On paper Driveclub appears to be a very special racer. Made by Evolution Studios, the team responsible for MotorStorm and WRC, its attention to detail is any car enthusiast's dream; flying through stretches of road that have been meticulously detailed in cars that look and sound better than just about any other racing game on the market should be enough. Sadly, it isn't.
Driveclub makes a bad first impression, starting you off in a Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG on a track in India, the least impressive of Driveclub's five regions (which also happens to be the one PS Plus subscribers get for free). The car feels nothing like its real-world counterpart, accelerating like Superman: Escape from Krypton, and hugging the asphalt as if lit were a slot car. If you go into the game expecting any sort of simulation, you're in for a painful disappointment. Its visuals are true to the real world, but the racing experience doesn't even come close—my daily driver is a Volkswagen GTI, and the GTI in this game bears no resemblance to the real car outside of its look and sounds. This might be marketed as "Simcade", but the Sim part doesn't belong. While not necessarily a negative quality, the car feel, especially when drifting, doesn't feel cohesive. Frankly, it's reminiscent of the early Ridge Racer games, which is a huge surprise given the game's mission statement.
During your first lap you're introduced to Driveclub's most novel idea: Faceoffs. These appear before turns and come in three varieties: corner, average speed, and drifting. In addition to usually having some form of challenge to complete, you'll attempt to best another racer's set time on pre-determined areas of the track. It's fun, and helps breathe variety into lengthy races, as well as offering a social element to the game.
After completing the introduction, you'll see the main menu for your first time. You'll immediately want to join a club, an integral part of the Driveclub experience. They operate similar to clans or guilds, but have a capacity for only six players (hopefully your group of friends isn't larger than that, or you'll have to divide yourselves). You'll level up your club simply by participating in any of Driveclub's content, have a custom paint job associated with the club, and tackle club-centric challenges if you're so inclined. Given they are required to unlock some of the cars and paint jobs, you'll want to join a club, even if it's just one with strangers.
Most of your time will be spent in Tour mode, although there are also single-player and multiplayer event options available. Tour has dozens of challenges of increasing difficulty, sending you through each of the game's five regions to earn a podium finish, achieve high scores by drifting on a portion of a track—my personal favorite—, and even achieve a certain score on a Faceoff. You'll immediately learn of one of the game's greatest shortcomings: its static nature. If you want to adjust TCS, ABS, or STM, there are no options to do so. If you're new to racing games or just want to have fun, the game offers no way of turning on assists to simplify the experience—that includes no rewind, so get ready for lots of restarting. The game makes no effort to cater the experience to each individual player. During the later races in Tour mode, that poses a problem of massively frustrating proportions that could make you lose interest altogether.
If you happen to be a car enthusiast—like myself—, there's very little to grab onto in Driveclub. There is no tuning. You can't upgrade any of the cars. Heck, each car only has a single paint job, although the game allows you to define four custom paint jobs to share between your entire garage. In an era when racers bend over backwards to make sure building a garage full of personalized cars, it's shocking to see a game that's as limited in options as Driveclub.
What Driveclub does do well is deliver a high attention-to-detail presentation. Each car is represented in spectacular fashion, inside and out. Driving in cockpit view is a real delight—more feedback would be nice, though. You fly through gorgeous landscapes with dynamic skies while listening to a well-orchestrated soundtrack remixed by Noisia and DJ Shadow. Driveclub's presentation is particularly impressive when the day/night cycle rotates through dusk and dawn. Headlights project amazing contrasts, and the Sun's rays bring out the best from the lighting system. Made better, loading times never surpass the 15 second mark, moving you from well-presented menus to in-game eye-candy without an sense of interruption.
So, it might come as a huge surprise that you can't really admire the cars or the detailed environments. Each of the cars in Driveclub are unrealistically fast, sending you over 120 miles per hour within seconds. There's no time to look at the scenery; everything passes by you at warp speed. This wouldn't be much of a problem if there were a Photo Mode, or even a Replay system to snap and share epic camera shots. In unbelievable fashion, Photo Mode isn't coming until a few months down the road. The pause menu hides most of the screen, so the only screenshots you'll be taking are directly from gameplay. What a missed opportunity.
Similarly, full weather such as rain and snow isn't in at launch. Instead, all you get are some variations to cloud formation, which can be beautiful but have little to no impact on gameplay. Differentiation in driving physics to mix things up is exactly what this game needs. Unfortunately, early adopters will have to wait.
Even if you decide that you don't want to win a race, and instead want to drive out and enjoy the scenery, you can't. If you exit the narrow track, you'll be given a few seconds to correct your course before you're penalized and potentially even reset to the track. There isn't a racer out there that prevents exploration as much as Driveclub, despite it potentially being the one that warrants it the most.
And then you have the content variety, or lack thereof. There are five destinations (Canada, Chile, India, Norway, and Scotland), each of which have some beautiful but often inconsistent beauty. In each of those five locations there are 11 events, bringing the total up to 55 events. The tracks are well designed, especially for being custom-made; there is no Laguna Seca or Nurburgring, everything here is inspired by the real world, but artificial.
Although the track list is good, the car list isn't. Driveclub's roster includes fewer than 60 cars at launch. There is no Lamborghini. There is no Corvette. Bugatti? Forget about it. There isn't even a single Japanese car, so don't even think about asking for an R34, 240SX, Supra, or anything JDM related. Without many cars or any form of customization, the length of your stay is doomed before it even begins. Even if you happen to enjoy Tour mode, it only has about eight to ten hours worth of races. Once you're done with that, it'll be up to your interest in competing online and doing repetitive challenges to retain your interest.
So who is Driveclub for? That's a good question, and there probably isn't a good answer. It's clearly a game that was so distracted by trying to look good for its audience that it forgot to be personable and fun. It isn't for car enthusiasts, and it's too hard and non-adaptive to be recommendable for casuals.
Driveclub does deliver some of the most incredible detail in racing history (you can read about some of it here). In that sense, it's the framework of a game that could be ground-breaking. That game would need a lot of work before it would become anything more than unharnessed potential, though.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.
Copy provided by publisher. Driveclub is exclusive to PS4.