It was always an ambitious sell.
A PlayStation 4 launch-ready racing game built around its own global social network where people could form teams and, through collaborative effort, unlock new virtual cars, liveries and other assorted motorsport trinkets. So the news that it wouldn’t be ready to accompany the new console on to store shelves last Christmas came as no real surprise.
Less expected, however, was the revelation that developer Evolution Studios would need an entire year to finish what it had started. This is an important game by an important developer: Evolution created the million-selling Motorstorm series – a racing brand so vital to the early success of PS3 that Sony purchased the studio. But a 12-month delay in the modern business is so costly, the news immediately raised questions about the state of the project. Then the game’s director, Col Rodgers, left the project earlier this year and many began to doubt Shigeru Miyamoto’s oft-repeated maxim that "a delayed game is eventually good".
Paul Rustchynsky (known to his team by the thematically appropriate nickname "Rushy") is apologetic but defiant about the delay. “The quality wasn’t there,” he says, on a rainswept Monday at Evolution’s office in Runcorn. “The social aspect to the game wasn’t seamless; the game didn’t run smoothly.”
Rustchynsky, who took over from Rodgers (who later revealed that he left to spend more time with his ill son) explains that the menu system was the heart of the decision to delay. “Any network of this variety has to display persistent, relevant activities and information that’s important for you,” he says. “In DriveClub, being connected matters. The game is structured in such a way that it’s not always about coming first, and that fact needed to be communicated effectively.”
Building a better world
But if the menu system was the catalyst for the game’s delay, this area forms only a small part of the renovation the team has performed across all areas. The engine, which has been created to serve Evolution’s games throughout the lifetime of the PlayStation 4, is extraordinary. The system’s power allows it to render every detail in play, from each strand of confetti set off when you streak through a crowd-attended checkpoint to the fine-detail stitching on the cars’ seats.
Each stage is far more detailed than you’d ever be able to take in at 80mph from the track. One boasts no fewer than 1.2 million trees dotted about its hills. There’s no baked lighting: every shadow is delivered from a true light source. The star constellations in the sky are correctly placed according to Nasa data; there’s even a chance that you’ll see the Northern lights every now and again. Alex Perkins, the game’s art director, claims the game has a draw distance of 190km; during some replays you can pick out the curvature of the earth. The sun and moon wheel in the sky, lighting up fully volumetric clouds (uniquely seeded each time you visit a location and therefore different in formation) above each of the games locations.
Those environments (all of which were visited by the team for reference) include Scotland, with its peaty, overcast gloom, India, all hyper-colour foliage (the team modelled the vegetation from samples taken in situ in India, and from Kew Gardens) and Norway, where the sun reflects so brightly off the snow you have to squint while driving. This approach to detail is carried over to the sound of the car’s engines, each of which was recorded with exacting attention, both inside and outside the vehicle. Of course, there is plenty of competition in the high-end driving sim market, with the Forza Motorsports and Gran Turismo teams setting a peculiarly high bar. And yet, Evolution’s work has been so impressive that the car manufacturers BMW and Mercedes have both replaced their internal sound-bank data with that captured by the Runcorn team.
Capturing the sensation of speed
These technical accomplishments are more than mere adornments: they pay off in play. The dense vegetation, fluttering banners and animated particles not only bring the courses to life, they also contribute to the sense of speed, something which is always challenging for a video game to communicate without the benefits of g-forces and peripheral vision.
In play, the emphasis is not only on time trials and winning. Challenges pop-up midway through races. You might be called upon to see for how long you can drift around a corner, for example, or see how quickly you can complete this 50-metre stretch of road – and each time you’re presented with the scores of your friends and rivals to compete against. We’ve seen these tricks in other games, from Geometry Wars 2 through to EA’s much-vaunted Autolog system, but their appeal is undiminished here.
The social system
The social aspect remains core to the game. You can form a club with up to six other players and, thereafter, everything you do in the game earns points for your group. Once the aggregate score passes set rank thresholds, you unlock new cars and so on (of the fifty cars in the game, five can only be accessed through a club, and these are lost as soon as you leave it). There’s no waiting around in lobbies for races to start either. Evolution borrows a trick from MMOs and allows you to book a slot in an online race. You're then free to take part in other activities and, when the race is ready, you can jump straight in. Offline, the AI provides able and aggressive competition. It brakes deep into corners and drafts wherever possible to overtake.
Any delay of a key blockbuster video game title is a double-edged sword for the development team. While they gain months to improve and polish, the increased costs that such a decision incurs heighten the expectations of the publisher, who must foot the bill. Sony’s recent announcement that DriveClub has made “spectacular progress” since the delay appears true. But the spectral question of how well the game must perform at launch in order to secure the studio’s future must loom large in the thoughts of staff.
Rustchynsky denies this is an issue. “We are completely confident in the future of the studio,” he says. “And when people play the game, I believe they will be too.”
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