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Hands-on: Why DriveClub's delay was the right decision

By Chris Scullion on Thursday 22nd May 2014 at 3:00 PM BST

People often say "what a difference a day makes" when something has improved dramatically over a short period of time. Imagine, then, what a difference 326 days will make.

The metamorphosis of former PS4 launch title DriveClub shows exactly how valuable time can be for game developers.

DriveClub's delay, which saw the racer slip from its PS4 launch date of November 2013 to a rather less punctual October 2014, at first seemed unfortunate for developer Evolution Studio.

However, witnessing the game during a press event this month, it's clear that the extra construction time has done a world of good to improve a game that formerly featured many interesting ideas, but seemingly struggled to execute them.

Showing us the game's redesigned front-end and dynamic menu, it's now clearer to see what the original point of the game was. A straightforward main screen offers simple top-level options - Drive, My Profile, My Club, Settings - while the racer's real heart lingers in a separate screen below, a detailed activity hub providing a social network-style feed of news stories listing friends' recent accomplishments.

Selecting one of these stories displays context-sensitive options. If your friends recently completed a time-based challenge, you can jump in and take it on too. If they earned a crucial victory for their club, you can check out the club's profile page and, if there's a free membership slot open, apply to join.

"This is why we were delayed," game director Paul Rustchynsky tells us with a now-do-you-get-it tone (we do). "The quality wasn't there. It wasn't seamless, it didn't have that invisible layer that made everything run seamlessly."

"It's now clearer to see what the original point of the game was"

The inner workings of the club system are also less of a mystery now. Clubs have a maximum of six members, and can take part in club-only challenges where each member lays down their best performance and the best group effort wins.

These challenges are endless because they're community-generated - players can set them up whenever they like, offering either select individuals, clubs or the rest of the world a time to beat based on one of their previous records.

Not only can individual players earn experience points (called fame here), clubs can too. Each member's contributions build their club's fame, levelling it up (to a maximum of 50) and unlocking exclusive livery and cars in the process.

Is Plus a minus? The PlayStation Plus version of DriveClub contains 10 cars and one country (India), containing 5 tracks with a total of 11 distinct layouts. Rustchynsky tells us he objects to it being called a demo, however.

"I think anyone who calls it a demo is definitely underselling the experience," he explained. "You've got full multiplayer and you've got part of the single-player: you can go into Single Event and set it up with any car and track available in the PS Plus edition. You can join a club, create a club, set challenges, it's a feature-complete version of the game ultimately. You can even unlock all the trophies, including the Platinum, and play through it as a normal player would."

He went on to confirm to CVG that the full game features 50 cars and five countries, offering a total of 25 tracks with a total of 55 layouts. This essentially means the Plus version is exactly one-fifth the size of the full game.

Of the game's 50 cars, five can only be unlocked by reaching certain levels in your club. If you leave the club, the cars are locked again. It's an incentive to not only stay in the club but stay active, because if you aren't pulling your weight and your clubmates are, with only six membership slots up for grabs they might well boot you for another more willing alternative.

Much as Evolution will insist the main reason for DriveClub's delay was so that it could work on this new club and challenge system, there were clearly other elements that caused concern when the game was shown in the past, the most obvious being the game's level of visual detail.

Zoom

Almost every game looks poorer during development, but DriveClub's apparent near-finished state last year had many worrying that it simply didn't look good enough for what was supposed to be 'next-gen'. The Xbox One's Forza 5 looked notably superior, leaving many at last year's E3 underwhelmed by what they had seen.

Once again though, we 'get it' now. DriveClub looks significantly better than it did a number of months ago, finally catching the slipstream of Microsoft's racer and overtaking it in the detail stakes.

Cars are breathtakingly modelled, with each featuring ridiculously tiny details. There was no catch-all cookie-cutter formula used to make the car modelling easier, instead each car was meticulously sculpted with unique traits added to each to ensure they behaved exactly like the real-life versions.

Take the Pagani Huaraya, the car that currently holds the record for going around Top Gear's test track in the fastest time. Not only does it look identical - right down to the pattern of the carbon fiber coating used in the internal decors - it also features the real car's unique front and rear aerodynamic flaps that raise and lower as you race, just as they do in real life. And, as in real life, individual flaps raise independently if you're taking a corner.


Slideshow: The anatomy of the Pagani Huaraya



Locations are similarly stunning, with full day/night cycles highlighting the game's impressive dynamic lighting. As the wind blows, trees shake accordingly and even the clouds - which also directly affect the lighting depending on where they are in the sky - move in the right direction.

Driving through India, bystanders throw confetti as you pass them: dangerous but delightful. Others release balloons, while parking next to a flowery bush lets you see its pink blossoms blowing off in the wind, wafting onto the road and dancing along it with each gust.

At times you could argue it's almost too detailed. At night the stars in the sky aren't just randomly applied, they're the accurate constellations based on that location and time according to NASA data.

The moon, meanwhile, is over-exposed and glows bright to help you see in the dark, but that glow actually hides a detailed moon model with craters and the like. "You'll probably never see those craters," art director Alex Perkins tells us, "but we like knowing they're there".

This arguably unnecessary interest in intricacies may irk some who are upset that DriveClub is rendered at 1080p but 'only' runs at 30 frames per second. Rustchynsky is adamant this isn't an issue, however.

"It's 1080p and 30 frames per second," he told us defiantly. Then, with perhaps a slight dig at Microsoft's 1080p/60fps equivalent, he added: "That allowed us to deliver the detail on the cars, push the audio, it's given us the capability to deliver what we wanted. No 2D crowds, no baked lighting."

The thirty-frame war We suggested to Rustchynsky that given the nature of the internet, comparisons to Forza 5 will be inevitable, especially since Microsoft's game runs at 60 frames per second compared to DriveClub's 30.

"We're prepared for it because I think we made the right decision overall," he replied. "I mean, you can see the lengths we've gone to to really capture every little detail, from the almost microscopic to the huge vistas and volumetric clouds, stuff like that. Then you've got the cars: they're all a million-plus polygons in-race. And all this is backed up with full dynamic lighting, social integration, unmatched audio and handling which we feels has hit that sweet spot between simulation and arcade: it's both accessible and deep. And every little thing had to take up some of that processing time.

"I don't think we've made any compromises either. We spent a huge amount of time making sure the latency between your input and what happens on screen, and the tactile response you get from that isn't compromised by choosing 30 frames so I feel we've made the right choice."

The proof of the pudding is in the eating though, so we were also given the opportunity to go hands-on with the game to make sure the realism also extends to the handling and overall feel.

During a short presentation before our play test, Rustchynsky showed off the game by playing a race on a street course set in India. As his presentation concluded he used the game's 'dynamic' menu to send his performance to all the PS4s in the room in the form of a 'Challenge'.

Accepting the challenge launched us immediately into the same race on the same course in the same car - a great way to compete in a sort of asynchronous way against everyone in the room.

The car in question was the gorgeous Ferrari F12 Berlinetta; the Maranello firm's latest flagship 730hp, 6.3L V12 powerhouse, and it looks fantastic in the game. But what really struck us immediately, as we drooled over the visible carbon fiber weave on the Ferrari's expensive-looking steering wheel, was how incredible it sounds.

"DriveClub looks and sounds impressively realistic, but it's certainly not a hardcore simulator to play."

Evolution has done a truly remarkable job of capturing engine notes in DriveClub - something that the Gran Turismo series has struggled to do over the years - and the orgasmic roar of the 12-cylinder Ferrari engine was the perfect demonstration of this. You'll want to play this game on a proper sound system.

DriveClub looks and sounds impressively realistic, but it's certainly not a hardcore simulator to play. Think of it as a half-way-house between arcade and sim, perhaps leaning slightly on the side of realism, but without the ignorant brutality of a dedicated racing sim. You definitely have to brake for turns and be mindful of cornering speeds and varying levels of traction, but you don't need to be the next Lewis Hamilton to grab these cars by the scruff of the neck.

The game's slight arcade feel makes it approachable and easy to get stuck into without being a master of racing lines or trail-breaking, yet it takes a more mature approach to racing than games like Ridge Racer - there are no crazy 140mph power-slides around hairpins. In fact, tight corners and hairpins are a real ego check. You can blast in at alarming speeds and stamp on the brakes ludicrously late - far later than a sim would allow - but the game will punish you for being overly ambitious.

It affords you an arcade-like abundance of grip when all four wheels are in line with each other, right up until you break traction, and then you lose a ton of momentum. Unlike in a hardcore sim, the cars in DriveClub break loose in a smooth and progressive way that's easy to control with a well-timed serving of opposite-lock, but it's not the fastest way around the track.

Close Close

If you rock into a turn too hot and yank the steering wheel in the direction you hope to head in, the car breaks loose; that on-rails obedience goes out the window and you find yourself on a one-way trip to the outside barrier. You can tap a wall and largely get away with it, but slam a barrier sideways and it takes what feels like forever to get back up to pace. The AI is quick to punish you for such mistakes.

Our play test was brief, but it was enough to confirm that DriveClub is a fast game with narrow, thrilling courses that hurl turns at you in quick succession, and cars that, with solid driving technique, can blast around them at an alarming pace. Detailed environments, roaring engine notes and intricate touches such as the visible vibration of the road coming up through the suspension of the car offers a satisfying and visceral sense of speed throughout the race. And, most importantly, it is fun.

What once may have potentially threatened to be a game whose ambition far exceeded its execution has, with this extra year of development, become one that actually seems capable of delivering on its initial promise.

It looks great, it feels right, the community features are interesting: all that remains to be seen is whether the final game can maintain this positivity for the apparent hundreds of hours it expects its fanbase to commit to it.

As unlikely as this would have sounded six months ago, in DriveClub we trust.

Additional reporting: Mike Jackson

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