Driveclub review: The Stepford Drives

You choose what you look like in Driveclub, which adds a tinge of humanity to a game characterized by competitive pieces of metal orbiting a scenic road at high speed. It may seem like a trifling detail, just a simple tweak to the biped behind the wheel, but it's the subtle setup for what Driveclub is really about: a human trying to purge all emotion and blend in with a community of robot race-car drivers.

The computer-controlled drivers infuse their route with a glorious, mechanical perfection – slingshotting around insane curves as sunlight ripples across their Mercs and Paganis. Who wouldn't want to be part of such calculated beauty? Who would not want to fit snugly into a 12-car snake slinking around the corner?

It's a shame the repercussions of failing to fit in are so severe. It's a tiresome thing to be bumped, smashed and shoved off the road repeatedly because you failed to synchronize with the unspoken movements of the robot hive-mind. It's an infuriating slog to play against Driveclub's belligerent artificial intelligence and forsake humanity.

Thankfully, other humans are a lifeline running throughout Driveclub, which is otherwise a straightforward circuit racing game with a personality problem (the absence of one). The game's most modern aspect is its best, with a cleanly integrated social component framing competition around other players regularly and without effort.

To truly enjoy Driveclub and ignore the demands of its abusive AI, you have to form or join a racing club with friends online. Your accomplishments will funnel into the club's level of fame as well as your own, with your driver level and club level serving to unlock snazzier and faster vehicles. Clubs can issue track- and time-based challenges to one another, drivers can challenge friends, friends can challenge clubs and generally everyone can remove their fancy gloves and slap them across someone's smug Facebook profile photo.

Driveclub's slick, snappy menu presents an infinite feed of what friends and other clubs have been up to in the game, and provides access to a friend list at the press of a button. Issuing challenges is almost thoughtless after a while – you simply complete an event, select it in a history of the events you've completed with their associated lap times, and then blast it out in the direction of your choosing (it'll show up for others as a native notice on the PlayStation 4 dashboard). You can also determine the amount of time the challenge will be active, anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. If you think you've really set a fast time around a circuit in Canada, for instance, you can let your taunt stand long enough to watch your friends fill up the leaderboard belonging to that individual event.

Driveclub also seeds its tracks with mini challenges, called Face-Offs, that are pulled from the behavior of friends and other drivers online. Certain track sections might push you to hug corners and follow an efficient driving line, while others set you against a competitor for the highest average speed. The bursts of asynchronous competition spice up traditional racing, even though drifting challenges are tough to pull off without the robots slamming into you while you're sideways. YOU MUST BE ONE OF THEM.

It nearly goes without saying that racing against friends directly is preferable to playing the single-player tour. As with its other social aspects, Driveclub lowers the level of menu fiddling dramatically, offering up a varied roster of multiplayer events that mix up tracks, time of day and car types. You and your party (of up to six) register for an event and then join a lobby automatically once the timer elapses. Driveclub could do with some search filters here, but the process of getting a match going is, pleasantly, not a process at all.

Driveclub does other things well too, lest we forget that it's more than just a triumph of menus and social thingamajigs. Evolution Studios has created a good number of stunning environments spread across several countries, dabbling in icy corridors in Norway and beautiful green valleys in Canada. The track design also has an understanding of The Reveal, with light flooding in at the end of a tunnel and a burst of balloons unveiling a lake in India as you drive by.

The attention to detail inside the cars nearly matches that of the outside. Every car in Driveclub, from the humble Mini to the demonic Hennessey Venom GT, is meticulously recreated and insulated from the world outside. Handling veers toward the heft of simulation, with a hefty dose of forgiveness in the form of cosmetic-only damage and helpful road-side flags that suggest the best level of braking. The sound design, meanwhile, is excellent enough to convey a sense of your car's place on the track, right down to the scraping of a rear tire across gravel. What you'll hear most often, though, is the crunchy sound of the AI colliding with you before it magically reclaims speed and leaves you in the dust.

Stylish driving on track will earn you fame points, while getting so much as sideswiped by other drivers will subtract points. Driveclub begins feeling punitive in these moments, and weirdly oblivious to the nature of its own AI. The frustration arising from the single-player tour, which can't be avoided if you want to unlock the cars required to earn points online, is an old emotion from an old problem.

Recent Reviews

As modern as its social elements are, Driveclub's career structure feels dated and overly gated. Stars, which must be earned by satisfying lap time or podium requirements in race events, are used to block off progress in the tour mode. There's some wiggle room before you hit the final championship of thrilling, barely controllable hypercars, but you'll definitely have to repeat events under tighter conditions to earn more stars. If you just need one star in the middle of multi-race event, you'll have to do the whole thing again.

Once again, the AI upsets things by ruining your lap times or attempts at a clean race, and there are no difficulty options with which to counter. The stricter challenges, coupled with the reckless AI, can often create annoying loops of pausing and restarting races until the right conditions manifest – until you behave like one of the robots.

Driveclub is a well-made, sometimes irritating juxtaposition of the old and new. The career mode is old-fashioned and its AI is hopelessly ignorant, but the graphics and competitive jabs online feel perfectly fit for 2014. Embracing your fellow human is key to overcoming Driveclub's faults, which ultimately make it a better staging ground for car-loving friends than an expression of automotive admiration itself.

This review is based on a retail copy of Driveclub, provided by Sony. Images: Sony.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.