Driveclub has taken its sweet time in making it to the starting grid, and as a result, expectations are high.
This ambitious racing title was meant to release alongside PlayStation 4 last November, but to everyone's surprise it was delayed at the last minute as a result of issues with the dynamic multiplayer menus. But even as it went back to the garage for more tinkering, there was the question as to whether Sony's machine needed another simulation style racer given Gran Turismo's existence. Could the newcomer compete with the genre's biggest name?
Racing games can be divided into two camps. There are your arcade racers, forgiving in their control and which draw inspiration from the old coin-operated arcade games that mainly strive to entertain. Then there's the simulation racer that tries to mimic real world racing, where car physics, track authenticity and graphical fidelity are at the forefront. This subgenre pays great attention to realism and generally tends to appeal to car lovers and racing fans - it's a genre that on console has been dominated by Gran Turismo and Forza for years. Driveclub is the new racing kid on the block that strays into this territory, but it relies on many of the hallmarks its competition have been known for.
The foundation is a selection of race tracks where you can compete in several different kinds of races. In the case of Driveclub this includes classic races with 12 cars, time trials and drift challenges - each requiring a specific driving style and expertise.
These races are part of Driveclub's Tour Mode - a mode that simply allows you to compete in these categories across a bunch of tracks around the world, but simultaneously challenge you with Face-Off, small, side objectives within each race.
The structure isn't particularly innovative or surprising, but it works as an introduction to the various cars and the Face-Off challenges are there to keep you on your toes. There's sadly no escaping the fact that Tour Mode grows a bit repetitive towards the end, when every Face-Off challenge has been conquered, and the at first impressive tracks start to feel over-familar.
Unfortunately the disappointments don't end there, as the repetitive nature is exaggerated by the relatively limited amount of cars you have at your disposal. Where Driveclub's main competition this autumn, Forza Horizon 2 and Project CARS offer more than 200 cars and 67 cars respectively, there are only 50 in Driveclub. And when you compare it to big brother Gran Turismo that saw its garage swell beyond 4 digits, you can't help but feel it's on the low end.
Add to this is the fact that there are no customisation options whatsoever. Sure you can paint your car and you can personlise it with vinyl stickers, but everything that has to do with how the cars actually handle are locked. According to lead designer Paul Rustchynsky, the decision was made to ensure authenticity, but the result is a lack of customisation and personlisation options. While the tracks are gorgeous, plentiful and varied, the slim selection of cars and the lack of tuning options soon becomes the greatest problem with Driveclub.
That said, Driveclub thankfully as an ace up its sleeve, and that's the Club aspect of the game. As you boot up Driveclub the first time, the game quickly let's you know that the Tour Mode just scratches the surface. The social overlay Evolution Studios have designed in the Clubs is what you need to look at, testing the water with a few user-created challenges.
Your Club, that you either create yourself or sign up to a pre-existing one, is a loose racing team where you and five friends work together to dominate the track and earn points and prestige. The Face-Off challenges can also involve your Club, so that instead of completing a challenge on your own, your Club may be asked to collect drift points together - and this alters the nature of the game completely.
In addition to these ready-made challenges, Clubs can communicate with each other and send specific challenges, such as tasking a competitor to beat your time on a specific track with specific weather conditions.
It's this dynamic take on social racing that quickly becomes far more interesting than the uninspired Tour Mode. During our time with the game we actually completely abandoned Tour Mode and found ourselves engaging in Club challenges, online face-offs and hard to beat online lap times... that we just had to beat. This is where Driveclub really comes to life and it offers the best online component we've ever seen in a simulation racer.
And even when it's a bit repetitive, Driveclub is still a visually breathtaking experience. Racing games typically make for great showcases of the power of a console and in this respect Driveclub delivers everything you could possibly ask of it. The tracks (a grand total of 55), are incredibly well crafted and full of brilliant little details, such as puddles formed by rain or trees shaking in the wind.
The cars are also extremely detailed, and the cockpit view definitely impresses. Each and every speedometer, gear lever, windscreen and panel is completely unique and really sets each car apart. Driveclub is simply visually stunning.
Another one of Driveclub's strengths is how different the cars behave from each other. The cars are divided into categories - Hot Hatch, Performance, Sport, Super and Hyper, but each car in every category offers a unique driving experience that's true to the car model in question. The quick, but unruly Pagani Huarya is completely different from the similar looking Pagani Zonda R. It's nice to see that not only do the cars offer realistic and well crafted controls, they also offer very different sets of strengths and weaknesses.
But despite great looks and control, and while Driveclub is well designed and filled to the brim with social features, it cannot avoid comparisons with the competition. A competition that offers both a much larger selection of cars and the option of customising them.
Fortunately that's not all that matters and the Clubs give Driveclub an energy and dynamic that the genre definitely needs, and its by far the strongest aspect of the game. Whereas Forza offers a better overall experience, Driveclub has a better online design that may well see us on its tracks for a lot longer.