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DriveClub vs DriveClub VR: the costs and benefits of virtual reality

Double the frame-rate and VR-enabled, Digital Foundry examines PSVR's most ambitious port.

It's one of PlayStation VR's most impressive titles. DriveClub VR is the best racer available for owners of Sony's HMD, and stands proud against many of its competitors running on much more powerful hardware. Clearly, visual compromises are made, but the final result still impresses: the sensation of being in the cockpit is immense, and finally, we actually get to see the racer running at the 60fps we always hoped for - 120fps if you factor in Sony's temporal upscaling. The question is - how was this achieved?

We've been looking at how PlayStation 4 Pro enhances the VR experience recently for an upcoming feature, but we wanted to break out DriveClub specifically for two reasons: first of all, to highlight the processes required in adapting one of the best-looking AAA PS4 titles to virtual reality. And secondly, because, well... DriveClub VR doesn't appear to have any specific Pro optimisations. We ran captures side-by-side and noted identical detail, resolution and draw distance. It may well be running in Pro mode for more stable performance, but the fact is that DriveClub VR is extremely stable to begin with on base hardware. Clearly, it's the likes of Robinson, Battlezone, Batman and Rigs that should be the focus of specific Pro VR testing.

But if our comparisons of base PS4 vs Pro turned up little of interest, stacking up those captures against the original game is a fascinating exercise. We spoke to the developer at Paris Games Week last year, and the team openly pointed out some sacrifices they had to make to achieve a VR version of DriveClub. Plenty of aspects stay the same of course; car model detail is matched, and the track dimensions are the same. There's an obvious drop in image quality with the VR feed here, due to a lower-than 1080p image being supplied to each eye, which is then dewarped for the social screen view in our social screen captures (which should be considered for content, not resolution). Compared to the single, native 1080p on the original DriveClub, there's no contest. But in terms of the core visuals, the first big difference between the two is obvious: the lighting.

Materials in the game still rely on physically-based properties, so to a point, light reacts to objects based on real-life values for the road, trees, and the cars themselves. A form of global illumination is also still used in VR, though a massively simplified version of it. A lot has been stripped out beyond that though. We've lost the deferred lighting model of the original DriveClub for one, now replaced in VR with a basic forward rendering process for light. What that means effectively, is the time of day doesn't change as you progress through a race - where before you could speed it up to 30x speed if you wanted.

Cover image for YouTube videoDriveClub VR vs DriveClub: The Price of Virtual Reality
An in-depth look at how DriveClub VR compares to the original game from a graphical perspective - effectively, the developer traded visual features for double the frame-rate plus full stereoscopic output.

The sun stays in a fixed position, and so do the shadows - meaning you can perhaps see on the original Driveclub shadows slowly shifting ahead of the VR in our above comparison. In fairness, you still get the option to select any time of day before a race, but once that's locked in, the lighting doesn't shift at all. Much of what was once dynamic in DriveClub is now set in place. That goes for the game's beautiful real-time reflections too. For the most part, these reflections are completely axed from the game in VR, notably on lakes across the Japan track, for example.

Other areas are dialled back too - like the number of AI cars, which goes down from 11 in the original to 7 for VR. DriveClub's weather and precipitation settings also can't be selected in VR, so there's no more rain, and no more puddles on the ground. You simply get a choice between clear, or cloudy skies - and atmospheric tricks like rolling clouds in the sky are also cut away. In other words, you can quickly see a theme building up here. The team at Evolution Studios took a lot of pride in doing all its lighting, reflections, and global illumination in real-time, or as close to it as possible, on the original PS4 release. It looks fantastic, and though plenty of racing games have come since, the focus on realistic lighting and weather simulation still sets it apart from the pack. But the move to 60fps, and achieving that frame-rate in VR, means we lose a lot of the game's original character in exchange for something else - immersion, presence in the virtual world.

Shadow resolution is lowered of course - another big casualty of the move to VR. There's no overlooking the huge cutbacks to track detail as well. Driving through the Japan circuit, all the crowds, fences, power lines, pagodas, and pathways are cut from the scene. Dynamic elements like flags that could flap in the wind, are missing too. There's no more confetti, or roadside flares either. And if you look close, normal map layers are also culled, removing road markings on tracks for example. Overall, the density of trees is dialled back to something like 70 per cent of the original game too - which in a sense means there's fewer shadows to render on the road.

Cover image for YouTube videoDriveClub Dynamic Weather Patch PS4 Frame-Rate Test
What we have are two very different interpretations of DriveClub. Some of the game's most beautiful features, like the dynamic weather system, remain unique to the original game.

The cost of 60fps in VR then, is pretty high. Bearing in mind how many people wanted the original DriveClub to have an optional 60fps mode, it's interesting to see this as a kind of alternate vision of the game. For the original DriveClub, Evolution studios took a lot of care to avoid any baking, or faking of lighting elements. It was the key selling point by the end - gorgeously rendered tracks from across the world, with dynamics that affected the way each car drove. What we get with all that stripped away leaves a duller game - but you have to appreciate the end goal here. It benefits from considerably smoother playback at 60fps/120fps and manages to output at that rate to two separate viewports in the VR headset. The result is a very different experience, but achieves precisely what it set out to do: DriveClub in a virtual reality.

There's nothing quite like it on PlayStation VR right now. It's one thing to look at the social screen feed and compare it to the crisper, sharper, and more visually fleshed out original. But when you have the headset on, the benefits speak for themselves. There's no way the original game can match the level of involvement you get in a VR race: checking corners by physically moving your head, or glancing at the rear and side mirrors. That added sense of depth perception means you can navigate a 3D space more accurately - it feels natural if you've ever driven a car. And for the first time, DriveClub in VR is playable at double the refresh of the standard game.

And in this sense, it's a shame that there will be no further development on DriveClub. It's an exceptional game in its base format, and its VR interpretation is very different, but still highly compelling. PlayStation 4 Pro could perhaps have brought the two closer to together - but even the same game presented in higher resolution with improved lighting on PSVR would be a dramatic improvement. For base PS4 hardware, even the ability to toggle on a '60fps mode' would be welcome. For the purist, for fans chasing the best lap times, it'd be a really neat addition the the package. Perhaps the business case just doesn't make sense for Sony any more, but there'll always be the sense that there's unfinished business with DriveClub, and with the original game having evolved into something truly special, the lack of any future sequel feels like a profound loss.