Given the performance of the PS5, Xbox Series X and whatever graphics card Nvidia or AMD came out with in the last 10 minutes, the honor of “best looking video game” is a constantly, speedily moving target — particularly for titles that target a realistic visual style. Yoshi’s Island will forever be a pastel-colored dreamscape, because it’s pure art. Racing games, however, tend to age like milk, save for a few exceptions. And 2014's Driveclub shines the brightest among them to this day.
Driveclub was a PS4 exclusive, created by Cheshire, U.K.-based Evolution Studios. Sony shut Evolution’s doors not even two years after Driveclub’s release. The team supported it with new content and quality-of-life enhancements until the very end, much of which was free.
The game was something of a critical punching bag upon its launch, mostly because its online functionality was effectively broken for the first few months, even though the title had already been delayed roughly a year. Still, Driveclub went on to sell more than 2 million copies — not amazing by the standards of other PlayStation exclusives, but decent for the racing niche.
Everyone I knew kind of hated Driveclub initially. For starters, it was a multiplayer-focused racing game where the multiplayer didn’t work. Besides, Forza Horizon 2 — its Xbox rival at the time — had a big, open world and probably like three times the cars. And more is always better than less, as we all know.
But I loved Driveclub. In fact, until Gran Turismo Sport came around, it was easily my most-played PS4 game and favorite of the generation. Depending on the day of the week, I might still call it my number one.
That’s down to two things. First, once the multiplayer really did kick into gear — by January 2015, if I recall correctly — it was extremely addictive. There was a rotating slate of events every day, from team races to time trials. It was also very well designed for asynchronous play (think Rivals mode in FH5) where you’d, say, set a drift score on a track and send it to your friends or fellow club members to try to beat. You’d go back and forth like that, sometimes for weeks. I never did shatter my friend Chris’ lap around Old Town in the Ferrari 599XX, even though I put — and I’m not exaggerating here — four and a half hours into the effort, all in one sitting. But then he never could beat my Lake Shoji run on the BMW S1000RR, so we came out more or less even.
But that’s maybe 30 percent of why I enjoyed Driveclub so much. The bulk of my love for the game stemmed from its astonishing graphics and how they informed pretty much everything else that was great about it. I know that sounds extremely superficial, because we’re not supposed to like games — or, really anything — mostly for looking good. But I think whoever invented that rule wouldn’t have done so if they’d seen Driveclub.
It was a confluence of so many things replicated just right: the lighting and the way it perfectly captured the sheen of painted metal; the precision of the motion blur, which made the game look truly breathtaking at speed; the density of the foliage, and the shaders that made leaves glisten or left them matte, depending on the environmental conditions. Speaking of which, the weather effects. My god, the weather.
There’s really only one racing game today that I’d say looks better than Driveclub in motion, and you can probably guess what it is. But even Forza Horizon 5's weather has nothing on Driveclub’s. When the rain rolled in in Driveclub, as it did dynamically and often without much warning, it didn’t merely spit static drops on your windshield that effortlessly evaporated; it got in your way. And when that rain became snow and the sun went down, it legitimately made driving terrifying — just like it is in a blizzard, in real life.
The weather enhanced the locales too, which were sublime in their own right. I’m old school when it comes to racing games, in that I firmly believe there’s no substitute for engaging linear track design — not even an open world. And Driveclub’s tracks were on point. Sort of reminiscent of old-school Need for Speed before it went all Hot Import Nightsy, Driveclub was about exotic cars in the world’s most exotic natural scenery. It was like a playable luxury car ad, or a lavishly-filmed golden-era Top Gear segment. And I mean both of those things in the best way someone can.
And all of this holds up — if you ask me, anyway. I’m absolutely positive there’s somebody reading this ready to take Driveclub to task and invalidate my gushing because the game only ran at 30 frames per second, when anything less than 60 — even back in 2014 — was reprehensible to some people. Sure, I appreciate the responsiveness of a smooth framerate. Frankly, though, Driveclub looked so good — leaps and bounds beyond anything else then, and still damn near unassailable today — that I just didn’t care. I got used to it. Within 20 minutes of playing, you’d get used to it. Besides, the game would never have looked like that if it ran at 60.
Even when the online portion was borked, I played single player, because Driveclub’s world was one I wanted to drive in. The physics were engaging enough in a pseudo-realistic sense — best compared to something like Project Gotham Racing — and the engine sounds were satisfyingly visceral at a time when that was still rare to find in the genre. I’d put on a playlist I’d made of old tunes from Wipeout and Need for Speed, hit the ice-capped slopes of Hurrungane in the F50 or McLaren F1 LM, and never want for Forza or Gran Turismo.
I feel kind of terrible glorifying Driveclub today, though. Someone who never played the game will inevitably read this and want to give it a try. Unfortunately, you kind of can’t.
Oh sure — you can still get a physical copy of the base game, which has a generous number of offline events and 50 cars. But you’ll never be able to get the DLC add-ons, which more than double the number of vehicles. Or the Bikes expansion, or the extra career events. You won’t be able to compete in any multiplayer races or even take on your friends’ times, because the servers and all paid and free content were taken down in 2020.
This was very much a case of having to be there — something that’s absolutely maddening when talking about a video game, something that has no good reason not to live forever. When I got my hands on a PS5, the very first thing I did before selling my PS4 Pro was redownload all of the Driveclub content I’d purchased when the game was fresh, installing it and making sure it worked properly on the new console. Because it was that beautiful. It still is.