Driveclub Review: Stuck in First Gear

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Gorgeous vistas pass by as I race along the coast in a ruby red Dutch hypercar with a crumpled hood and cracked tail lights, but all I can feel is an immense wave of disappointment. At first glance, Driveclub looks like it delivers on its promise of a good-looking racing game for octane-hungry PS4 owners, but like the beat up exterior of my Spyker C8 Aileron, most of the fun is only skin deep.

Driveclub was originally scheduled as a launch game for the PlayStation 4 in 2013, but Evolution Studios has spent an additional year trying to making sure the racing game runs smoothly. With the extra development time, you might expect Driveclub to be polished to a mirror finish, but the end result is a game that feels out of place and uncomfortable in its own paint job.

Gameplay: Caught between a sim and an arcade racer

Driveclub suffers from an identity crisis. The general spectrum of racing games has arcade-style games like Burnout on one end, contrasted with simulation racers like Gran Turismo at the other. Driveclub throws a wrench into the mix, trying to split the difference between arcade and simulation. This leaves the game feeling like it's drunk at the wheel. 

When it comes to driving, Driveclub is decidedly more arcadey, doling out grippy handling but with an emphasis on drifting. The way you dive in and out of corners defies the tone that you get from the rest of the game's sim-like presentation. I did appreciate the unique qualities of the cars, which allowed me to feel the differences between the rear-wheel drive playfulness of a BMW 235i versus the more controlled behavior of an all-wheel drive Audi A1 Quattro.

Ultimately, things like penalties for hitting cars and walls, cutting corners, or spending too much time off course create a very serious atmosphere, making it scary to push the limits of the different vehicles. Infractions for hitting obstacles or cutting corners will cause the game to limit your speed for a few seconds, forcing you to play straight or risk being penalized into oblivion. You can even be punished for getting rear-ended by AI cars if the game thinks you are at fault.

A boring computer AI also hampers the restrained driving environment. Opposing cars will often create a caravan, all sticking rigidly to the same driving line. It's like you are playing against a single hive mind instead of 11 individual racers. And if you attempt to disturb that line with an inside pass, you risk being slammed into a wall by AI that refuses to adjust.

Modes: All you need is club

One of the most limiting aspects of Driveclub is its progression. You get only two methods for advancing through the game: Tour Mode and multiplayer races. After completing a race, you will earn two kinds of experience that will increase your driver level and club level (assuming you are in one), with bonuses for things such as a clean race (no touching!), drifting or overtaking. Earning experience is the main way of unlocking new cars, with each successive level giving you access to faster vehicles. 

I was able to gain driver experience fairly quickly, letting me earn new cars at a steady rate. Unfortunately, earning club experience takes much longer. You can create your own club, or join someone else's, with clubs maxing out at six members each. But keep in mind if you create a club and no one joins, your club level increases at a glacial pace. 

When I created my technicolor paint job (I call it "Plum Froyo Surprise"), options felt limited and most of the logos were locked behind higher driver/club levels. Also, about a third of the cars are locked behind club levels, so if you ignore that part of the game, you have an even more limited selections of cars to use.

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In Tour Mode, each race will have three challenges, such as beating a certain lap time or hitting a specific top speed. Completing challenges will earn you a star, and the amount of stars you have determines which races and series you are allowed to enter. Events can be multi-staged or limited to certain types of cars, like hot hatches, or specific brands, like Volkswagen. While somewhat bare bones, Tour Mode offers the basics of a career mode and ended up being my favorite aspect of the game.

Multiplayer races using PSN worked well, although I encountered some server hiccups in the week of the game's release. There are scheduled events you can join, which change throughout the day, and challenges from other clubs, although I didn't receive any challenges during my time with the game. Playing against other players makes the confusing racing style feel even worse. It's like an accidental destruction derby, with players constantly careening against each other and the track barriers. There is also no local multiplayer; it's PSN or bust.

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Lastly, there are single events for races, time trials and drifting, but they don't serve any purpose besides getting you behind the wheel quickly.

Too Few Cars, So Little Choice

It's too bad Driveclub has only 50 cars to offer, a number dwarfed by Forza Horizon 2's 200-plus roster or Gran Turismo 6's staggering thousand-car garage. Even stranger is the complete lack of any American or Japanese cars. So you'd better get used to what Europe has to offer.

One of my favorite cars is not even one I unlocked myself. I downloaded the Mercedes AMG GT for free from the PlayStation Network Store. Not only was it one of the most fun cars I drove, but it was also significantly better than what opposing AI drivers were using. More cars are on their way, but most of them will come as additional paid downloadable content.

Another curious omission by Driveclub is that you can't customize or tune your cars in any way. You can't buy new parts, tune settings like brake balance or even change the tires. You can't even really select the color of your car, at least not easily. Each car has one default color, with four more preset paint jobs that all kind of look the same. There is one custom paint job option, but to customize it, you have to be the leader of your club.

Look: Pretty cars and prettier landscapes

Had Driveclub come out at the launch of the PS4, it would have been a decent graphical showcase for the new console. But now, matched up against Forza 2 Horizon, and The Crew in mid-November, Driveclub looks good but not great. FPS is capped firmly at 30, and a couple of times I noticed it dipped below that threshold.

While none of the tracks are based on real racetracks, they do take inspiration from real places. Indian courses feature lush tropical environments, and a course in Scotland passes by a pseudo-Stonehenge (England and Scotland are the same country, right?). Night races show off some gorgeous lighting effects, and there are impressive vistas that can catch you by surprise while you're racing.

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The cars are modeled well, and Driveclub simulates damage from hitting obstacles or cars, but the effect is entirely cosmetic. You can't ever reach a point where your car will blow up or stop working. The overall aesthetics are the best part of Driveclub, but the 30-fps limit makes me wonder what Evolution has been working on for the past year. (Apparently, it was on the game's dynamic menu. Really?!)

Audio: A soundtrack that needs a spark

Sound effects in Driveclub are par for the course. The screeching tires and rumbling engines sounded realistic. I liked being able to distinguish some of my favorite cars, like the Maserati Gran Turismo MC Stradale, just from their exhaust notes. Kudos to Evolution for doing its due diligence (the cockpit views are similarly well done). Aside from that, the sound effects do their job of immersing you in the race, but don't feel as detailed as they do on a Gran Turismo or Forza.

The soundtrack is another story. Initially, music sounded pretty quiet, so I had to increase the volume to get a better listen. It would probably be better if I hadn't. Music is made up of bland drum and bass tracks, and even for someone who enjoys electronic music, I had a hard time getting into Driveclub's musical selection. There are no headline artists, but instead more variations of the Amen Break than you could ever hope to enjoy. At least toss me some Avicii or David Guetta.

Bottom Line

While Driveclub is a functional game, it lacks the polish or depth seen in other contemporary racing titles like Forza Horizon 2, or even last-gen driving simulators like Gran Turismo 6. Driveclub's small car list, limited game modes and lack of customization make you feel like you only get 50 or 75 percent of a $60 dollar game. Unfortunately, right now Driveclub is the only PS4 racing game in town (Apart from last year’s Need For Speed Rivals port). If you really need to burn some rubber, this may tide you over for a bit. Otherwise, I would suggest waiting for Ubisoft's The Crew in November. Driveclub lives up to its name in only the most literal sense; you can drive alone or with some friends, but that's about it.

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Sam Rutherford is a Staff Writer at Tom’s Guide. Follow him @SamRutherford on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @Tom’s Guide on Facebook and Google+

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).