As excited as I was about the idea of a massively multiplayer Minesweeper, it’s now stressing me out and I wish I could play it offline.
I had been counting on Driveclub to fulfill my quota of driving games for the first year of this new console generation; instead, it may end up being the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox One so I could play Forza Horizon 2. (Soon. I just spent a full console’s price on a new pair of headphones last week, so it’ll have to wait a bit. Plus, I’m supposed to be working at the moment.)
Driveclub is an exercise in frustration that takes sweet graphics, pitch-perfect sound, and a pretty good driving model, then manages to almost ruin the experience with some very poor design choices. It’s a game evidently balanced for driving very fast cars that starts with four or five hours of dreadfully boring races in slow cars — since you can’t even adjust the assist settings to make the races more interesting, you’re stuck with nothing better to do than bouncing from opponent to wall (because the game gives you no reason not to) and winning almost every race on your first try, hoping that the game will miraculously get better at some point. Which, actually, it does.
If you manage to trudge through the first half of the single-player campaign, you’ll finally unlock your first Ferrari and the game will suddenly transform. Races become exciting and fun. The AI becomes fast enough to be a challenge. (While remaining dumb as bricks.) The choices that made the first races so boring — no damage, little to no penalty for hitting a car or a wall — start to make sense, as everything is now going so fast that wasting a couple of seconds in a fender bender is enough to cost you several places, and anything more realistic would have you abandon the race after the tiniest mistake. But, lest the game become too fun, that part only lasts for two or three hours before the campaign shouts ‘Halt!’ and makes you replay previous races to grind for the levels required to unlock the highest-performance cars without which you can’t enter the last championships.
Maybe it’s unfair to focus so much on the single-player campaign of a game that has ‘club’ in its name, but I’ll always be a single-player-first kind of guy. And, you know, many people are, and many people still don’t have a connection good enough to enjoy online races. Which is a shame, because Driveclub is, in fact, really fun in multiplayer. (When it works. Let’s assume the servers are just going through growing pains right now.) While the generous collision model allows you to continue a solo race after making a mistake, it’s even more enjoyable for how it will let you survive someone else’s mistakes. And there’s something to be said for the way the game’s inept AI, always utterly unaware of your presence or the fact that you’re about to brake before a corner, prepares you to face and endure online opponents. But, so far, the boneheaded playlist system and the repetitious tracks don’t make it look like multiplayer will have a huge lasting appeal for me, even if connection issues clear up.
There are more negatives: the impersonal menu system in general and the multiplayer UX in particular; the lack of a promised dynamic weather, or even a photo mode, at release; the fact that some cars can only be unlocked after leveling up your online club, which is not possible until your club has several members; the conspicuous absence of brands like Lamborghini and… others I care much less about. But there are also positives: the excellent livery customization interface, extensive yet cleverly streamlined; the upcoming dynamic weather and photo mode; the fact that (part of) the game is free with PSN+.
I’m quite curious about that free version. I managed to push through the first few hours of boring play because I had a full review copy; if I had paid the full price for the game, that would have also motivated me to go on. But a free full-length demo? If the progression is even half as slow as in the full game, I can’t see most people sticking with it long enough to reach the good bits.
So, bottomline: if I’d paid anything close to full price for this game, I’d be annoyed. A rental, at best. And I’ve now transferred all my hopes onto Project Cars — though I expect that it’ll probably be a little too hardcore for my taste. Christmas wishlist, meet Xbox One.