Writing reviews is something that can drive you insane in this industry. There is this weird, imaginary ethical wall a lot of us battle with on a constant basis. Sure, as a site you love to have reviews up as soon as possible, because traffic is always best when reviews come on launch day. This is a problem because some of us don’t get copies early, or the game is so deep and complex that we can’t fully detail the experience in a short amount of time. In other instances, like the Evolution Studios-based and Sony-exclusive racer Driveclub, it simply doesn’t work well enough to be able to fully scope out the game’s modes and features.
Driveclub, more than any other game to come before it in my writing history, has been the most difficult to write about. Ethically, I like to hold back reviews until I can have a good sense of the entire product, meaning I want to test server loads, online features and get a good sense of what people are experiencing at launch, not just what the company wants you to believe is the full and finished product.
I also believe that while reviews are merely opinion pieces on what a user is experiencing in their unique setting, they also can influence purchase. Because of this, we owe it to the community to be timely and accurate.
Simply put, I am finishing the intro to this review on Sunday, October 19th, and Driveclub has been out for 12 days. I’ve held this review back as I wanted it to be a complete diagnosis of the final product, however as of this morning, Driveclub still doesn’t work. In what has been a completely botched launch, the title still won’t connect online for most users, including me, even after numerous modes stripped out of the title and updates to the net code. It is a game that promised us a socially-connected experience that it has up to this point failed to deliver on. It’s a game that as a writer, I can no longer justify holding back on. Driveclub deserves none of your money, and it goes a lot deeper than just being a broken mess.
Driveclub is a very odd and misplaced driving game. The first baffling decision comes with the fact that the only adjustable gameplay option at your disposal is a choice between automatic and manual transmission. In a generation where driving games on both sides of the casual to sim arena deliver difficulty modes, car tuning, on-track options such as driving lines and AI difficulty, rewind features, car upgrades and a lot of other toggles that players can use to tailor the experience to their liking, Driveclub‘s utter lack of choices makes it feel like a game from two generations ago, and incomplete. The larger problem, however, is that the game’s robotic AI drivers and strange handling system make the on-track action lackluster, at best.
Driveclub struggles to find an identity. In a simple way of describing it, the game feels as if Evolution Studios wanted to skim a fine-line between simulation and “casual” racing, and because of it, they failed on all accounts. As I mentioned above, the game lacks the options to make a sim-head happy, yet the game hinders the “fun” aspect of the title by some strange gameplay design.
These gameplay faults start with the Fame system, which rewards (and punishes) players for “correct” driving. Taking any type of shortcut is frowned upon, as is any contact with rival vehicles, regardless of whether it’s the AI ramming you in the middle of an attempted drift, or an accidental tap while attempting to draft behind your opponents. If the courses were slightly wider or featured fewer bottlenecks, this might present a welcome challenge for those transitioning from a simulator like Gran Turismo 6 over to a looser casual-like Need for Speed. Opportunities to earn Fame, therefore, especially at the higher Driver and Club levels, are harder to come across, which turns even some of the more novel races into experience grinds. This makes the game less casual and enjoyable, and without options to make it more simulation-based, struggles to make its mark. In a way, Driveclub feels as if it was designed by one team who wanted a specific racing style, only to be changed mid-way through. I’m lost on trying to define it.
One of my biggest issues with Driveclub’s on-track racing is that while the game punishes you in some aspects, it’ll also be forgiving in the strangest places. While you’re punished for going off-road, it is also sometimes the best way to get faster times. In my play sessions, I’ve had numerous time trial races where I’ve gotten better times by bouncing off of the game’s imaginary boundaries and walls then if I race cleanly to the end. Sure, my Fame decreases, but keeping your finger off of the brake does nothing to slow you down in some instances, as your car will bounce off of a wall, gain speed and almost always point back to your desired direction. In one time trial, I knocked almost 3 full seconds off of my completely clean lap, by ignoring the brake pad altogether.
Driveclub‘s abysmal AI is another issue. Although you’re expected to drive as cleanly as possible, the AI-controlled racers love driving straight into you. On numerous occasions I found myself in first place, only to have an AI car slingshot forward, seemingly out of nowhere, directly into the back of my car. Because there’s no rewind mechanic, the result is often a race completely ruined by one collision, and restarts are many – an almost archaic design structure at this point. Because Driveclub‘s Tour objectives, which reward players with stars that unlock new events, often include finishing in the Top-3 or achieving fast lap-times, it feels as though the AI is only there to prevent progression rather than provide genuine competition.
What’s worse is that users are deducted the same amount of Fame no matter if another car collides into them or when they collide into a competing racer. You then have to account for the fact that new cars are only unlocked through reaching certain Fame Level milestones, and it’s easy to see how Driveclub‘s downright robotic AI-design directly prevents rewarding the user for wanting to play the title.