Evolution Studios kicked off the current generation of PlayStation hardware with MotorStorm, comfortably setting a new visual benchmark in the process. DriveClub isn’t quite there yet – the build we’ve played was only 35 per cent complete, which seems a little on the low side for a PS4 launch game – but the pleasant, although hardly astonishing, landscape of the fictional Kinloch track we tried offers long draw distances and some occasionally eyecatching lighting.
It whips past the windscreen at a decent enough lick – although not, in its current state, at the target 60fps. Tree and foliage models have a whiff of placeholder about them, while tyre smoke isn’t quite the next-gen volumetric spectacle we’d hoped for. The cars look great, of course, but you’ll be hard-pressed to notice the fully modelled headlight lenses out on track. There have been few better showcases for new hardware than racing games, and it says much that Gran Turismo 6, running on the seven-year-old PS3, currently looks sharper than Evolution’s demo build. A fair chunk of that remaining 65 per cent of development is presumably set aside for visual improvements.
Still, the handling model seems to be all there. The four cars we’ve tried – including the Pagani Huayra and Hennessey Venom – display distinct, unruly personalities. The game’s most powerful cars need to be coaxed rather than hurried to full acceleration for fear of losing traction, and we found ourselves wrestling with torque steer in the Venom on straights. The DualShock 4’s much-improved sticks make it easy to make small adjustments to your line with none of their predecessors’ skittering flimsiness. But the motion-control option, predictably enough, doesn’t fare quite so well. Overall it’s a weighty, detailed handling model – but, just like MotorStorm, one that trades realism for immediate thrills. It’s at odds with Evolution’s talk of replicating the supercar ownership experience, but plays to the strengths of the game’s team ethos.
Our focus quickly shifts to the challenges found in every event: Overdrives and Face-Offs. The former can be performed anywhere on the track and includes maintaining high speed for as long as you can, perhaps, or putting in a clean drive for a full split. Face-Offs, meanwhile, occur at set points on the track marked by colour-coded zones, which invites fond comparisons with OutRun 2’s Heart Attack Mode. They offer similar challenges to Overdrives, but your performance is compared with a racer in an opposing club. Doing either earns Fame, which feeds into your club’s reputation.
While being goaded into drifting through a corner may prove a minor irritation for drivers with their eye on a fast run, ignoring challenges and putting in a sterling lap time will still bring in Fame. If you do take up every challenge thrown at you, however, the need to constantly adjust your driving style makes for a pleasingly varied challenge. Crucially, the setup means every driver can contribute to their club’s success, no matter their skill level.
The current build doesn’t feature any realtime multiplayer, but it does show off the asynchronous aspects of DriveClub: our demo was played on a network of eight systems, with players able to drop in and out without actually racing against each other. Tracks are filled with ghosts of other drivers’ runs, all accompanied by a photo of the competitor in question displayed next to your own at the bottom of the screen whenever you enter a Face-Off. It provides the sense of heightened competition that Criterion’s Autolog so successfully created. It’s hectic stuff, even when you’re out on the tarmac alone, the sense of camaraderie from seeing your club’s standings ebb and flow between races encouraging you to head back in for another shot. It might prove enough to distinguish the game from its competitors, but right now DriveClub feels a little lost in a field of extremely capable opponents.
DriveClub doesn’t live up to Evolution’s lofty promises yet, but the studio has turned around a less-than-spectacular early showing in the past, with MotorStorm: Apocalypse. But the MotorStorm series benefits from a brand of drama that goes some way towards distracting from its lack of polish, and this is a shield behind which DriveClub can’t hide. The game’s most important aspects – its vehicle handling and multiplayer integration – already feel confident, though, and the studio’s track record suggests that it can take this to a photo finish.