Driveclub is a beautifully-presented arcade-style racer that, despite dispensing moments of exhilaration, ultimately feels sanitised and personality-free.
It may be gorgeous to look at, and it runs flawlessly at a responsive and rock-solid 30 frames per second, but Driveclub never conveys a feeling of high-speed danger. The majority of its 50 launch cars possess little in the way of personality, and the game slaps joy-sapping penalties on aggressive drivers.
These penalties come in the form of seconds-long acceleration prevention and speed reduction, and will stifle the progress of any player who dares to cut a corner or initiate too much contact with a rival’s vehicle.
They’re a real buzzkill, but at least they fit in with some of Driveclub's other overbearing design choices: a three-second ‘reset to track’ countdown starts the moment a player does anything so much as drive in the shingle on the side of the road, while invisible walls and judicious use of fencing prevent any spectacular crashes or even a slight deviation from the race route.
It’s as if Evolution Studios spent so much time hand-crafting dazzling road tarmac textures, it forgot to give the game a soul – something to distinguish it beyond some great audio and visuals.
Those aspects are certainly front and center in Driveclub. There’s no doubt a low sun beaming the trees on India’s Nilgiri Hills looks wonderful, the cars are uniformly gorgeous and get grimier the longer a race goes, and the engine and tyre sounds here are utterly fantastic.
Moreover, Evolution Studios has created a full ecosystem around each of the game’s 25 launch tracks, with procedurally-generated skies, incredible lighting models, and vegetation, clouds, wires, and bodies of water that react dynamically to wind speeds.
Races can be set at any time of day or night, and the pace of time altered so several sunrises and sunsets can be witnessed throughout the course of a single race. The appearance of the game’s wildlife is realistically tied into this cycle, as are smaller things like sprinkler systems, and the spectators trackside even dress for the weather.
That’s a staggering amount of detail, and there are so many amazing smaller touches too, like the reflection of the dashboard on the windscreen in bright light, and the sheer detail in both car interiors and their paint jobs. This is a game to pop on when you want to wow your flatmates, that’s for sure.
The tracks themselves load quickly despite the trimmings, and are all inspired by real-life locations in Canada, Chile, India, Norway, and Scotland, tweaked for high-speed racing. Not all are created equal, though. Canada’s Cayoosh Point is a breath-taking downhill sprint through a forest and along some gorgeous creek-side farmland, and Norway’s snowy tracks are mostly great, but most of the rest simply aren’t particularly memorable.
Fortunately, Driveclub's much-touted social features are sound and well-implemented. Here, players create clubs of up to six, and every member has access to rewards (cars and cosmetic stuff) earned by others. Those who enjoy levelling up and achievements will be in heaven, as experience points — sorry, “Fame” — is earned for damn near everything.
There are also rewards for hitting milestones in a plethora of categories such as total distance driven, event wins, distance drifted, and so forth. However, the real addictive loop is found in the besting of your friends or randoms on the Internet.
Beating others in races is one way to do this of course, but Face-Offs and Challenges can be just as satisfying. As you race, the game collects all manner of stats that it tasks other players with beating, such as a drift score on a certain corner, or an average speed over a certain distance.
It’s essentially an expanded version of Need For Speed’s Autolog system, and it works well. Unlike Face-Offs, Challenges are issued manually by clubs and concern whole races rather than just sections. The challenger can set a number of parameters including car model, time of day, and so forth, but Challenges aren’t as immediately gratifying as Face-Offs, although they definitely give the game some legs.
And legs it needs, as the singleplayer side of things is just slightly thin. It’s the usual story of earning stars for completing objectives in races in order to earn the right to compete in a trophy race, but the content currently available isn't particularly diverse and won’t keep gearheads occupied for long. Driveclub has definitely been made with multiplayer in mind.
Fortunately, nine new cars and 11 new courses are coming to the game for free between now and June next year, along with a photo mode, replays, and the aforementioned weather system, with even more available via paid DLC.
But all the extra content in the world won't keep Driveclub from being much more than it is now: a seriously handsome, insanely polished title with grabby multiplayer that's nonetheless too clinical and rigid to deliver complete driving ecstasy.