It took five tries, but I finally beat that drifting challenge. My Audi RS 5 coupe smoothly slid its way around five corners, racking up thousands of points, and my reward is a sweet new Bentley. But I'm not the only who gets the beautiful luxury sedan: every other member of my team gets one as well. Driveclub for the PlayStation 4 lets you team up with up to five other players to form a racing "club," and as your group levels up, you progress through the game together. You're no longer just drifting in a vacuum.
Since the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, video game developers have seemed intent on squeezing as much social interaction into their games as possible. The two biggest shooters of the year, Titanfall and Destiny, require an internet connection to play. Even a more typically single-player-style experience like Watch Dogs lets other players randomly "hack" into your game for a competitive one-on-one challenge. These are obvious examples, but sometimes the social interactions are much more passive. The most recent games in the Forza series, for example, including the excellent new Forza Horizon 2, feature a system that replaces AI racers with drivers that behave the same way your Xbox Live buddies do. It's a new take on multiplayer: you're not actually playing with your friends, but they're always there.
You're no longer just drifting in a vacuum
Driveclub takes a different approach to the same basic idea. Initially it feels a lot like every other racing game since the first Gran Turismo. You start out with a dinky little car — my first vehicle was a Mini Cooper — and you slowly make your way up to prettier, faster cars and more challenging events. There are standard races where you're trying to come in first, and trials where you need to beat a specific time. Driveclub even features drifting challenges that let you pretend you're in The Fast and the Furious. The game sits somewhere between a simulation and an arcade experience: the controls are forgiving and approachable, but you still get the joy of getting behind the wheel of real cars ranging from a Volkswagen Golf to a McLaren P1 (unfortunately you can't customize your rides at all, aside from giving them a new paint job).
The game's focus on passive social interaction is clear from the moment you start racing. Driveclub loves to let you know how well other racers — both friends and strangers — did on the same course, and then compare those efforts. When you pull off a sweet drift, which earns you experience points for style, a pop-up might appear showing how your score compares to another random player. The same goes for the top speed you reached on a particular straightaway, or just how cleanly you took that corner. And if your score happens to be better than your random competition, you earn a little extra experience. These events happen with no provocation from you: they're just moments that constantly remind you that other people are playing this game as well, and they provide a little extra incentive to do better.
Things go a step further with the titular club feature. This lets you form a racing team of up to six people, but the club isn't a place where you just race around with buddies. Instead, it adds a second layer of progression to the game. Everything you do in the game solo — whether it's win a race or pull off a flawless turn — builds up your experience, unlocking new content like races and cars. The club is sort of like a separate progression track: everything you do also goes towards your club level, and it's pooled together with the achievements of your teammates.
I haven't even interacted with any of my fellow club members yet
It's a bit weird, but it's also necessary, as much of the game's content can only be unlocked by leveling up your club. There are certain cars and features that can only be accessed by joining up with others. Every time I log into the game, I get a progress update on all the work everyone else did while I wasn't playing. It's pretty satisfying to get a new BMW when you aren't even online. The odd part is that I haven't even interacted with any of my fellow club members yet; instead, we're just silently working towards a single goal together by playing the game solo. It makes me wonder why we're even in a club to begin with.
This set-up, along with the ability to make and share challenges with other players, turns Driveclub from an otherwise fairly standard racing game into a surprisingly addictive experience. But it didn't really make me feel any more social. I was seeing other players everywhere; I even partnered with some strangers to form a team, but they were just names and numbers I was competing with, another obstacle on the way to that shiny new car.
Playing Driveclub is like living with the internet: you're more connected than ever before, but that doesn't mean you're not alone.
Driveclub is available on the PS4 today