Like It or Not, Driveclub’s Reception Is Troubling News for Sony

You may have noticed this morning that reviews of Driveclub are already flooding in, populating the previously empty slots on the game’s Metacritic page that sat waiting through delays and general anticipation. Some reviews are good, some are bad, and some are mind-numbingly middle of the road, but one thing has already become clear: Driveclub, unfortunately, is not receiving universal acclaim. Its Metascore currently sits at an inoffensive 74, and if today’s wash of reviews are any indication, that’s about where it’s going to stay.

Driveclub’s quality may be inoffensive, and despite CraveOnline awarding the game a 5.5, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about the part I do find offensive. Specifically, Sony’s marketing attitude when it comes to not just this game, but PS4 in general. Driveclub‘s development team is as good a place as any to start, and whether you technically consider Twitter personas to be “marketing” or not, Driveclub director Paul Rustchynsky sure was acting like it back in June when Grid Autosport was released. It’s one thing to talk trash, but to then have your game just barely match the competition you so recently put-down in a public forum? Puh-lease. And that’s being generous.

I wrote a polite but pointed piece about a month ago calling some of Sony’s strategies into question, and my argument can be boiled down to two main points. First, Sony can’t live on gamer goodwill, graphics, and general positive mind share and hype (largely generated from E3 2013) forever. Gamers will eventually cease their default hatred of Microsoft, and when they do, the playing field will once again level. Second, my expectation at the time was that the aforementioned momentum would begin tailing off sometime next year, and that Sony ought to act accordingly and make sure its exclusive games are up to snuff.

That’s all well and good, and I expected to revisit the issue again when the time was appropriate. Earlier this month, however, a trailer caught my eye — one for Driveclub. Dubbed the “all-action trailer,” the one-minute montage features over-the-top encounters from the game, as well as quotes from various gaming outlets. With a completely straight face and no reservation whatsoever, Sony drops a semi-out-of-context bombshell from VG247 toward the end: “PS4’s Forza Killer.” Cue raucous applause, curtain call, and glorious exit from the stage as the performers blow the audience kisses as they part. I can’t help but feel this is how Sony imagined it.

Related: Driveclub Review

Instead, Driveclub is out today, its metascore sits at 74, and as far as I can tell Evolution Studios hasn’t “killed” anything. Perhaps more importantly, reception thus far raises ethical questions about companies promoting and “hyping” their games. Yes, a company’s goal is to sell product, but does Sony not owe honesty to its loyal and massive PS4 user base? Your die-hard fans are buying the game regardless; you can either deliver on what they expect (or even undershoot slightly), and they’ll gladly lap it up and tell their friends “at least the graphics are good.” Or, you can misguidedly attempt to pimp the game as a “Forza Killer” a week ahead of launch as a last-ditch effort, fall miles short of that claim (not because Driveclub isn’t good, but because it never aimed to be a simulation in the first place), and accomplish nothing but confusion and disappointment. Oh, and the loyal fans who would otherwise follow you into any fire now feel considerably burned.

Though this example is particularly egregious, it’s not exactly new, and similar inklings had begun to form around the time of Infamous: Second Son. Again, no huge issue with that game, it’s not terrible, it looks gorgeous, and Sony’s job is to sell its own games. I can whine all I want that Sony shouldn’t over-hype, but maybe the real issue is an internal one. Why aren’t studios like Sucker Punch and Evolution producing cream of the crop, top tier titles?

And before anyone retorts with “7s and 8s are good scores,” it’s true — they are. But they don’t sell consoles, or please console owners with a critical eye. PS4 is one of the first consoles in history to sell massive, competition-shattering numbers without delivering the goods in a timely fashion, and it’s largely thanks to a series of gaffes from Microsoft so severe that buying their console was, for a time, seen as immoral and bad for gaming. When the smoke clears–and it’s clearing sooner than I expected–Metacritic 74s are not going to cut it. Even the Wii U is better off in this regard, with a healthy dose of 85-and-up exclusives and at least two more on the way this year. The truth about value proposition, like it or not, is beginning to rear its ugly head.

Related: 14 Things You Might Not Know About Driveclub

The fact is, I never wanted to “kill” Forza; I just wanted to play a great racer on PS4. Who cares what the competition is doing? Sony’s focus on further kicking Microsoft while it’s down betrays a deep-seated insecurity about the quality of its own games. Sony’s “this is for the players” slogan from Gamescom has been absent lately, and perhaps there’s a reason for that. Infamous and Driveclub may look pretty, but I can’t possibly imagine showing them off to my friends if that weren’t the case. As a Wii U owner who selected PS4 as my second machine for its graphical prowess, I’m OK to wait out this storm, but the Sony faithful? They need their pride kept alive. Bloodborne and Uncharted are coming, but gamer goodwill is fickle; here’s hoping Sony doesn’t goof-up too much before those titles arrive.