Runcorn is a small, quaint town in Cheshire. It's home to rows of well groomed hedges, trees, cottages, seniors, a nuclear plant (!) and last, but not least, it's home to Evolution Studios. Inside a brick-walled building the Sony owned developer works hard to finish PS4 exclusive racing game Driveclub.
A few months ago things were unclear as to what was going on with the game. Driveclub was originally meant to see release at the launch of PS4 - but it was pushed back to an unspecified date. Several members of the editorial staff voiced concerns whether we'd ever see it released.
Evolution Studios are well aware of the buzz and the speculations. During my visit the recently appointed game director, Paul Rustchynsky, reveals that the delay was a result of the so called Dynamic Menu - the menu that is the hub for the social experience in Driveclub. The developers weren't satisfied with how it worked. It was as accessible or intuitive as it needed to be in a game where social features are at the core of the experience.
Simon Barlow, design director, provides further explanation:
"If I were to say we delayed the game nearly a year due to us being dissatisfied with our user interface people would have thought us mad, but the user interface is so much more than the menus players see. It is several extremely complex systems that while already in place a year ago didn't work they way they were supposed. It wasn't seamless and it didn't pull you into the game the way we'd hoped. Today it's much improved, but getting there took as longer than expected and it was certainly nervous telling Sony that close to release that we needed more time."
The word "social" is likely the most frequently used word during our entire studio visit (possibly with the exception of "biscuit" and "geeeeet to da choppa!" the latter which was uttered by a Danish reporter hundreds of times during the day). The social aspect of Driveclub is the foundation upon which the entire game is built. Racing online is obviously nothing new, but we've never played a racing title where co-operation and team spirit is such a vital part of the experience. The single player campaign felt pale and boring in comparison as we sampled it.
Driveclub is design to allow the player to join clubs and compete against other clubs. Each club can contain up to six members. By winning races and clear various challenges under the races you earn Fame. Drivers and Clubs climb the ranks, which in turn unlocks all kinds of rewards such a new car models. You can unlock most of the content via the single player campaign, but approximately 15-20 percent of the content is only excessively by competing with Clubs.
Everything you earn as a member of a Club is tied to that specific Club, meaning that if you were to unlock an exclusive and seriously sexy sports car and suddenly feel and urge to leave your Club behind - then you lose that car. If you rejoin said Club you instantly regain access to the car. Simon Barlow says the reason for this is that they want to encourage players to remain commited and invested in their Club as that is an essential part of Driveclub.
After having heard "social" and "biscuits!" numerous times and in different circumstances during the morning we're finally given the opportunity to sit down with a controller and take on the roads ourselves. There are five countries to tackle - Canada, Norway, India, Scotland and Chile. Each country contains 11 different tracks. The car physics land somewhere in between arcade and simulator. With the cars we get to sample (among these are Ferrari F12berlinetta, Super Aston Martin V12 and... Mini Cooper Works GP) it's easy to notice clear differences in terms of physics and handling.
Evolution Studios have spent a great deal of time and effort recreating each car as faithfully as possible, both in terms of appearnace and handling. Or well... The latter is perhaps not entirely accurate, the most difficult to control cars have been made somewhat more accessible where things like brake distances and grip have been tweaked. It's not a pure simulator experience after all, but rather one that walks a fine line in between arcade racing and realistic simulation.
And it's pretty too. Even if it may not be quite as overwhelmingly gorgeous as the art director, Alex Perkins, makes it sound as he gives us a demonstration of the dynamic shadows and the volumetric lighting. We would have prefereed 60 frames per sound over individually textured leaves and strands of grass, but sure there is an acceptable flow and the game offers impressive, expansive environments. During our session we never experience framerate drops noticably under 30 frames per second. A small (but sad) detail is that we won't get to experience rain or snow in the game.
As much time as the developers har spent creating detailed cars and realistic clouds has gone into the soundscape. We squeeze into the sound studio with one of the sound designer and it's almost so we can see him salivating as he explains how they've recreated the engine sounds of the 50 cars included in the game. The capture the sounds as precisely as possible the team has crammed each engine full of microphones and thanks to the added processing power of PlayStation 4 the studio did not have to risk losing a single nuance due to compression.
"We haven't had to add or rework the sounds other than compensating for some static. It's simply not needed when the cars sound as lovely and powerful. BMW and Audi contacted us to ask for copies of our sound files thanks to the level of fidely we achieved. Apparently BMW have people employed who's soul purpose it is to make sure that the sound inside of their cars have a distinct 'BMW sound'."
Driveclub is filled to the brim with leaderboards for those of you who want to challenge lap times and break records. The idea is, however, that the player shouldn't have to keep track of things and be forced to navigate menus back and forth. With an easy press of the touch pad we're taken straight back to the main menu. Notifications that keep track of what the player needs to know are also just a button press away. We were never fully given the chance to explore the system and test exactly how intuitively it works, but what we got try seemed accessible enough.
When the game launches in October there will be an app released for iOS and Android called My Driveclub. This can be used to track what other players are up to, and you'll also be able to watch their races via live streaming. We got to see a version of My Driveclub where the user interface wasn't final, so it's difficult to gage how well it will work upon launch. And we're not sure what percentage of players will have use for the features the app offers.
During the hour we spend with the controller in our hands we get a decent feel for the game. We enjoyed the driving physics, the focus on team-based challenges and the fact that the focus is on the driving experience rather than the constant unlocking and collecting of things in Gran Turismo. The single player campaign on the other hand failed to entice us, at least not from what little we got to sample of it. It clearly comes across as having been build with clubs and online in mind.
Exactly how well the social component works out in practice remains to be seen, but the developers seem to have the right idea as there is a lot of talk of accessibility and simple navigation. It's good to know the game is alive and well after some time in the dark. It's not as visually appealing as say Project CARS, but it still holds the potential to save starving racing fans come October. If it actually makes out then. The fact that the sun was out during our visit in Runcorn (a small miracle according to Evolution), must be taken as a good sign.
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