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Is DriveClub finally up to speed?

Returning to Evolution's PS4 exclusive nine months on.

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?

The way we cover games has certainly changed in the time since, and after a turbulent end to 2014 that saw the likes of Assassin's Creed Unity, The Master Chief Collection and DriveClub endure troubled launches we were moved to tweak our review system to better reflect this new world of day one patches and shifting online services. Returning to Mike's original review, a snapshot of DriveClub pre-launch before its updates, and before its servers fell down, much of his criticism stands. The slightly bland veneer to its world and its racing remains, and beyond the glistening visuals it's still hard to pinpoint what exactly Evolution is doing here that hasn't been done before, and often done quite a bit better.

Capture it in the right light and at the right time and DriveClub looks fantastic - it's worth investing in just to see what your PlayStation 4 can do.

Yet in the long months since, through the aches and pains and via a handful of significant updates, something has happened to DriveClub that makes it worth playing. Slowly but surely, Evolution's vision has come into focus, and what's emerged is a preening, muscular arcade racer, an heir apparent to the likes of Project Gotham Racing. Beneath a game wrapped up in the foibles of the modern age there's an example of a genre that was long thought to be consigned to history.

DriveClub's a brutally simple game - there's none of the soaring ambition here of Forza Horizon or The Crew - but what it does it does well. The handling is divisive, but personally I love its weight, and the real sense of consequence it lends to each of the cars. There's something beautiful about heaving on the anchors and feeling the speed liberally chunked off the car as you lurch it towards each corner. And what sense of speed! The narrow tracks and up-close perspective offered by Evolution (especially in the dash cam, which is surely the way to play) makes for an electric thrill, your heart rising up your throat as the MPH is piled on.

Such spectacle is deepened with the weather effects that were added soon after release: watching globules of water course across your windscreen, gathering together as they dance in motion with the g-forces and catch the fading light of a moody Chilean evening, offers up one of those moments that lets you know you're playing on a new generation of hardware. It's pure technical showboating, and is all the more welcome for that, the PS4's equivalent to all that choppy water in WaveRace 64 or the Mode 7 swoop of F-Zero.

DriveClub remains at its best when its spectacle and its handling go hand in hand, when hot-lapping one of the courses in its expanded, expansive track list and when you're able to occasionally stop and soak it all in via the comprehensive photo feature. There's something hypnotic to be found in the hefty handling, and in the straight-up challenge of besting a lap-time, all strung together by the micro challenges the game folds in.

DriveClub absolutely excels when it's one car against an empty track, and its challenges help impart meaning upon every stretch of tarmac, and when it dares you to keep your foot planted that little longer to bring your average speed up, or to flick the tail-end out even more aggressively as you rack up the drift points. There's a certain naivety to DriveClub's point-to-point courses and its fictional tracks, but there's also a joyful simplicity to it all: in its element, this is a charmingly old-fashioned take on the driving genre that's been embellished with a few welcome mod cons.

The track penalties that proved irksome before have been tweaked, but the AI remains pretty dumb - something which has rubbed off on other players when racing online, it seems.

Beyond the hot lapping and the challenges, though, DriveClub remains a strange, often limp game. Its races are a maddening thrum of multi-million pound bumper cars, both online and off, and its single-player tour is a lifeless sprawl you have to chip away at rather than ever becoming fully immersed in. None of that's helped by a dumb progression system that locks cars away behind levels, enforcing a grind the game's content can never quite withstand, and it's backed up by an accolade system that's equally mindless. The tangle of progression points makes it feel like Xzibit was sitting there in design meetings, goading the team along: Hey dawg, I heard you liked RPG systems in your racing games...

The social elements, too, fall flat - the micro in-game challenges aside, nine months with DriveClub have proven that there's little to distinguish what's been achieved here from the ubiquitous features that have followed in the wake of Need For Speed's Autolog (and online leaderboards are hardly a novelty, even if they're becoming more dynamic).

Somewhere between those half-filled promises and those beautiful vistas glimpsed through rain-smeared windscreens emerges the strange contradiction that is DriveClub. It's a console launch game - solid, showy yet never particularly ambitious - that missed the launch window, and one that still managed to have a false start after all those delays. Now that it's finally up to speed, it's established itself as an interesting, enjoyable throwback to another age of driving games, even if it remains a good couple of steps away from greatness.

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