Driveclub is a very rigid driving game, where the only tweakable gameplay option at your disposal is a choice between automatic and manual transmission. In an era where driving games on both ends of the arcade-to-simulation spectrum deliver car upgrades and a lot of other things that players can use to tailor the experience to their liking, Driveclub's complete lack of meaningful choices makes it feel like a weird throwback to the old, dark days of console driving games. The larger problem, however, is that the game's overly mechanical AI drivers and weirdly grippy car handling make the on-track action lackluster, at best.
The action in Driveclub is broken up into a small handful of events that you can play a couple of different ways. In the single event mode you can set up on any of the game's tracks using any of your unlocked cars in a simple race, a time trial that lets you race as long as you like to set the hottest lap you can, and a drift challenge that scores you based on your speed through the straightaways and your drifts on the curves. If you like, you can have those events fed to you in a more-or-less set order via the game's tour mode, which sets up specific events and classes while also adding some occasional side objectives that earn you stars. Stars are used in the tour mode to unlock additional events in the tour mode.
As you race in any event, you'll earn experience points depending on how you drive. Earning stars in tour mode is a solid way to earn them, but doing things like drafting behind an opposing car, drifting, and clean passes will also add to your total. You lose points for leaving the track, colliding with other cars, and the total at the end of a race is added to your overall score. You'll level up along the way, which is how additional cars are unlocked. The car options are weak, with an almost-exclusive focus on European manufacturers. The developers have plans to sell car DLC, so perhaps this will eventually get addressed, but launching without big names like Honda, Nissan, Toyota, or Ford? It seems almost insane. On top of that, you can't do much with the cars once you've unlocked them. There are no tuning or upgrade options and, aside from a loosely customizable "club" paint job set by the leader of your current car club, even the paint options are extremely limited. Even the "factory" paint job option only offers one color. At some point Driveclub's lack of options crosses out of barebones and into simply appearing to be unfinished. Furthermore, the idea of a set progression of car unlocks instead of offering some way for players to unlock the cars they're specifically interested in feels old and somewhat restrictive for a game that seems like it's trying to lean in the simulation direction of things.
But it's worth pointing out that Driveclub isn't an especially realistic simulation of driving, and apparently that's by design. The cars have an overly grippy feel on the track, letting you get away with some occasional shenanigans by braking at the last possible moment instead of gently braking or coasting into the curves. The developers claim this is an attempt to make the game easier and fun for everyone. But this doesn't make the game feel more fun or thrilling. It just makes what otherwise feels like an attempt at simulating real cars instead feel like it misses the mark by a mile. If this were on by default as an assist for new drivers that could be disabled, potentially along with a series of additional options to let people tailor the driving a bit, maybe this would make sense. Instead it makes the game feel inauthentic to real-life racing while also not going far enough in the "fun" direction to make it an exciting, arcade-style racer.
It gets even weirder when you throw in the game's occasional attempt at enforcing rules. It'll let you brake extremely late into turns and you can pull e-brake drifts and such, but if you get off the track at all it immediately throws up a three-second timer that compels you to get back on the track. If you cut a corner in a way the game feels is giving you an advantage, it gives you a "corner penalty" and reduces your ability to accelerate for a few seconds. Same deal if you decide to slam into another racer--or if the game's single-minded AI decides to slam into you. Though cutting corners isn't cool, the way the game handles it with penalties is the opposite of fun. This seems like the sort of thing that should have been handled on the track design end instead of slapping drivers with penalties.
The game has a proper multiplayer option in addition to the single events and tour, and this allows up to 12 players to compete. The menus are slightly confusing, with a series of choices that don't seem especially different, since the game moves you from one event to the next and one car class to the next as you finish one event and start another, but the online portion of the game is certainly functional. Considering the game's focus on creating groups of users via its club functions, it seems odd that there isn't a big focus on clubs in the multiplayer. It's just a never-ending hopper filled with one-off races. It's worth noting though, that on launch day, and as of this writing, the Driveclub servers have been offline, preventing players from competing against one-another directly or via leaderboard challenges. Without these features, Driveclub feels like even more of a husk, but one has to expect that these servers will work eventually. They worked just fine during the week prior to release.
If there's anything Driveclub can hang its hat on, its that it's a nice-looking game and that it does leaderboards well. Of particular note is the game's day/night cycle, which you can speed up if you want to see the passage of time happen in a more dramatic way. Driveclub's night driving showcases its pretty lighting quite well, though considering you're trying to set good times and win races, I found myself gravitating towards having all my races take place at noon once I had seen the night stuff a few times. Cars shine nicely, again showing off the way light hits them, and it all looks quite striking when you hit dusk. That said, sometimes the ground and wall textures look overly flat and undetailed, and you'll see some scenery pop into view as you get closer to it. Nothing major, it looks good.
The leaderboards in Driveclub are supplemented by a challenge system that lets you take any of your recent past performances and send the time around to your friends. You set a time to respond when sending a challenge, so you can give those friends (or, if your challenge is open, strangers) a few as 30 minutes or as long as a week to respond. The winner of the challenge gets more XP and the prizes increase as more players join a challenge. This also carries over to clubs. Car clubs in Driveclub can be open or invite-only, and clubs are ranked on leaderboards, as well. You can create club challenges to challenge other clubs to beat your performance, and this makes it so each club only gets one entry on the leaderboard. So you can put your entire club onto one challenge and have them all bang away at it in an attempt to win, if you like. Annoyingly, people can send you challenges for cars you haven't unlocked yet, but all in all it's a decent system that would be a lot more useful if it were in a better game.
And, ultimately, that's the real problem with Driveclub. It's a shame that there aren't more options to choose from and the challenge system has potential. But it just isn't much fun to play. The core act of driving a car feels off in a way that completely put me off of playing the game. Without that in place, the rest of it just falls apart. The PlayStation 4 has been without a serious racing option since launch, and Driveclub doesn't fill that gap.