I grew up in the era of video gaming where "multiplayer" meant inviting a friend over and plugging another controller into the second port. But these new consoles have elevated the concept of multiplayer to a level we could never have imagined in the 1990s, and the PlayStation 4's first exclusive racing game Driveclub turns video game racing into a new kind of team sport.
(Full disclosure: Sony needed Travis and I to review Driveclub so badly they sent us advance copies of the game and PS4 consoles. We have to give the consoles back though. You never actually get to keep cool stuff when you're an auto journalist.)
I'm gonna be honest when I start this review by saying that I don't have a ton of context when it comes to modern video games. I was heavy into gaming as a kid but largely abandoned it after the PS2 era, thanks to a lack of free time and just kind of a waning interest in what was out there. (I did borrow a friend's PS3 so I could play Metal Gear Solid 4. I had to know how it all ended!)
So playing Driveclub is the most time I've spent with any racing game since Gran Turismo 4 some 10 years ago, and it is a very different animal. But while it's definitely not the most realistic racing sim out there — nor is it trying to be — it is a tremendous amount of fun, very addictive and accessible, and has some of the most innovative multiplayer features I've personally experienced yet.
Driveclub works like this: You start the game with a couple of hot hatchbacks, like the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, and as you complete races and individual challenges within those races — goals to be met like lap times and drifts — you gain points and unlock more cars and more events to partake in. Unlike Gran Turismo, there are no cars to be bought; they're all unlocked over time as you accumulate points in your races.
But you can't do it all alone. Not really. In order to unlock certain cars and events and other features, you need to start a club. A club for driving. A Driveclub! And that's where the social aspect of this game comes in.
You can start a club that includes up to six players total, including yourself, and then you can race with them against other players in online multiplayer. By racing as a club, you unlock even more cars and features that are otherwise inaccessible to you in single player mode. Cars like the BAC Mono, for example, are only open to you as you "level up" your club with more experience points. And even if you race solo, you still contribute to the points gained by the club itself.
Basically, it behooves you to join and participate in a club, which you can do with total strangers online or with your buddies. I started one and got Travis to join, which immediately unlocked a Volkswagen GTI for us, one of the better cars in the hot hatch class.
"Neat, I get to meet exciting car people online, and not just the normal weirdos who are always trying to touch my junk," you must be saying. "But how's the actual racing?"
And the answer is, it's pretty good. Driveclub definitely falls on the arcade racer side of things, rather than a full-blown sim like Gran Turismo or Forza. Yeah, the mechanics of racing — taking the right lines, braking in the right spots, etc. — are important because they'll get you through the course faster, but they aren't critical to your success. You can still barrel through a race and plow into your adversaries like it's a demolition derby.
The cars take damage, and you lose points for bumping other people or crashing into walls, but it never affects the way your car drives or whether it can even function at all. I was playing with a friend who actually rolled a CLA45 twice, and it kept on ticking and even finished the race. (Who says German engineering is a myth?)
But by the end of the race, your car can look like it's been to hell and back, which is a nice segue into my next point — the graphics. Visually speaking, this is the best racing game I have ever seen on a console. (IGN, a website that knows far more about gaming than I do, said the same.) The cars are beautifully detailed and the backdrops are breathtaking. It's all quite stunning to look at.
Also impressive are the game's lighting effects, which replicate real world weather conditions and can have a serious impact on your race. A bright sunset can make it tough to see a course, so as in real life, time and weather are something you just have to contend with during competition.
As for the cars at your disposal, they're mostly higher-end performance cars across various categories. They are all European, too, with the exception of the Hennessey Venom GT, and all newer, which is a little disappointing. If you want more diversity in age and nationality, go snatch up Forza Horizon 2 on the XBOX One.
My other gripe is that despite the fact that the developers recorded audio of the cars in the game, they all sound very similar; I've driven a GTI and a CLA45 in real life and they sound nothing alike, but they do in this game. There's also way too much intake noise, so fire up all those "vacuum cleaner" cracks you were saving for the next Gran Turismo.
But Driveclub's flaws are relatively few. It's a lot of fun, and like I said earlier, an addictive experience. Even when I wasn't furthering my club's bid for world domination, I found myself trying the in-race challenges over and over again, trying to get faster and better, trying to unlock all the cars I could.
It may not be the engrossing fantasy experience of Forza Horizon 2, nor the last word in racing simulations, but it's damn good, and it should keep speed-craving PS4 owners happy for a while.
Driveclub is available exclusively on the PS4 today.