Just under a year ago, DriveClub was not in a good place.
While the heat of a fiery E3 was yet to dissipate, Sony brought its selection of first-party PlayStation 4 games to the sticky cloister of a West End church. Killzone: Shadow Fall looked sumptuous, as did the open world of Infamous: Second Son, while Knack, well... Knack looked like Knack.
Most worrying of the bunch, though, was DriveClub, Evolution Studio's racing game that was at the time preparing to go up against the might of Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 5. Playing a game that was then only a matter of months away from release, your only hope was that somehow, amidst the fever of a crowded mid-summer event, the build had melted: how else to explain its murky visuals, its ill-defined handling and its lack of character?
Sitting down to play the latest iteration of DriveClub at this year's E3, it's hard to hide from game director Paul Rustchynsky the shock and surprise upon discovering that not only is this an improvement on that somewhat scrappy earlier build, but that it is also very, very good; a driving game with the handsome strut you'd expect of a platform exclusive, and with enough going on under the bonnet to distinguish itself from the unlikely glut of racers due out towards the end of the year.
DriveClub can certainly lay claim to being the prettiest of the bunch, thanks in part to its decision to veer away from the open worlds that lie at the heart of The Crew and Forza Horizon 2, and also in no small part thanks to the work of Evolution Studios. There is beauty in the cars, naturally, but what makes DriveClub stand out is the beauty in the environments: thick clouds cast moody shadows over Scottish glens, while blood orange suns set over vast Chilean landscapes.
It's all being complemented now by a full weather system being prepared for release soon after launch, and being shown off for the first time at E3. On the Scottish glens of Loch Duich, turbulent weather rolls in, skies thickening before bursting onto the roads. Crowds at the side of the track reach for their macs and umbrellas, winds tug at the trackside scenery while puddles form in the divots and dips of the road surface, as well as across the grass of the glens and across the gravel - Evolution's very, very proud of its gravel, and rightly so.
Over in Norway, dawn breaks over powdered mountains, sending a dreamy purplish blue out across the environment. The heat from the sun dynamically melts the snow, with northern-facing surfaces reacting first. As that sun sets and a storm rolls in, road-signs are reflected in the slicked tarmac, while headlights catch individual rain droplets. The attention to detail is underlined when Evolution pauses the action and sweeps through the static action, ascending up through the clouds - DriveClub's game world is rendered all the way to the heavens, some two kilometres up.
It's all enough to make you pine for a photo mode, though that's something being considered for inclusion post-release right now. The drip-feed of features such as the weather - which is due soon after launch, and sometime before Christmas - are all helpful in establishing the idea of DriveClub as a constantly evolving service, and it speaks of a developer enjoying the breathing space the delay has granted it.
"It was never something we were going to achieve for launch last year, but with the extra time we've been given to make sure the dynamic menu and connectivity were spot-on, we had more time to spend on making the cars look better, making the world look better and integrating new features like this," says Rustchynsky.
"We're at the point now obviously in the last stage of development where we're fixing bugs and waiting for launch - so now we're at the phase where we're thinking about what we can bring next to the game. We talked about DriveClub not just being a game that we put out and then it's done. We wanted to support it for a while, and to have a community that's active and alive, that there's always something new and fresh for them to do."
Thankfully, right now, the drier aspects of DriveClub such as its dynamic menu - an Autolog-like feed that points you towards your friend's recent activities - and its emphasis on community take a backseat to the more important business of sitting up front with a braying bucketful of horsepower at your fingertips. Given its asinine performance last year, it's a pleasure to report that DriveClub's currently acquitting itself rather well in this department.
On a DualShock 4 there's a sense of weight and consequence - the front-heavy mass of an SLS AMG takes a little brute force to snap into place - but on a wheel DriveClub really shines. The all-new Thrustmaster T300 that's launching alongside the game is a revelation - though it's worth noting, especially if you're over at Microsoft, that other wheels are supported - with 720-degree rotation unlocking a gratifying amount of nuance from the vehicles. Getting the SLS's elegantly oversized front end into corners requires quick and enthusiastic hands, and when the rear finally bites back there's a real joy in palming the wheel in an act of energetic balance.
It's as good a reminder as any of the somewhat redundant dichotomy between arcade and sim handling models - underneath DriveClub, as is the case in both Horizon 2 and most likely The Crew, there are handling models with real bite, gently muted in the name of accessibility but still capable of flashing their teeth from time to time. DriveClub doesn't quite have the pull of its competitors' truly open roads, but its wide, expansive landscapes provide the perfect illusion of automotive freedom.
Some 12 months on from an unconvincing debut, DriveClub has benefited from a remarkable makeover. Is it enough to shoulder the weight of being Sony's big first-party PlayStation 4 release for the tail-end of 2014? Perhaps not, but it's enough to ensure that, in a strangely busy time for the racing genre, DriveClub's in the best possible place it could be.