Let's take a second to salute Driveclub, the PlayStation 4 launch title that missed the launch, and then stalled upon its final release thanks to a number of technical gremlins and design oversights. Despite that drama, it flourished into something quite remarkable - a muscular racer with a touch of Project Gotham Racing's flair to its handling and some of Gran Turismo's polish in its impeccable looks. Against the odds, it became what's set to be one of this generation's finest driving games.
All of which wasn't enough to save developer Evolution Studios, sadly, but given the trials of Driveclub this is a bunch that's used to facing up against a little adversity. When Sony decided to draw the curtain on 17 years of making racing games for the Runcorn outfit, the story didn't end there and now, over 18 months on from Evolution Studio's closure, the same team works out of the same Cheshire studio in the same genre.
"Sony wanted to support us and do what they could so we could stay together as a team," says Paul Rustchynsky, Driveclub's game director and the man who oversaw its transformation from its troubled early days to its final form. "Most of us had worked together - I've been here 13 plus years, some of the guys have been here even longer, and we love working together. We've got a shared passion for making racing games, and we wanted to do whatever we could to keep the team together and move on. The great thing was Codemasters happened to be looking for a new studio, we spoke to them and they wanted the whole team - it was a seamless transition."
There was a mere 28 days between the studio being closed and it reopening once again with Codemasters' name over the door. A final, pleasing coda came when the studio's new game made its debut on Sony's stage at last month's Paris Games Week - while back in Runcorn Rustchynsky and his team crowded together in the office screening room, watching a live stream in anxious excitement.
And there in Paris, sandwiched between Call of Duty and Star Wars Battlefront, the team's new game made its debut; an arcade racer that proudly carries on the lineage of the team behind MotorStorm and Driveclub. Onrush is a bawdy, bruising racer that looks to redefine the genre, while returning it to its sparky past. From that short trailer alone, and considering the studio's heritage, it looks like it could be something very special indeed.
"Myself and Jamie [Brayshaw], the assistant director, we sat in the pub prior to joining Codemasters, and chatting about what sort of racing game we want to make," says Rustchynsky. "We both said to ourselves, what are our favourites? What would we like to see come back? We both loved SSX, we both loved Burnout and Motorstorm, so we thought about how we could take the best elements of those to make a racing game."
Onrush heads into a uncontested space, with the arcade racer having lain relatively dormant for the last few years (save a handful of exceptions such as the exquisite and unfairly overlooked Trackmania Turbo). Even then, it's not content to be a straight take on the genre; instead, it's something that sounds impressively bold.
"There's no concept of position or startline or finishing position as such," explains Rustchynsky. "It's all about scoring points. So, if you wreck it doesn't matter - it's an opportunity to be put back in the pack, in the thick of it, to fight to score more points. If you fall behind, we put you back in the pack. If you race ahead, we put you back in the action. It's essentially all 24 vehicles on one track, racing around our version of off-road heaven.
"We feel like we're redefining many rules of racing. Racing's very much a part of it - going fast, flying around corners, going over massive jumps, that's all there, but we're removing a lot of the frustrations. We've worked with racing games a long, long time, and as much as we love the genre there are so many kind of niggles that we want to address. Those rage inducing moments when everyone crashes out on the first corner. The spreading of the pack. We know racing is most fun when you're side by side, bumping into one another, and we wanted to double down on that. How do we get to have that all the time?"
Onrush places an emphasis on vehicular combat, then, but it does so without resorting to weapons. Instead it's about different classes facing off against each other in interesting ways - and making sure there's always an option, no matter what you're piloting. Bikes might be easily swatted aside, for example, but the tracks are built with verticality that only smaller vehicles can exploit, giving them an opportunity to attack from above.
All that ambition and it's coming out remarkably soon, with release pencilled in for next summer. Given how recently it seems that the shutters were drawn on Evolution Studios, that's quite the turnaround.
"We started completely from scratch," says Rustchynsky of Onrush's underlying tech. "There's nothing we were able to take over from previous projects. But we've got a number of fantastic things to start off with - we've got all the lessons we've learned. By the end of Driveclub we understood some of the mistakes we'd made, and how we could do things better. And working in collaboration with Codemasters, with the people who make F1 and Dirt Rally, speaking to all the people from their tech teams and their graphics teams, utilising their knowledge we built a brand-new engine from scratch to hopefully take full advantage of DX12, Xbox One X, PS4 Pro, and build upon everything we've learnt from the past."
If it can build in anyway on the legacy of Evolution Studios, and of Driveclub, then Onrush could be in a very good place. "When we walked away from Driveclub I was really happy with what we'd managed to achieve," says Rustchynsky. "We'd been able to listen to the community, support their needs and desires, and ultimately make a racing game we could be really proud of. Sure, there were a few hiccups along the way but where we ended up was fantastic. It's a game that everyone here can be proud of. Looking back at it three years after launch, it's still a decent racing game that holds up against the opposition. I still play it to this day, too."
Rustchynsky and his team in Runcorn managed to defy the odds to make one of the best driving games of the generation. With a decent tailwind behind them, here's hoping they can repeat the trick with Onrush.