Fri. Mar 31st, 2023
DriveClub review: The next generation of time trialling

Racing game fans can generally be split into three overlapping groups. There are those who want the most accurate simulation, driving virtual cars that feel exactly like the real thing. There are those who want “arcade” style accessibility, with crazy speeds and crazier turns that don’t require perfect technique. Then there are those time trial fiends who just want to dominate the game with the absolute fastest races possible.

Drive Club makes a few nods to those first two groups, but it seems mainly intended to appeal to the third group of time trial fans. If you enjoy challenging friends and strangers to conquer your best driving performance while taking on the challenge of others, you will quickly fall in love with Drive Club‘s deeply integrated system of online challenges. If it doesn’t sound very appealing to repeat the same song for an hour to earn a spot on the leaderboard, then this probably isn’t the game for you.

As the name implies, getting the most out of it Drive Club means that you form your own “club” of up to six people together with fellow players. Club members don’t actively race together in real-time, but they do compete for the common good by representing their club in online challenges. For this reason, it’s generally better to be able to form a club with other people you know in real life, but you can also join a club with strangers if you wish.

Any player can set up an online challenge, on behalf of an individual or club, using an auto-saved recording from a previous race as the basis for the “time to beat”. (There are also trials to measure who can pull off the best drifts, which is surprisingly fun.) Once a challenge is set, other contestants can dive in and try to beat that time before the challenge ends. If a contestant appears at least in the Top 7, he or she will receive a prize some credit for the challenge.

Sometimes these challenges are lonely time trials, but in many cases you race against your own set of computer-controlled opponents and the preset time. This can lead to an awkward split of your attention; you struggle to jockey for position against the skilled on-screen AI racers, but really you’re just trying to get the fastest time against human opponents who will be racing at other times.

When the pre-set time limit for a challenge is over, the clubs with the highest positions will be awarded club points based on their position and the total number of participants (the best performer in each club will represent the whole group, so make sure you join with good racers). It’s hard to overinvest in these prizes because the Club Points you earn are the same ones you get for doing practically anything else in Drive Club. Overtaking an opposing car? Have 500 club points. Drift behind a car for a top speed boost? Have a few hundred more. Drifting through a corner or hitting a high speed or racing through a section somewhat cleanly or finishing a race in the top 3? More club points for you! Collide with another car? Sorry, we’re going to deduct 200 Club points for that. The latter is especially frustrating when opposing cars hit you from behind.

As if that wasn’t enough, Drive Club gives you more Club points for random section challenges inserted into each race, asking you to perform the best drift, maintain the best top speed or drive the perfect racing line for a small section of the track. On paper, these sorts of randomized micro-challenges seem like a decent way to engage players outside of pure time trials. In execution, however, they falter by matching you with a single random schmo each time, rather than judging your performance against a global leaderboard. In one race we would manage to win a section challenge and 500 Club points by beating a pathetic drift score of seven set by a random goober. Later in the same race, we might lose another section challenge because the near-perfect racing line we laid wasn’t as perfect as yet another random goober. Without proper balance or context, these encounters with strangers begin to feel random and unsatisfying.

Anyway, the Club points you earn inexorably go towards personal tiers and also merge into one big Club tier, both of which are used to unlock new cars and cosmetic customization options. You can also get points and set times in a single player tour mode, but it feels a bit lonely and disconnected.

On the one hand, it’s pretty cool to log in Drive Club and see the results of a mess of challenges you’ve participated in before, along with a slew of club points that lead to unlocking new vehicles and customizations. There is also a strong drive for self-improvement built into the system. After finishing fourth in an ongoing challenge, you’ll want one more shot to finish third and earn a few more points for your club. We compulsively spent an hour drifting the same corner over and over until we finally got second in one challenge—and it was hard to stop trying to get first.

Drive ClubHowever, the team’s challenge structure tends to crowd out all but the top time trial perfectionists. In an “open” challenge, anyone from any club can choose to participate, meaning that a few professional competitors will often manage to displace the also-rans with the best times. Even in the limited pre-release environment (which had a few hundred active clubs), we struggled to improve enough to get “in the money” in most challenges with more than a few participants. You can send closed challenges that limit participation to a small number of clubs or individual players, which is fine if you already have a real rivalry with someone. But it’s kind of pointless unless you know a lot of people who already own the game.

Put the “drive” in Drive Club

Enough about the game’s relatively unique structure, what’s the racing itself like? All in all very satisfying. Drive ClubThe company’s physics model deftly sidesteps the line between realistic and accessible. Cars definitely all have their own distinct feel; moving from a starter hatchback to a “supercar” like the BAC Mono is a shocking experience. You can feel the difference not only in the power, acceleration and turning radius of the cars, but also in the way the cars grip the track in difficult corners. The game does a good job of conveying a sense of a car’s balance and momentum, both through careful sound and visual design and subtle vibrations from the controller. There is obvious attention to detail to make these cars feel like they have real weight and presence on the track.

At the same time, there are some concessions to ensure the game doesn’t get too bogged down in simulation. Cars go drifting quite easily with a tap of the emergency brake, and the steering is forgiving enough to have you flying through corners quite easily on that edge of control. You can crash into other cars and the track sides to your heart’s content with only cosmetic damage to your car (although the game can temporarily slow you down with a “collision penalty” or a “corner penalty” if you’re particularly egregious about this). There’s no way to customize an individual car with new parts or specific performance tuning, which may be seen by various players as a blessed simplification or a disturbing lack of customization.

Graphic, Drive Club is a blast, sometimes at the expense of the actual gameplay. The glare of the low-hanging sunlight on your in-game windshield is one of the most realistic treatments of a difficult lighting situation we’ve ever seen in a racing game, but it’s hard to appreciate that feat when you actually have to squint to see the course ahead of you. Similarly, driving through a mountain range in the middle of the night, with your headlights as the only illumination for the trail ahead, is both beautiful and frustrating when it means you have fractions of seconds to react to every little turn. On many circuits we were distracted by the beauty of the water under a bridge, the soft reflection of the snowy banks or the small dust particles coughing up from brick, which did not really help our race times.

There’s a healthy selection of tracks, modeled after real locations, that offer a good mix of flat, fast racetracks and mountainous passes full of treacherous switchbacks. The artificial intelligence does a decent job of displacing position and usually manages to run a good, if not perfect, race.

It’s all a bit sterile. Each race is its own self-contained nugget with no much larger context outside of the Club challenge system. There’s no open world to explore or a coherent career mode to progress through or any sense of progression aside from that lone number of Club points that just go up and up. This is an endless series of disconnected races and new challenging times to beat.

That lack of cohesive structure isn’t the end of the world for a game like this. Each race is well constructed, beautiful and quite enjoyable in its own right. For top level racers who can join like-minded people in a competitive club, or those who can convince similarly skilled friends to try and beat their times, the challenge system is likely to provide endless fun jockeying for position Club points .

For more casual racers, though, Drive Club may not be welcome long after the point where you unlock some of the more expensive cars and tracks. There is plenty to enjoy in that process, but ultimately the whole Drive Club‘s disconnected races can add up to a little less than the sum of its parts.

The good

  • Amazing lighting effects and beautifully detailed racing environments
  • Physics model is a good balance between realism and accessibility
  • Fine variety of cars and race tracks to choose from
  • Fairly competitive artificial intelligence

The bad

  • The club points structure throws rewards at you for every little thing
  • The club challenge system is hard to invest in unless you are a top player
  • Little sense of meaningful progression or structure

The ugly one

  • When an opponent’s car hits you from behind and costs you 200 Club points in “collision penalty” at the same time.

Pronunciation: Buy it if you want to compete endlessly for the best times. Give it a try if you just want to see how beautiful racing on the PS4 can be.

By akfire1

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