There have been plenty of surprises during DriveClub’s exemplary post-release support that have kept us hooked on Evolution Studios' stunning PS4 debut well over a year after release. Since launching in 2014 the car count has more than doubled with monthly packs adding vehicles you seldom see in racing games, from obscure concept cars and thoroughbred track cars, to a novelty buggy lifted from Evolution’s MotorStorm series.
True to form, no-one could have predicted the surprise announcement and simultaneous release of DriveClub Bikes at Sony’s Paris Game Show, wheelieing onto the PSN store as either a downloadable expansion for existing players or a standalone game to entice newcomers - all for the very reasonable sum of £11.99 and £15.99 respectively.
The release of DriveClub Bikes is hugely significant in the realm of racing games: not since the days of Project Gotham Racing, Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout Paradise have bikes converged with cars in a racing game. DriveClub Bikes (wouldn’t RideClub have been a more appropriate title? Or maybe MotorCycle Club - oh wait, that’s already taken) is different, though, because all bike-related content is contained in a separate block of the menu, prompting you to choose between cars or bikes.
Sadly this means there are no Project Gotham-style races mixing the two (Evolution previously mixed bikes with cars and just about every other vehicle type in MotorStorm, so this idea wasn’t too far-fetched). What they have done however is effectively revitalised a genre that’s been left untapped for too long.
Bike fans have been relying on Italian developer Milestone as the sole providers of bike racing games in recent years, a studio best known for their officially licensed MotoGP and MXGP games and their new IP Ride. With its focus road bike racing, Ride is arguably the closest competitor to DriveClub Bikes currently on the market. However, the inclusion of bikes in a first party game like DriveClub gives the genre some overdue publicity beyond the specialist audience Milestone's games are aimed at.
For a discipline that’s so exhilarating, it’s strange that racing games in recent years haven’t managed to replicate the excitement of bike racing. To be fair to Milestone, creating convincing riding physics in a game is no easy task, but the developer’s strict adherence to realism tended to sap all the enjoyment out of biking.
It’s something that Evolution fully embrace however, as DriveClub’s more arcadey approach makes bike games fun again. In many ways, its approachable handling and unflinching speed plays like a throwback to old-school arcade bike racing games of yesteryear such as Super Hang On and Moto Racer (which is incidentally getting a sequel of its own this year). All that’s missing is a cheery announcer exclaiming “checkpoint!” every few minutes.
The bike selection isn't exhaustive, but Evolution have adopted the same approach as the core game with a firm focus on quality over quantity. Featuring 12 meticulously modeled bikes (15 if you count the free EBR expansion) from assorted manufacturers ranging from Yamaha, Ducati, Kawasaki, KTM, Honda, Bimota, BMW and MV Agusta, there’s an emphasis on supreme superbikes capable of insane speeds approaching 200 mph – although admittedly there isn’t much to distinguish each model if you’re not clued up on bikes compared to the cars distinctive shapes and specs. More bikes are also incoming, if the blacked out menu teasing future content is anything to go by.
What’s most remarkable about the expansion is how seamlessly bikes have integrated with DriveClub. What could have been a throwaway add-on actually highlights some of DriveClub’s best assets - it’s such a natural fit, you’d be forgiven for thinking bikes have always featured in DriveClub.
Taming the bikes is an absolute joy thanks to DriveClub’s beautifully balanced handling that hasn't lost any of its responsiveness or accessability in its transition to two wheels, yet there’s still plenty of nuance to get extra speed from tapping the rear brakes without the fear of falling off and mastering the racing line and braking points. Cornering still requires some finesse when you apply the power when exiting a tight bend, but getting a feel for the bikes feels instantly intuitive and is nowhere near as demanding as MotoGP and Ride’s careful balancing act of brake and throttle control to keep the bike stable at speed.
It sounds like a simple requirement for a racing game, but the bikes in the expansion are frightfully fast. DriveClub’s scintillating sense of speed has only been amplified by the bikes’ arse-clenching acceleration: prepare to have your reaction times tested, as the intensity of DriveClub Bikes often demands WipEout-style reflexes. It’s particularly impressive when you factor in the fact DriveClub was deliberately restricted to 30fps to increase the visual fidelity, yet there’s no noticeable sacrifice in speed.
The expansion is also a brilliant showcase of DriveClub’s post-release party piece: the dazzling dynamic weather system. As water droplets trickle down your visor obscuring your view, riding in the rain is truly terrifying, especially when playing with the helmet camera. For most players, this viewpoint will probably prove too demanding, but the third person camera somehow works even better in DriveClub Bikes, allowing you to appreciate the realistic rider animations and anticipate corners more easily. Rain storms remain a visual treat, too - DriveClub still has the best weather effects in any current game.
I was initially surprised to find that DriveClub Bikes doesn’t add any new tracks to tame these speed machines, particularly as the main game has been overdue new locations for a while now.
Thankfully, the sweeping roads of DriveClub’s existing tracks happen to be perfectly suited to the high speed thrills of biking. Leaning into corners and lifting off the power at the right moment feels sublime when it all comes together as you navigate through the twists and turns of the 78 available tracks. The different racing lines the bikes give DriveClub's familiar tracks a new lease of life, while first-time players will have a lot to learn. The road circuits also resonate with bike racing heritage - with a little imagination, the high speed county roads of Scotland could easily pass as the infamous Isle of Man TT circuit until a developer eventually acquires the license.
So, we’ve established that DriveClub Bikes manages to capture the speed, excitement and intensity of bike racing like few games before it. And yet it doesn't capture the bravery of bike racing: riding inches from the road at scary speeds never feels as dangerous as it should. That’s because it’s very hard to crash in DriveClub Bikes, despite the bikes becoming twitchy at speed.
Excess acceleration on the rear wheel when exiting a corner can unsettle the bike, but unlike in other games where this would result in the rider toppling over the handlebars spectacularly, the riders in DriveClub Bikes are practically bolted to the bike. Likewise, barging into other bikers has little consequence.
You have to slam into a wall at considerable speed to wipe out, but the resulting splash screen is a tad anticlimactic and devoid of spectacle. The lack of crash animations depicting the riders falling off is also disappointing, but in fairness getting Evolution to program ragdoll physics would have been a big ask, particularly as it would have likely affected the age rating. The trade-off is that you’re instantly reset back onto the track with a minimal loss of speed which maintains the blistering pace of the race without wasting time watching the rider dust themselves off.
DriveClub features a new Tour campaign to trawl through, but DriveClub veterans will probably blitz through it in a couple of sittings. The structure is identical to the core game: there are 42 events in total split into six tiers, each culminating in increasingly tough tournaments of multiple races set in each of DriveClub’s locations. Earn enough stars and you’ll unlock the next tier.
With objectives to complete in each race beyond finishing in the top three and 162 stars to earn, there’s plenty to keep compulsive completionists busy, and while the difficulty spike is punishing in the final events to the extent that finishing third feels like an almighty achievement, you can at least dial down the difficulty by switching to DriveClub’s recently added easy mode to speed up progression and unlocks, which slows down the AI and makes the winning conditions less demanding. The tour may not take an eternity to complete, but unlocking every bike will take a while since you have to reach required affinity levels with each bike to unlock the rest.
Standard time trial and race events against 11 AI opponents featured in the main game return to DriveClub Bikes, with the notable exception of Drift challenges. Bikes aren’t designed for drifting, so replacing them are Skill Challenges tasking you to perform wheelies and stoppies for as long as possible and meet speed targets in quick succession against the clock. The variety of manoeuvres make the Skill challenges a worthy alternative - if anything, they're more enjoyable than DriveClub’s Drift challenges.
Of course, it’s the inspired implementation of online play where DriveClub came into its own, and the same is true for DriveClub Bikes now that the functionality is firing on all cylinders. Racing together in six player clubs still reaps rewards, earning you fame points for your own driver level as well as your team’s, while regular leaderboards keep you in constant competition with the community.
Competition with friends is also encouraged even when they’re offline: mini-challenges are thrown at you mid-race, or you can challenge players on your friends list to beat your Time Trial, Race or Skill Challenge records. If anything, competing against player lap times is better suited to DriveClub Bikes since you can scrape extra speed with more precision on a bike.
Some of the core games' niggles still persist in DriveClub Bikes. The career mode is a rather arbitrary trawl through a checklist of events and objectives (although Evolution's art department must once again be praised for the stylish artwork that illustrates each event), the AI still has an annoying habit of bunching up while the front of the pack blast ahead before maintaining a sizable distance for the duration of the race, and the blend of realistic graphics with accessible handling still obscures DriveClub’s identity.
But the fact remains that you’re missing out on one of this generation’s most accomplished racers if you’ve yet to play DriveClub: to say it's come on in leaps and bounds in recent months is an understatement, establishing itself as the PS4's premier racer. Its infamous launch woes are now a distant memory, thankfully.
Indeed, DriveClub Bikes perfectly encapsulates Evolution’s on-going endeavor to support DriveClub with regular game-enhancing updates and quality content well beyond its launch – and there’s still plenty more to come in 2016, with new locations finally on the horizon. In an industry rife with yearly sequels, the developer’s diligence is wholly refreshing.
DriveClub Bikes is an excellent expansion that puts the fun back into bike racing games. For DriveClub devotees, it’s a brand new experience and an exhilarating ride, but the amount of content bundled in the package makes it equally enticing as a standalone game for bike racing fans new to DriveClub.
Not only is DriveClub Bikes one of the best surprises of 2015, it’s easily the best bike game in years - not a bad achievement for a car racing game add-on.