As I sat, enjoying the view and appreciating the blend of simulation and arcade, I kept asking myself: "Is this what Evolution wanted to produce? Is this what I wanted to play?" These are two very common questions any good critic asks before approaching a review, but I realized I had some difficulty with the answers. For the most part, developers always promise the world, so a game can frequently feel underwhelming based on that hype. But I should at least be able to answer the second question, right? Well, not quite...
First up, the graphics: These are undoubtedly some of the most impressive visuals you will ever see and quite frankly, they're the only aspect of Driveclub that is "next-gen" in my estimation. The cars and amazingly detailed, the backgrounds are meticulously and lovingly crafted, and the effects are spot-on. Sometimes I think they tried a little too hard, thereby creating an environment that looks kinda like an unreal photograph. But can I really dock a game for looking too good? The bottom line is that despite a few lackluster tracks (and occasionally boring track design), the graphics are excellent.
The sound is similarly impressive, although the audio lacks that pinpoint accuracy of a true simulator. Throughout my time with the game, I kept thinking of Need for Speed; the franchise is more arcade-y, but the games always excel in the sound category. Some of the engine sounds and crash effects are a bit sharper in Evolution's production, though. The soundtrack doesn't necessarily take center-stage - and it doesn't have to - but I suppose it could've been more inspired. It's not exceptionally well-orchestrated or implemented but it's plenty polished, like the rest of the game. Technically speaking, it's unlikely you'll find much fault.
As is the case with any racing game, it really comes down to control. Once you've established the type of racer, you start to evaluate the physics and dynamics. Here, we're talking about a hybrid experience that has the pick-up-and-play accessibility of an arcade-style racer, but some of the authentic touches you typically find in simulators. Sometimes, developers just can't get the balance right but in this case, I think it works. Evolution successfully mixes a relatively high fun-factor with the intricate details hardcore drivers will appreciate. I suppose the only question is whether or not it appeals to both arcade and sim fans...or if it appeals to neither.
Being used to Gran Turismo, I initially found the driving to be simplistic. But the more you play, the more you start to appreciate that accessible blend. High-powered rear-wheel drive cars are a little too easy to control around turns, and acceleration and turning is a shade over the line into fantasy. It's not Daytona USA, though, and most gamers won't have a problem with the unrealistic bent. Besides, there are times when you're too busy gawking at the graphics to dissect the control. Some areas aren't as finely honed as others, but there are glimpses of visual genius.
The interiors of the cars, for instance, are pretty darn special. From rear-facing cameras to custom door paneling and even visible windshield wiper marks, there's a lot to like about the cabin view. I'm aware that this is more of a visual analysis, but bear in mind that graphics play a significant role in any racer. If you want to feel fully immersed, you really have to believe just about every element of the presentation, and it helps if the interior of a car is picture-perfect. Yes, your attention is on the road, but having that incredible interior inevitably draws you further into the experience.
There are a total of 50 cars in the full version of the game, although it's important to note that you really need to like European cars. There's only one American car and there aren't any Japanese cars at all. This is beyond bizarre because you're supposed to be racing all over the world, so why are we restricted to cars from one region? Granted, Europe is a very large territory and literally hundreds of different cars are made in the European region, but we need variety. The only upside is that presumably, Evolution will add more cars in the future. Maybe they should start with a couple packs, one each for Japanese and American vehicles.
Now, there are no performance upgrades or any mechanical tweaking; it's all cosmetic. It's hard to say if this is a major downfall or not; again, it comes down to your expectations and what you want in a racing game. Some people couldn't possibly care less about altering gear ratios while others won't get behind the wheel unless they've attended to every possible detail. I think it would've been nice to have at least some mechanical modding, though. The only problem is that it's difficult to make such a feature optional because those who ignore it will undoubtedly be at a disadvantage. It's a development choice, that's all.
The different tracks are great but they don't boast the best track design I've ever seen. Still, they're so wonderfully constructed in terms of graphical presentation that you almost don't care. I can't wait to see more exotic locations in the future, along with more cars. As such, I almost want to treat Driveclub as a starting point rather than a finished product (ala Destiny), but this really isn't an MMO, despite its social angle. I'm aware that more can be added as time goes on and in one year's time, this could end up being a much more comprehensive and fulfilling experience. Just bear that in mind when driving around, going, "Cool, but is this it?"
The racing itself is well done, although I was surprised at the blatantly aggressive nature of the AI. This leads to perhaps the biggest flaw, which is the implementation of a speed-slowing penalty. This occurs when you trade some serious paint with another racer but there are two problems: Firstly, even if you're the one who got hit, you suffer the penalty (the AI never gets the penalty), and second, it's just plain inaccurate. There are times when a hard smash won't result in the penalty, but a love-tap will incur the speed-slowing. It's not a deal-breaking problem but it is noticeable.
What's even more noticeable is the lack of single-player involvement. Yes, there's a progression system in place and that involves races, time trials and drift events. And I've always enjoyed the inclusion of the social aspect that has you trying to beat a friend's time (or score). The best part is that you receive valuable experience based on where you are on the leaderboard, which means you'll be receiving a constant stream of XP even when you're not racing. Cool, huh? But while all of this is attractive, I can't help but notice that if you just want to play solo - no times or scores to beat, nobody to race against, etc. - the experience feels too light. It won't take long for you to unlock all 50 cars and as far as the campaign aspect is concerned, that's about it.
That being said, you can't discount the attractive social and multiplayer elements. You can join or create your own online racing team, and rewards are shared among members of the club. You can level up the entire club, but this requires an active group of racers who...well, don't suck. Each member can attempt individual challenges and help the club along, and it feels like an engaged, robust feature. It's absolutely critical, too, because once the solo content dries up, you're going to be counting on these social aspects. As time goes on, they'll get better and deeper, so the game's future is actually pretty bright. Maybe we just need to be patient.
Driveclub isn't exactly a triumph but it's a polished, very entertaining game that delivers an adrenaline-filled good time. The fun factor remains high throughout, the amazing detail - in both the background and the cars themselves - is a definite accomplishment of note, and the social features are extremely attractive. The solo content doesn't quite cut it, though, and the AI is occasionally too aggressive. You've also got a car list that is almost exclusively European, which is more than a little surprising. In short, I can't say I'm disappointed with the end result, as I had plenty of fun and the refinement is obvious. It just needed to be fleshed out more.
The Good: Excellent graphics and intricate detail. Solid audio and sound design. Well-developed blend of accurate and arcade-y physics. Cool social and multiplayer features. Accessible and fun. Lots of future potential.
The Bad: Not enough single-player content. Collision/penalty system is flawed. Car list is almost entirely European. Overall experience feels a little light.
The Ugly: "Almost too pretty for any semblance of ugly."
10/9/2014 Ben Dutka