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DriveClub's social racing has come a long way over the past year

Evolution Studios' DriveClub is all about social racing, and its secret weapon in encouraging you to race with your friends is its interface, according to one of its developers.

I checked out the E3 2014 build of DriveClub during a Sony press event in New York yesterday, and played three different courses. The first time around, I finished in dead last in a 12-car race, and didn't fare much better in the second. But on the third track, which a DriveClub producer said was the most difficult — there were puddles on the road, and the Mercedes SLS AMG I was driving had a tendency to fishtail — I managed to come in third.

DriveClub is going for a middle road between simulation and arcade; in that respect, it's more like Codemasters' Grid series than Gran Turismo or Burnout. It took some time to understand the way the cars handled, but I got my bearings relatively quickly. It was somewhat more difficult to parse all the text popping up on the screen during our races, saying things like "vehicle impact -200." These notifications indicate changes in Fame, DriveClub's experience system, which you earn for doing just about anything in the game.

Playing with other people in Clubs is key to maximizing Fame and experiencing all that DriveClub has to offer. Everybody in a Club contributes to the advancement of the group by completing goals on their own: Their progress increases the Club's Fame multiplier, so they'll all earn it at an increased rate. Players can also gain Fame by completing challenges, which are records that can be set on sections of every track in DriveClub. Not only will you be rewarded with Fame for drifting 1,500 feet through a hairpin turn, you'll get more Fame when your PlayStation Network friends fail to exceed that figure.

David Alonzo, an associate producer on DriveClub at Sony Computer Entertainment America, told me he's been working on the game for about a year and a half. So Alonzo has been on the project through its two delays, and he's seen how it has changed from its initial unveiling during Sony's PS4 reveal event last February to today.

I remember being unimpressed by what I played of DriveClub at PAX Prime last summer, back when the game was still slated to launch alongside the PS4 in November. I didn't feel that way in any of the three races I played yesterday. The cars, tracks and environments look great, and I'm referring to the standard game, since I didn't get to see the post-launch weather update in action. The AI kept me on my toes, with CPU cars doing their best to overtake me and stop me from passing them. And once I got a sense of how the various vehicles handled, I felt like there was a satisfying balance between arcade and sim that will be relatively accessible to a wide audience.

But in Alonzo's opinion, the most important development in DriveClub is something that has nothing to do with how the game plays. DriveClub's dynamic menu interface, said Alonzo, is the connective tissue that brings the entire game together. It provides "that whole social feed," always surfacing the top scores and times set by other members of your Club. The menu system is another example of what it means for DriveClub to be a social racer, according to Alonzo; he told me there's plenty of content in the game for solo players to enjoy offline, but playing with friends is the way to go.

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