DriveClub doesn’t have it easy. It’s not the only racer to launch on Sony’s new PlayStation 4 later this year, and it faces competition from within: Polyphony’s Gran Turismo 6, which will release on an existing platform around about the same time, no doubt with considerable marketing. But against EA’s flashy Need for Speed and the promise of Ubisoft’s lovely looking The Crew, Evolution’s plucky, brave community-based racer might just show the world that maybe, just maybe, there’s enough here from the boys in Liverpool to make this one stand out.
After all, despite Matt Southern’s February debut, where he revelled over the stitching in the fabric and the minutiae in the detailing, DriveClub isn’t for the hardcore. It’s for everyone, regardless of their ability to actually drive. And it’s for those that are as happy engaging in a rich community on their iPhone, miles away from a PS4. Indeed, as Col Rodgers, Evolution’s Game Director on the project tells me during a recent presentation, the game caters for “a group of people who expect more from a racing game than just needing to win.”
And he’s got a point. DriveClub isn’t all about your times, your driving skill, your ability to read the road ahead or even keeping your car on the road. “Think about any major sporting event,” says Rodgers, “the World Series, the EUFA Champions League – it’s all about teams, it’s all about clubs. Clubs bring people together – your friends, when they need you, and you can bask in their glory when they win. For the first time ever in a racing game, we’re going to give you the opportunity to do exactly that.” It sounds like a script, but he’s right – DriveClub is trying something different.
Rodgers explains that the concept has been brewing for close to a decade. It’s an ambitious design, and no-one’s ever done this before because “before PlayStation 4, it was never possible.” Rodgers cites the PS4′s built-in networking and community features – “there’s never been a console before that has had connectivity at the core of its hardware design,” he explains, before reminding us of PlayGo – the system integrated into the console that lets gamers start playing whilst the game is still downloading. “You’ll be up and running in minutes,” he says, presumably exaggerating the speed of most people’s connection.
But DriveClub isn’t limited to the PlayStation 4. It’s one of the first games to really push beyond the core device, with the Vita, smartphones and tablets all able to connect in and interact with your club and the wider game. The Game Director even confirms that you’ll be able to “watch your friends play wherever you’ve got an internet connection”, regardless of whether you’ve got your PlayStation 4 with you or not. That’s a bold claim, but it just goes to show that the game is reaching well beyond what we’d normally expect of a title in the genre.
This won’t just be an in-browser webpage, either. Rodgers says they’re putting out “support applications” for all the major mobile phone platforms, suggesting there’ll be dedicated apps that’ll connect into Evolution’s dedicated servers for the game, skipping around the PSN and dialing straight into your club, your community.
“It’s all about playing together,” explains Rodgers,” and it’s all about teams.”
And it’s not just about racing online, with the developers taking their experience with MotorStorm: RC’s addictive asynchronous modes which saw you competing for times against your friends’ ghosts, and everyone else around you on the leaderboards. They weren’t racing live, but it was just as good as, and everytime you beat them they got a message letting them know. For a good while, it was the only game I played, and that sort of connectivity suited the way I personally game more than anything ‘live’. DriveClub taps into that with huge success.
But back to the track. “DriveClub lets you do exactly what you want to do,” adds Rodgers. “If you want to aim for the apex, you go for it; if you want to slide around every corner, showboating for the crowd, you can do exactly that.” DriveClub’s set up for what Evolution are calling Face-offs and Overdrives, a series of challenges left around each course by the game’s designers and – crucially – other clubs. Overdrives can be anything from drifting around corners to maximum speed checkpoints, and they pepper each track keeping everything fresh.
Your success at these intermissions feeds into your ‘fame’ score – think Kudos - which is kept separate from the actual lap times but at the end of each event is worth just as much as your ability to finish first. “Every time you play, you win,” says Rodgers, “and there’re tonnes of ways to win.”
What hasn’t been discussed a great deal yet is DriveClub’s ‘service model’ system. When you buy DriveClub, you’re buying entry into a club, a pack of cars and a nice range of courses to drive and race on. But the game will only be partially complete. “We’ll make sure that the community grows,” says Rodgers, “and we’ll keep supporting the game. This won’t be a game that disappears from the shelves in no time at all, because it’s going to grow. We’ll feed new content to the game every week.” Rodgers mentions something called “DriveClub Live”.
“New tracks, new game modes, new cars,” he explains. He’ll later talk about the ability to actually change the core game itself, perhaps integrating weather conditions. For how long? “Throughout, ” he confirms, “for the indefinite future. If you’re interesting in socialising, and you’re interested in cars, DriveClub is the place to be.”
“Even though we’ve gone for the biggest and brightest now”, he tells me, talking about the car range on show during the demo, “there’s all sorts of stuff that we’re going to cover.” Hot hatches were mentioned, but the team wouldn’t be drawn on what was the ‘slowest’ car in the game. “And the game you buy on day one,” he adds, “isn’t going to be the same game you play a year down the line. It will have evolved a lot. We can make changes in the background, too, you’ll log on the next day and there’ll be something better, or bigger.”
That’s DriveClub’s angle. That’s what sets it apart from the sterile but perfectly balanced Gran Turismo – that connectivity, that social networking, that desire to be part of a club – the best club – and get that club to the top of the leaderboards. It’s akin to what Test Drive Unlimited tried to do, but several steps on, with everything much tighter integrated and with that all important asynchronous racing for when you won’t want to be (or can’t be) fully online and involved in multi-player. The game’s persistence will carry on without you.
“The PlayStation 4 is the most powerful console from a graphics point of view that’s ever existed,” says Rodgers. The team’s especially proud of their “accurately simulated clouds” and the realistic lightning. “None of this is baked,” he says, in perhaps a dig at Turn 10′s Forza 5. “Everything is live – if you want to be in a certain geographical location at a certain time of day it’ll appear exactly as it would in real life. Even the stars are correctly mapped in the sky.”
“We love cars,” he smiles, finally moving onto the topic we’re there for. Rodgers explains he’s owned over fifty cars in his eighteen years of driving – “including some pretty bonkers stuff” – and drops an anecdote about Evolution’s lead car artist rejecting a car model because it had the wrong screw on a floor plate. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but it’s a story intended to demonstrate that the studio are serious about accurately transposing these top end cars into a game with unwavering attention to detail. “Attention to detail,” Rodgers remarks with another smile.
And then there’s the final trick, the Trojan Horse that is the PlayStation Plus version. A ‘lite’ edition of DriveClub, which Evolution’s Paul Rustchynsky tells me will be “available day one” and will be “virtually the entire game except for some of the assets, it won’t necessarily have all of the cars and all of the tracks, but the online multiplayer, the asynchronous challenges, the single player campaign – it’s all there.”
It means that from the off the game will be populated by everyone with Plus (and of course, everyone that buys the game on a Blu-ray disk or from the PSN Store) – a huge launch day influx of gamers of all skill levels forming clubs, racing against each other and setting challenges. Offering the cut-down version of the game (albeit one with the actual core game intact) is a hugely smart move by Sony, getting the game onto as many PlayStation 4s as possible should hopefully cement DriveClub as the go-to racer.
Will it succeed? DriveClub’s betting is fairly spread out – it’s not just about a handling model, it’s not just about cars, it’s not just about amazing visuals and it’s not just about a social network: it’s about a blend of everything, with just enough of each to make it tick the right boxes. There are prettier racers, there are more realistic racers, but Evolution have aimed beyond such objective qualities and opted to make the game a wider experience, a social one, a long-term one. The vehicle, in the strictest sense of the word, is just that.
DriveClub releases alongside the PS4 this November.