Amid the great Driveclub U-turn the future looked bleak for many of the people at Evolution Studios.
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?
The name never did it any favours, really. Neither did the fact it struggled to live up to its blandly ridiculous moniker at launch; as part of the well-documented troubles that surrounded DriveClub's already heavily delayed release, the clubs that formed an integral part of Evolution's vision for its PlayStation 4 exclusive just didn't work. Now the drama has died down, and unfortunately a studio died along with it, it's tragically clear that part of the equation never mattered that much anyway. All that really mattered was the one thing that DriveClub got right: the driving.
DriveClub's other tragedy is how its real talents have only properly come into focus now that Evolution Studios is no more. It was no less than a disaster for quite a time, missing the PS4 launch window by a clear 12 months and being riddled with errors that ranged from design oversights to servers that refused to stand up. What started out as a deeply flawed game was ushered towards being a very good one thanks to post-release updates that introduced variable weather and, much later, a hard-edged simulation handling model that allowed its handsomely modelled physics to bare their teeth. The last posthumous update has truly pushed DriveClub towards greatness.
What's so great about version 1.28, a 6GB patch that carries signs of being the last significant update to DriveClub? It's how it strengthens a link between Evolution's game and the previous king of racers that reigned the middle ground between arcade excess and the more exacting nature of a sim. Project Gotham Racing toed a perfect line between precision and panache, and the 15 tracks introduced by way of the new update help DriveClub do the same. It helps, of course, that they all have a very strong urban flavour.
Sincere apologies to whoever decided it was a good idea to put the rubbish and recycling out on a Sunday night in whatever strange fictional Scottish town it is that's been introduced to DriveClub as part of its latest update. Those two handsomely rendered bins have been sacrificed to the stubby nose of a McLaren 650S that was oh-so-delicately balanced on its throttle, lost in a perpendicular arc propelled by noisy horsepower as scraps of paper scattered over lamp-lit streets.
It's taken 18 months and plenty of updates, but it's fair to say that DriveClub has finally got me - I went from bored and frustrated with Evolution's PlayStation 4 exclusive racer at launch to mildly impressed last summer, but it's only now I'm fully in love. This isn't the DriveClub that released with stuttering servers, and it's not even the DriveClub you might have played when it finally hit PlayStation Plus. The latest update is the most radical yet, and it's fair to say it completely changes the way DriveClub is played. It's like coming back to your humble family Golf and finding out someone's shoehorned a caterwauling V12 under the bonnet.
What's new? First, there's that all-new location, Scotland's Old Town which is available in three variants, which does all it can to cement DriveClub as an heir of sorts to Project Gotham Racing's throne. There's always been a charmingly 90s flavour to the no-frills arcade racing that Evolution's plied with this, and that's only enhanced when you're swinging the back end of a supercar out while the front wheels ride up against the pavement of a street corner, shop-fronts blurring by in a rush of implausible speed. Still yearning for a Project Gotham Racing 5? Take a look at DriveClub in its new more urban setting and you may well be satisfied - it's certainly close enough.
UPDATE: After our article went live, Sony's Shuhei Yoshida tweeted Evolution's Paul Rustchynsky, saying that "you need to explain the game runs at 60fps but gets converted to 120fps with reprojection before sent to the VR headset".
Severely delayed, hobbled at launch and with key features being drip-fed throughout its lifespan, in many ways DriveClub has been the poster child of this generation of consoles to date: a fractured beast that's taken a long, painful time to find its feet. And so it is that, nearly nine months after the release of Evolution's driving game, the PlayStation Plus version that's advertised on the back of every launch PlayStation 4 box is finally here. So what's changed, and is DriveClub worth returning to?
Even before launch, DriveClub was a divisive title, provoking a range of different opinions, but its fortunes weren't helped by the total collapse of the online component, souring what was - in our view, at least - an otherwise great arcade-style racing game. However, in the wake of the disaster, Evolution has been working hard to put things right. As things stand right now, the connectivity problems are resolved, plenty of new features are added to the mix, and the first pieces of DLC have been handed out for free. In terms of new features, photo mode arrived a few weeks back, but the real star of the show is the game's brand new dynamic weather system.
It's been a long road for DriveClub, initially slated for release alongside the launch of the PlayStation 4, delayed until early 2014, then pushed back again to Q4 - a decision-making process that yielded genuine dividends based on our experience with the game at E3 and Gamescom. During this extended development period, Evolution Studios' original goal of 60fps racing gave way to a more realistic 30fps target, using the extra rendering time per frame to create state-of-the-art effects work worthy of the generational leap represented by the PlayStation hardware. The result is a game that is beautiful to behold, and considerably more impressive than the shaky builds of 2013.
In our first technical preview of DriveClub last year we had Evolution Studios' racer down as a promising, if rough-edged effort - a pre-alpha build that clearly needed work. And sure enough, its appearance at Sony's 2014 Gamescom conference has shown a project revitalised in all the right areas. The frame-rate is smoother, the landscape detail massively upgraded, while a slew of new effects and lighting tricks are added. It looks like a whole new game.
It's been a fantastic year for Sony and the PlayStation 4, with a whopping 10m consoles sold. But there have been bumps along the road.
The Last Guardian remains missing in action years after it was announced. It's been in development for so long it's becoming a bit of a running joke.
There's also the issue of the delay to Evolution's racing game DriveClub. It was once due out alongside the PS4 in November 2013. Now, it'll launch almost a year later, going up against the likes of Forza Horizon 2, Project Cars and The Crew.
Just under a year ago, DriveClub was not in a good place.
Earlier this month it emerged that PlayStation 4-exclusive racing game DriveClub includes micro-transactions - and it caused quite a stir.
Sony's PlayStation executives hope with PS4 this time things will be different. This time, Sony launches alongside Microsoft, not 16 months afterwards like with PS3. This time, Sony is cheaper than Xbox, not hundreds of pounds more. And this time, Sony is taking a gamer-first approach - and that, it seems, is translating into real world business.
"I'm not directly managing third-party relations," says Shuhei Yoshida, when I ask him a question that pretty much has nothing to do with the area of Sony Computer Entertainment for which he is responsible.