It’s been a long wait leading to a bumpy road for racing fans, but DriveClub is finally here. A curious lack of pre-release code and online connection issues has forced us to hold back our thoughts on Evolution Studios' cursed exclusive for a couple of weeks longer than we expected, but having now had a chance to see everything that the long awaited title has to offer, we’re ready to deliver our verdict. The question is: does this well publicised title fire on all cylinders, or simply blow up in smoke?

Well, whether you’re looking to improve your abilities, or – more likely – you’re having trouble connecting to the servers, the title has a lot to offer in single player mode. The career is split into categories based on car class – a successful structure, as it eases you into the monstrously powerful vehicles towards the end of the campaign. Solo races range from simple three lap sprints to more complicated drift challenges, with each objective augmented with sub tasks that earn you stars. Accrue enough of these awards, and you’ll unlock more events to compete in.

Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence appears to have skipped a few lessons in racing etiquette. Computer controlled opponents will casually rear end and slide swipe your car if you even remotely get in their way, which is irritating considering that the game seems to favour clean play. Worse still, these rude collisions will result in a loss of points, and, on the most frustrating occasions, slow you down. It’s beyond infuriating when the game asks you to complete a clean race to unlock one of the abovementioned stars, only for the AI to act like it belongs in Twisted Metal.

Still, when they’re not being abnormally aggressive, the offline drivers do feel like they’ve got some chops behind the wheel. Your opponents will almost always push you hard to the finish line, and while they do slow down a little when you fall particularly far behind, we didn’t find any real evidence of rubber banding; if you get pipped at the finish post, it’ll be because you took your eyes off the road.

As enjoyable – and maddening – as the offline play can be, though, this is a social racer first and foremost, and it has plenty of online components to back that up. At any point during a race, you may be presented with a ‘Face-Off’, where you’ll need to compete against another player’s performance. This could involve you trying to better their average speed around a corner, surpass their top speed, or even nail a perfect drift. These challenges help to test your ability by setting realistic goals, but also create personal vendettas, which are a great hook to keep you coming back.

Online races are equally competitive, and it’s easy to push some cars just a little too far as you try to pass a friend or beat an on-track challenge. Fortunately, even losing a race will see you accrue plenty of Fame points, which is the fictional currency that you attain throughout the game. As a result of this, you’ll always feel like you’re contributing to something greater – whether you’re winning or losing.

It’s just unfortunate that said Fame points are so underutilised. While they’ll help to increase your personal level – or the level of any Club that you join – you’ll only ever unlock anything when you level up, meaning that you’re at the mercy of the game’s progression system. In other titles, for example, garnering a good 12,000 Fame points may allow you to purchase new vehicles or cosmetics – but here, you’ll get nothing until you reach the next quota, and even then it may not be what you actually want.

Fortunately, the racing is a reward in itself. Ever since the title’s initial teaser video was released, many have questioned where the game would sit on the arcade to simulation spectrum. As promised by the developer, the final product is neither. Instead, it’s a beautiful mix of real-world physics with the learning curve dialled down. Basic racing principles such as undertsteer are present, but so are far more advanced mechanics like trial braking, load transferring, and torque steering.

Everything feels balanced enough to reward those with a real-world knowledge of racing, without directly punishing those that don’t. You don’t, for example, need to understand that the Lotus Evora is prone to snap-oversteer, but you do need to know how to react when you break rear traction mid-corner. It’s all very forgiving, but when you get things just right, it’s extremely rewarding.

The Lotus Evora isn’t the only car with its own characteristics, though. The vehicle selection spans cars that you’ll commonly see on the streets – such as the Volkswagen Golf GTi – all the way up to the ultra-rare Pagani Zonda R. Each automobile looks and feels unique, with well rendered interiors, exteriors, and fantastic audio recordings. There’s enough variety in the car handling that each vehicle will control very differently, yet the skills that you acquire from one will generally apply to others. And while customisation options may only be cosmetic, with a combination of designs and paint styles, the game offers enough tools for you to make a ride your own.

Similar to the car selection, the variety in track locations is expansive, and while they’re all derived from a slender list of nations, each layout is individual enough to test you in different ways. Inner-city circuits are practically non-existent, with Evolution Studios instead focusing on fictional courses rather than real-world tracks and roads.

It’s the game’s sense of motion that really makes the racing feel lifelike, though, from the shakes and rattles as you veer off-road to the piles of leaves scattering as you rush through them. Even in the wide open mountains of Canada, the cars feel fast; it’s one thing to be driving a virtual vehicle at top speed, and another to actually feel like you are. The shaking of the camera paired with the subtle motion blur really conveys that sensation, despite the game famously only running at 30 frames-per-second.

Still, while the sound effects are spectacular, the soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired. The music selection is lacklustre – and disabled by default – which makes for some dull backing tracks. Sure, the developer would probably argue that the roar of multiple V8s makes for a beautiful mechanical symphony, but it’s a shame that it couldn’t have sourced some better tunes to complement the excellent car sounds.

Conclusion

DriveClub’s balanced physics and impressive presentation make for an all-around excellent racer, even if there’s still a lot of room for Evolution Studios to expand and improve upon. However, the overly aggressive AI and archaic progression system may deter non-racing fans, while the ongoing online issues remain infuriating. If you can look beyond the tire smoke prompted by the release’s poor launch, there is a really enjoyable game here. Still, the uncertain among you may be better off riding shotgun in the elusive PlayStation Plus version before buckling up in the full title’s driver’s seat.