The Driveclub studio was failed by public perception, not a lack of talent

The closure of Evolution Studios makes zero sense to me. I haven't been so angry about an industry event since Bizarre Creations was closed by Activision. But the thing that compounded this anger is how all the headlines immediately leapt to the presupposed ‘truth’ about Driveclub: that it was troubled. The important part of that sentence is the tense. It was troubled… in October, 2014. I've heard several people use the word 'troubled', but it betrays the truth: Driveclub was going places.

I can understand the reason for the misconception, especially if you had only played the game when it launched. At review, anyone could easily have dismissed it forever (which I'm sure many people did). I awarded it 4 out of 5, and was perilously close to a 3.5. Prior to launch, when review code first came in, the servers were offline. That's OK, servers are often offline before a game comes out, but we were promised they would be switched on before release so we could review the online aspects too.

Before the server was switched on, Driveclub was decidedly underwhelming. Without the all-pervasive connectivity, the vanilla edition was a fast, decently pretty racer with disappointing crashes, a plodding career structure and a sort of middle-ground identity that was neither fully convincing as an arcade racer or a simulation. What a shame.

However, the 'Make Server Go' switch was flipped and I have never seen a game come to life to the degree that Driveclub did. Suddenly the career structure made sense. These individual goals were interwoven into the online functionality, challenging you constantly and giving you the tools to set up online rivalries. Activision's The Crew was supposed to be all about playing with your mates, but Driveclub showed how it should be done. It was magnificent. The crashes still sucked, but the gameplay was compelling. It was a very good game… when it worked.

But that wasn't where most people's experience of Driveclub ended. We had been told the servers would be flaky before launch, but that they would become more stable as the day approached. The day came and they didn't get more stable at all. They got worse. They buckled under the strain of the world coming online, and the result was disastrous, causing the PS Plus version to be indefinitely postponed, and for regions to be brought online slowly, one at a time, to ensure the game could cope with the load. That is where most people's experience of Driveclub ended. And like a miner giving up just an inch from the richest vein of gold in the valley, they missed out big time.

Since the debacle, and despite reportedly suffering some cuts in headcount a year ago, Evolution Studios delivered arguably the finest collection of post-release content gaming has ever seen. Certainly any driving game. Driveclub received a photo mode worthy of release as a standalone tech demo. Replays for all races - even online. New tracks, events, and cars. The best damn wet weather effects in all of gaming. Graphical upgrades like a heat haze mirage on the track surface. Individual levelling for cars. City driving. And an entire motorbike expansion pack in Driveclub Bikes review, offering a completely different way to play the game, big enough to justify its standalone release.

Even before this full list was delivered, I was convinced of the game's brilliance. I've got a stack of games I want to play, but I kept coming back to Driveclub, accepting challenges, taking photos, racing with friends. And - though it's rare for this to happen at GamesRadar+, having witnessed the game transform markedly, I revisited the review and upped the score to 4.5. But it didn't even end there.

That list of features I just reeled off is exceptional, but there's one last killer feature I have yet to mention: a hardcore handling mode. Added only recently, it makes the cars behave more like their real-life counterparts. Less grip, less stable, and more technical to drive. That sort of thing isn't for everyone, but that's exactly the point. The prospect of Driveclub offering both drift-heavy arcade fun and Gran Turismo-style realism could have been a game changer. I thought Sony was about to get right behind Driveclub and turn it into the only racing game you needed on PS4. Instead, it closed the studio. Potential for market dominance… closed the studio. Right-o. Perhaps another studio will pick up where Evolution left off. I do hope so.

But that seems unfair, just like the public opinion that's been a recurring problem for Evolution, ever since that infamous 'target footage' trailer of Motorstorm. Unfair because the team came incredibly close to actually meeting that quality, and doing so in a launch game on new hardware. That's an incredible achievement. And unfair because Driveclub has been forever tarnished by that crushing launch week.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Driveclub was not only fixed but brilliant. And with a little more time - and maybe a sequel - it could have been everything. That’s the true tragedy of the closure of Evolution Studios.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The longest-serving GR+ staffer, I was here when all this was just fields. I'm currently Reviews Editor but still find time to speedrun Sonic levels and make daft Photoshop articles.
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