The last 12 months haven't been kind to DriveClub. From the game director's exit, the U-turns, disappointments and stealth edit scandals of the PS Plus Edition, the dodgy E3 showing and the lay-offs at Evolution, to the microtransactions, 30fps lock and hefty delay, the relentless spell of 'bad news' has caused fans drawn in by its initial promise to grow wary of its potential.
It's a problem made worse by Sony's long, awkward silences, teasing fans with more information ‘soon’ rather than addressing issues before they become widespread concerns. As one VideoGamer commenter put it last month, "DriveClub is very much becoming the Watch Dogs of driving: Intriguing and enticing to begin with, but as time goes on it's becoming increasingly disappointing."
"We certainly had a tough year," design director Simon Barlow tells us. "There's no doubt about it. [2013 was] probably the most difficult year we've had at the studio, largely because of the potential we saw in the game and the fact that the closer we got to launch the more we realised it wasn't quite going to hit those targets." Failing to hit that launch window could have resulted in a far bleaker outcome for DriveClub than just a year-long delay, Barlow suggests. "We were so lucky that Sony allowed us to [delay the game]," he continues. "They could very easily have said, 'You're releasing it or we're canning it'. They were the two options. The third option – we're going to delay it – was unexpected, I think."
The impact of that delay may come as a surprise to those following the project, too. Peel back the drama and you'll find that – actually – the last 12 months have been kind to DriveClub, with the changes made behind the scenes returning it to the "intriguing and enticing" prospect we had all hoped for to begin with. There's finally some positive news: DriveClub's great.
You'll know what to expect from the racing just by taking a look at last week's gameplay footage. Driving is fast and frantic, with the game's blistering sense of speed leading to intense rural showdowns as million dollar supercars glide through mountain ranges and trade paint across the countryside. Evolution has worked hard on improving the handling model since last year's underwhelming E3 demo and hurtling through corners is now a thrill rather than a twitchy wall-bouncing write-off. It's a little tighter than that of its closest competitors, with cars feeling slightly weightier than those in recent Codemasters titles and a little more natural than the drift-heavy motors of Need For Speed. Most importantly, racing is exciting – something last year's demo wasn't – and some of its track design is superb, delivered in a package accentuated by breakneck speed and breathtaking vistas. Heading into E3, DriveClub's the best-looking next-gen racer by a mile.
"30 frames per second gave us the capability to deliver worlds that look that good with no shortcuts," says game director Paul Rustchysnky. "There's no 2D crowds, there's no baked lighting; everything's real, everything's dynamic, every shadow is cast from a light source. We needed all that horsepower to deliver that visual splendour."
The extra year in development has given Evolution the opportunity to enhance its audio and visual tech significantly, and Rustchynsky says that the team has recently been able to implement full screen space reflection (SSR) to create much more accurate reflections than it had managed previously.
"The majority of games just use baked-in cube maps," he says, "and it's all these little details which are really coming together to push the PlayStation 4. While past PlayStation hardware has been fantastic to work with, we've been able to get up to speed so much quicker [on PS4] than any other PlayStation platform in the past. With this extra time we're learning new tricks, new techniques and we've been able to optimise even further to create this perfect visual experience."
"Perfect"? Probably not. But it's those delicate touches that help bring the game to life: the setting sun dazzling racers as they hurtle towards a cliff edge; the sunlight piercing through gaps amongst the trees; and – for those intending to plug in a Thrustmaster – the near-perfect 1:1 animation of the player's hands clutching the steering wheel. Turn the HUD off and switch to the cockpit view and DriveClub becomes one of the purest, most exhilarating console racers you’ll have played in a very long time.
One of the areas often cited as the reason for the game's delay, though, is the Dynamic Menu, a system built to accommodate DriveClub's Autolog-alike network. The interface is smart, actively pulling in information related to whichever game mode the player may be browsing at the time, but it isn’t particularly sexy, appearing to be little more than a series of activity feeds designed to keep players aware of the latest happenings across the community and within their club.
Up to six players can join each club, with each player competing together or alone to earn Fame, DriveClub's equivalent to PGR's Kudos. Fame is won or lost by your performance on the track, and used to level up your rank, unlock new cars and boost your team's reputation within the online community. And that sense of competition is ultimately the driving force behind DriveClub: it's all about getting one up on the other guy, and that determination to reach the top of the leaderboard can lead to fierce rivalries between clubs and intense edge-of-your-seat races.
The Dynamic Menu is separated into two areas: a tiled Recent Activity menu similar to PS4's What's New section that displays global activities from across the community, shared photos and your club's latest progress, and a Twitter-like Notifications list that alerts you to player-specific invites, challenges and news. Both are accessible from DriveClub's menus at the touch of a button and the point of it, Evolution says, is to let players quickly jump into races most relevant to them. Speed is such a priority, in fact, that Evolution boasts that the longest load time from menu to race currently stands at around 10 seconds – worlds apart from its work during the PS3 era.
The developer is looking to complement that speed and ease of use with its approach to multiplayer, too. While you're always competing with other clubs and players asynchronously, DriveClub's simultaneous multiplayer is formed around a new LIVE menu, an event browser that Rustchynsky says will let players "book a slot" in a specific multiplayer event seconds, minutes, hours or days ahead of it opening.
"Some of those races might be a few seconds away but they might also be half an hour away," he explains. "So I can say in 10 minutes time that's the race I want to be in, so I'll register for that slot. What will happen is, I'm playing DriveClub Tour and it'll bring me up a notification saying your race is ready, do you want to join? Anyone else in your party will also get that same notification and you can all be pulled into that same race."
While I've yet to see it in practice, I get the impression that LIVE has been built to make multiplayer races stand out as actual sporting events rather than generic online skirmishes, with racers from across different clubs competing within major events at specific times to prove their worth. It's a neat idea – one of the few specific to DriveClub – and one I hope we'll get to hear more about during next month's E3.
"What the game was 12 months ago is not exactly what the game is now," Barlow continues. "We had a clear indication of what DriveClub was and we knew the vision that we needed to execute on. The issues were that there was so much content that we wanted to try and put in, and so many ideas that we had, it was picking and choosing the correct ones... That's basically what my role has been since the turn of the year, to look at what we had and strip back all the extraneous layers that weren't working and expose that core nugget of game that is just so rewarding and so memorable, and that's the thing that people play."
But even with such an impressive re-reveal, DriveClub isn't out of the woods yet. While point-to-point races impress, the short, basic designs of the few circuit tracks I played disappointed, and there's a fear that there may not be enough variation within each of the five environments to keep interest levels high. The single-player Tour – even though I've only managed to glance at its menus so far – doesn't appear to be anything particularly special either, structured around the usual series of events that task players with completing objectives (finishing 1st, beating set times etc.) to earn stars and unlock later races. And that lack of spark could ultimately prove to be DriveClub's greatest hurdle. DriveClub's technical prowess and Evolution’s commitment to getting the fundamentals right is at odds with the seemingly uninspiring nature of some of its content, and its social USP is far from the revolution the developer would have you believe it is, largely borrowing ideas from existing, more established racers.
When people actually see the game in action (as last week's footage has already gone some way to prove), faith in DriveClub may quickly be restored. It is, to Evolution's credit, far and above the game it was last year and a far worthier contender to the crown than its previous demo suggested. But with that competitive release window threatening to nudge it out of the limelight Sony can't afford any more mistakes, and with its reputation already under scrutiny following earlier mishaps, convincing enough people to spend money on it day one rather than settle for the free PS Plus Edition may yet prove to be an ask too far.
DriveClub launches on PlayStation 4 on October 10.
This article was produced following a press trip to Evolution Studios, Runcorn. Travel and accommodation provided by SCEE.