Driving a wedge.
Supporting Driveclub is a matter of hope. As a PlayStation exclusive, a fresh IP in this powerful console generation, an opportune offering after the lukewarm reception for Gran Turismo 6, a competitor to Microsoft's Forza franchise, and a comeback for Evolution Studios, it doesn't need to twist anyone's arm to garner support from the community. The limited but free PlayStation Plus version of the game doesn't hurt either. However, in an attempt to carve out its own identity in the racing genre, Driveclub ambitiously navigates the gray zone between the casual racer and the simulation racer, and while it finds several moments of brilliance, it ultimately gets lost in the fog.
Determining which parts of Driveclub are more arcade and which are more simulation might be troublesome at first. The lack of a racing line, the inability to tune or upgrade vehicles, and the steady accumulation of fame points over the course of a race firmly plant the game in the arcade wheelhouse. Then again, the promotion of the Thrustmaster racing wheels (sadly no Logitech support yet), the numerous challenges for drifting, cornering, and average speed, and an emphasis on proper braking and turning would counter that appraisal. As nebulous as "semi-casual" or "semi-pro" might be, that's the only way to describe Driveclub's chimeric design.
By that approach, Driveclub reaches for a broad audience, and its pick-up-and-play nature without having to fiddle around with numerous menu screens is its best asset. Getting straight into a race whether online or in Tour mode is as simple as picking an event, choosing a car in the proper class, and waiting a few seconds for the race to load. Apart from choosing the difficulty of the AI opponents in exhibition mode, there are no settings for difficulty or assists so everyone is on an even playing field. Without much room for customization aside from preset character models and paint options, that's one of the virtues that Driveclub can bank on.
Unfortunately, that virtue is somewhat broken by the stat-based roster which steadily unlocks better cars as you or your club reach higher driver levels. There's usually one clear car in each class that offers the best attributes in acceleration and top speed, so there's little reason not to select it apart from severely poor handling. This becomes evident in multiplayer matches where nearly every person with a high enough driver level selects the same car despite having numerous options available. Not only does that significantly narrow the roster, but if you have a low driver level, you'll likely be stuck with a lower-end vehicle and a considerable disadvantage which will limit your multiplayer experience. It would have been better for the game to level the playing field for an entire class of cars, perhaps in a manner similar to the Forza series that evens everything to a certain threshold.
In Tour mode, which is curiously similar to Gran Turismo 6's framework, you'll be tested in sprint and circuit racing, time trials, and drift challenges which serve to break up the core standard racing. Progressively moving from hot hatches to performance cars and finally hypercars, this mode is limited in scope and can be completed within a day or two. Luckily, the main side objective based on earning stars by completing objectives, like achieving a high drift score or getting a low lap time, extends the value of the mode. So too do various face-off challenges, via synchronous multiplayer, that compare your cornering, drifting, and speed skills on the fly against other player's skills.
Racing itself works fine enough on the surface so long as you pay attention to your racing line, admire the scenery, ignore the lackluster music, and don't mind car damage being entirely cosmetic. Though drifting is too unwieldy to be useful in most races, if you learn the rhythm of the track by braking conservatively, you'll have an enjoyable ride. Despite the absence of rain at the moment, the best tracks feature the game's day-night cycle with tracks that compress time fast enough to see the sunset or sunrise.
Along the way, you'll earn fame points for almost everything on the course—drifting, maintaining high speed, drafting, gaining position, beating face-offs—in addition to earning one of many accolades. In a nice touch, once you're mastered an accolade, you can paste it on the side of your car along with your chosen custom race number. Gaining fame points will improve your driver level, unlocking preset paint options and additional cars.
But look past the facade and there are one too many issues, the most irritating of which is the rubber-band AI in Tour mode. Spinning out or flipping over due to the laughable air physics will make the AI slow down to a crawl, while being positioned anywhere in the top five will magically transform the AI into speed demons. Thus, you never really know if losing is a matter of the computer being artificially difficult, since you'll rarely ever build a substantial lead due to pure technical skill.
Severely colliding into opponents and cutting corners too widely both lead to speed penalties, while bumping into the side of the track or other vehicles will deduct fame points. These are understandable rules on principle, but most tracks are so narrow and most vehicles are so wide that any form of passing will naturally lead to bumper-car antics. Besides, gaining position and finishing at a higher rank awards more than enough fame points to cover the penalty for minor incidents of trading paint.
In fact, don't be surprised if an online opponent simply rams you while going into a turn; maybe that will cost the opponent a speed penalty, but you may be knocked off course so hard that you'll scramble just to get your bearings again. Consequently, an unhealthy portion of the race especially in multiplayer is about cutting corners and ramming proficiently enough to screw opponents without getting penalized. It's yet another example of good intentions gone awry. As a result, being first out of the starting block is extremely advantageous because you don't have to worry too much about anyone jostling you for position.
Multiplayer clubs and lobby-based multiplayer events operate fairly well, with a variety of available modes like team racing and endurance races, and clubs allowing up to six players to contribute fame points toward a running total on the global leaderboard. Though you won't be able to face off against other clubs directly, you can create and accept challenges from other clubs and racers. The only issue with clubs and profile pages is that there are no stats for win-losses or disconnections (which happens a lot), or the fame earned by each club member. Most of the top clubs are invite-only, but a few of them are open to anyone to join which means that you can instantly obtain all of the cars that require a specific club level. I'm guessing the developers meant for people to unlock these cars without this workaround.
Despite numerous reasons to support Driveclub purely on concept alone, it takes a turn for the worse when scrutinized under the spotlight. It's unfortunate luck that the game had to release just a few weeks after Forza Horizon 2 which does nearly everything Driveclub does that much better. It may be an unfair comparison considering that this is its inaugural entry, but Driveclub was delayed multiple times and the standard for the hybrid racing genre is high with Burnout, DiRT, and Need for Speed. There's plenty to admire here, though, if you take Driveclub at face value and don't take things too seriously.