(Pocket-lint) - No self-respecting console can truly be said to have arrived until it gets that exclusive racing game. Everybody loves showing the world how they could have been Lewis Hamilton if they hadn't somehow fallen into that job pushing PPI claims at the call centre, via the medium of piloting exotic virtual machinery without the slightest risk to life and limb (even if they actually possess the skills of Maureen from Driving School). Driving games have across-the-board appeal and sell well, which is what makes DriveClub such an important game for Sony and the PlayStation 4.
Sony already has perhaps the biggest driving franchise of them all - Gran Turismo - up its sleeve, so why the shift in gear to DriveClub? Gran Turismo 5 took five years to make, while Gran Turismo 6 came out just last year, so the company wisely chose not to hold its breath for a worthy PS4 release. Christmas is seemingly coming too early for the Japanese games giant - it has an impressive array of exclusive PS4 titles due, but the vast majority of them won't arrive until next year.
So it fell to stalwart developer Evolution Studios, based in the glamorous environs of Runcorn here in Blighty, to push something all-new to the PS4 platform. Pressure successfully elevated to deliver that exclusive racer everyone wants, DriveClub has seen multiple delays on its journey to release. Now at the finish line, is it the polished racer we all want it to be?
DriveClub's unique selling point - in keeping with its status as flag-waver for a console entering a world obsessed with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook - is its radical, social-media inspired structure, exemplified by the ability to create virtual car clubs which you can restrict to your mates or open up to complete randoms.
The trouble is that Codemasters' previous-gen Grid Autosport and the just-released Forza Horizon 2 (Microsoft's bid to grab driving game bragging-rights for Xbox One owners this Christmas) also let you form car clubs. Come December and Ubisoft's open-world racer, The Crew, will also be in contention for the social racer crown. So it's perhaps less USP and more current trend.
READ: Forza Horizon 2 review
Which might not be unconnected to the fact that DriveClub's originally mooted launch was delayed - wisely, in our opinion, since at last year's E3 Show in June, it looked pants and didn't feel as floor-to-the-floor fast as it should have.
But that was then, and this is now - and the release copy of DriveClub, from a visual perspective, is very impressive. There's a grittier look than the rather squeaky-clean aesthetic of Forza Horizon 2, and it delivers all the environmental detail (it features glorious scenery from countries including Chile, Norway, Canada and Scotland), lighting and effects - realistic dust, gravel and so on - that you would demand from a next-gen game.
There's an impressive weather-modelling system, too, which is partly there for the eye-candy that glowering clouds or driving snow-storms provide. But it does also impinge on gameplay, since puddles build up on corners in the middle of relentless downpours, or you might be temporarily blinded cresting a hill driving towards a low sun. Who would have thought a British-developed game would display an obsession with the weather?
When you load DriveClub for the first time, it's noticeable how the game dispenses with any attempt at a narrative (a tad ironically, since Forza Horizon 2's central conceit, of drivers assembling for a festival, was first seen in Evolution Studios' 2006 game MotorStorm). Instead, it unceremoniously drops you straight into the racing, initially in various single races, time-trials, drift events and race series involving hot-hatches.
Most races have three objectives, a star up for grabs from each one, and certain amounts of these stars are required to unlock new tranches of single-player races. Good driving also earns you Fame - DriveClub's name for Experience Points - which gives you a new car every time you level-up, and in the early stages, this happens with satisfying regularity. Particularly if you nail the so-called Face-Offs within DriveClub's events.
In terms of innovation, these Face-Offs are perhaps the most innovative things to be found in DriveClub. At certain points in a race you are invited to average the fastest speed between two points, conform to the perfect line around specific corners or attempt to generate the most drift points. Face-Offs can be a right pain if you're trying to overtake an obstreperous opponent, but are very satisfying when you pull them off, or you can ignore them if you want.
Any cynicism you might direct towards a game that avowedly takes its cues from social media melts away, thankfully, when you go beyond DriveClub's single-player game. There's a vast amount of stuff to do that involves real players, which is a bit overwhelming at first, but the point is that it caters to all individual tastes. The multi-player mixes various race types, but you can opt in or out, and easily setup scheduled events with your mates. It's dead easy to create challenges and propagate them.
The whole car club element does add a real community feel - inveterate tinkerers will spend hours editing a club badge alone, and you're rewarded royally for club-based exploits. The PlayStation Camera gives decent voice chat, but you can mute anyone which may be a relief. DriveClub has hit upon a properly utopian take on social media. But it doesn't feel radically different to Codemaster's RaceNet system, or EA's Autolog as featured as recently as 2013's Need For Speed: Rivals.
Arcadey but realistic
It's also worth pointing out that DriveClub is no straight-up simulator - unsurprisingly, given its mission to appeal to the masses. The cars handle in a pretty forgiving manner, and damage is merely cosmetic. You're given flags indicating the severity of corners (obviating the need to keep an eye on the mini-map, which is a recipe for a pile-up).
Nevertheless, the cars feel pretty realistic, with rear, front and four-wheel drive machines requiring appropriately differing techniques when cornering. They also feel more planted on the road, not the sense of floating slightly above it that we feel from the cars in Forza Horizon 2.
The more exotic machinery - you swiftly acquire drool-worthy sheet metal like a Spyker B6 and a Ferrari California - is much more of a handful, which should keep the hardcore racing-game fraternity happy. But in terms of balancing the forgiveness required in an arcade racer with realism, DriveClub has achieved a better balance than its deadly rival.
So is it a green or red flag? DriveClub is a good game, that much is clear, and if you prefer to race in a sociable rather than solitary setting then it's a very good game. But it can't acquire that "great game" label in our opinion, which is disappointing given that it's expected to be a standard-bearer for the PS4.
The game's fundamental aspects, such as handling, are spot-on - and very much the equal of Forza Horizon 2, or even slightly superior. But while all the ingredients are there, DriveClub has a slightly bitty, chuck-it-in-and-see feel to it. Microsoft's Forza Horizon 2, in contrast, has an etched-in-stone and focused sense of personality.
Despite its delays to assure pole position in the social driving game world, we also continued to find small but aggravating bits of evidence that DriveClub has been lashed together with one eye on the clock. A developer time trial, if you will.
Overall there is great fun to be had in DriveClub, but you have to work harder than you ought in order to find it. Which is a bit of a shame, as it undoubtedly contains some good ideas. Perhaps by the time DriveClub 2 comes around it will have congealed into a coherent whole that can win the race in true five-star fashion.