Over the course of their fifteen years together, the good people at Evolution Studios have made nine racing games, including 2001’s WRC: World Rally Championship and its four sequels, and 2006’s MotorStorm, its two sequels, and a spin-off. Which is why it’s so odd that their latest, DRIVECLUB for the PlayStation 4, has such fundamental flaws that it seems like it was made by a studio with far less experience.
In DRIVECLUB, you drive virtual versions of real cars on race tracks and closed off streets during multi-lap events, point-to-point races, time trials, and the occasional drifting contest. But while this is far removed from the sensitivity of Gran Turismo and other racing simulations, DRIVECLUB isn’t as forgiving as, say, a Need For Speed, and is thus far removed from the smoothness of a MotorStorm. Which means you not only can’t just let up on the gas and cruise through a corner, you have to hit the brakes, and sometimes hard.
This, annoyingly, isn’t the only way in which DRIVECLUB is oversensitive. In fact, it’s so stringent and unforgiving about driving correctly that it’s kind of annoying. Rub up against a guard rail ever so slightly? That’ll cost ya. Trade just a small swatch of paint with another car, even if it’s not your fault? That’ll cost ya, too. Go off the track for just a second? Yeah, I know. It’s like if my mother made a racing game.
While DRIVECLUB can be a bit of jerk, it can also be a bit of a taskmaster. When playing the career mode, every race has secondary objectives, which can include such goals as finishing in the top 3, finishing a lap in a certain amount of time, or finishing with a top speed in excess of a certain amount. All of which would make things more interesting…if they weren’t largely things you’d try to do anyway.
There is, of course, a point to these objectives in DRIVECLUB; for each one you do, you earn a gold star. And when you earn enough gold stars, you unlock the next group of events, which gives this a nice sense of progression.
It’s just too bad that this progress is derailed by a sudden spikes in difficulty as you go from one section to another. It’s like someone switched the difficulty in the options menu from “easy” to “expert” when you weren’t looking (which is kind of a neat trick consider this doesn’t have any difficulty settings). Which is why it feels like someone switched DRIVECLUB from “challenging” to “frustrating.”
Then there’s the social aspects of DRIVECLUB. While this has the usual compliment of online races, it also encourages you to pair up with friends — or other random people you meet online — to form a club. Besides racing together, your club collectively levels up, unlocking club-only cars and paint jobs. Which might seem like a nice idea…until you realize that being in a club is only fun if all the members are online at the same time (good luck with that). It also doesn’t help that the exclusive cars you unlock aren’t any better than what’s already available, while the club-only paint jobs you get for every car are as fugly as the regular ones.
What’s a bit more interesting is that DRIVECLUB lets you issue challenges to both your friends and rival clubs, and vice versa. Which could give this game some extra life, assuming, of course, it does well and people get into the idea of sending challenges to their friends and rival clubs. Or you actually give a crap about proving yourself to complete strangers.
DRIVECLUB also has a problem so common these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do (seriously, go check): some of the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading your mid-race standings, or the objectives for each race, or really most messages in the game.
The irony about the typography in DRIVECLUB being too small is that this is one of the few racing games where the graphical fidelity actually impacts the gameplay. While it usually doesn’t matter if the mountains in the background are picturesque, since you’re supposed to keep your eyes on the road, DRIVECLUB actually uses the light of the sun in interesting ways. Besides driving both day and nice races, there are also times when you’re racing during sundown, which sometimes means driving with the sun in your eyes. Which, if you’ve ever done, you know can be a bit disconcerting, since you can’t see four feet in front of you. But what’s unnerving in real life becomes a real challenge in DRIVECLUB, and a welcome one at that.
What’s ultimately annoying about DRIVECLUB, though, is that there’s a good racing game struggling to get out. The tracks are twisty and nicely varied, it does some interesting tricks with the sunlight, while the structure of the career mode makes you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. But all of that is negated by the game’s annoying spike in difficulty, its prickly controls, and its dickish attitude. Which is why I have to take back what I said about my mom earlier. Because if she made a racing game, it would be a lot more fun than this.