DRIVER (1999) – REFLECTIONS INTERACTIVE
In 1968, the film Bullitt was released in America. There was a plot about something in it, but no one remembers that – instead, you mention the film to anyone and the first thing they will remember is the legendary car chase scene. Weighing in at 10 minutes and taking place in the hills of San Francisco, it was longer than any chase scene that had gone before it, and has been revered ever since as the greatest chase scene of them all. What makes it special, is that it defines the word ‘cool’ – Steve McQueen, burning rubber and speeding through the city in his green Mustang is quite the memorable sight. Sadly, even if you went out and bought a muscle car, you couldn’t replicate what happens in the film…because of traffic. And the law. When Reflections Interactive released Driver in 1999 however, it represented a chance to finally live out the dreams that had been inspired by all the great car chases we were treated to in the 60’s and 70’s; big open 3D cities where you were the man in the muscle car and where you could stick it to the police whenever you wanted. The question is then, did Driver fulfil its promise?
The first thing to note about Driver is the wealth of gameplay options that you have available from the get-go, of which Undercover mode is the main attraction. You take the role of Tanner, a former racing driver turned NYPD detective. Tanner is told that in order to disrupt Mafia activities in the city, he must go undercover and use his skills as a driver to infiltrate the organisation from the bottom. After proving his skills to some lowlife gangsters in a parking garage, he sets about completing tasks for various criminals, such as delivering drugs, aiding in assassinations and taking out the police, across four huge cities in the USA (Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York), before trying to take down Castaldi, the big cheese of the Mafia. The story is told through a mixture of cut scenes and voice messages left on answering machines, and pays great homage to the likes of Bullitt, Starsky And Hutch and The French Connection in its execution, with backstabbing and double crossing all over the place. It’s a excellent storyline, full of thrills, and because of the branching nature of missions (allowing you to choose different paths through parts of the story) it means that there is good replay value in here as well.
Cutscenes and storylines can only go so far in a driving game; it has to play well to stand any chance of being good. In this respect, Driver is a very mixed bag. Lets focus on the good stuff first – from the way that you select missions (taking them off a voice recorder in a seedy motel situated in the cities) to the actual driving mechanics, Driver was so different to anything else available at the time. In keeping with the 70’s setting, you have muscle cars for most of the missions, and thanks to some clever physics they handle superbly, leaning into corners and bouncing off hills. The controls are beautifully simple as well; directional buttons to turn, X to accelerate, Square to brake, Triangle to use the handbrake, Circle to perform a burnout, and then trigger buttons to look left right and behind. Getting to grips with the cars is simple enough, and it won’t be long before you start delivering some delicious hand brake turns around the city.
As aforementioned, there’s plenty of scope to be driving in as well. Aside from Undercover mode, there are training courses designed to help you with trickier situations like weaving in and out of slow moving traffic, checkpoint races, pursuit missions where you have to bring an enemy car to a standstill in a set time, destruction modes where you aim is to cause as much damage as possible, and my personal favourite, Survival mode, where the police have around 10 cars on you and will stop you at any cost…and they are also much faster than you and virtually invincible to boot. The big clincher though is the ‘Take A Drive’ mode, where you can simply drive around the massive cities with no objectives and can drive/explore to your hearts content. There really is a lot to do, and it ensures you wont lose interest after the main story (which has 44 missions overall) is done.
Perhaps the most impressive feature in Driver however is the Director’s Mode. Expanding on the work pioneered in Gran Turismo, when you finish a mission or free roam, you will have the option to watch the mission again from several different camera angles, and by using the editing tools in game, you can chop and change footage to create your very own car chase. Want to recreate Bullitt? Simply load up San Francisco, cause some mayhem, and then edit the remnants. The interface is a bit crude, but its workable enough and if you put the time into it, you can make some really good footage, complete with hubcabs flying off the tyres. Great stuff.
Unfortunately, there is a flipside to all of this goodness, and it rests in the form of two huge problems. First off is the city design – yes, the areas are massive, much bigger than the GTA games of the time, and yes they do feature locations from the real cities, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Madison Square Garden in New York. However, where are all the bloody corners? Seriously, there are no curves in any of the roads on this game; it’s a web of squares and straight lines. Downtown Manhattan may have a grid system, but I’m pretty sure that Los Angeles doesn’t resemble the in game map, which is closer to Milton Keynes than anything. What this means is that this game is played pretty much at 90 degrees for its entire duration. Get used to it.
The absolute killer problem with Driver however, rests with one crucial element – Difficulty. No joke, this game is hard, and if you treat it lightly you will end up throwing your controller against the wall repeatedly in frustration. The opening garage section is tough as nails for beginners, and its keeps getting harder until the completely brutal last set of missions in New York. I’m ashamed to say that I have never legitimately beaten this game; I got so frustrated first time through that I used the Invincibility cheat to get through Undercover mode, and I still can’t do the final mission comfortably. Driver really isn’t for the faint hearted, and it no doubt put a fair few people off playing it when it came out.
Trying to fit so much stuff into a single Playstation disc also had another flipside for Reflections; they pushed the hardware a bit too far, and it had a fairly catastrophic effect on the graphical front. If you are just cruising along then its fine, and the cities (although lacking in some detail) are well proportioned. Get into a chase with several cars however, and you will notice a severe case of slow down in the fps rate. The character models of pedestrians are very shoddy. The game also suffers from a terrible amount of glitching; if you hit the underside of a car that has been flipped over, there is a strange rebound effect that can send your car flying through scenery and getting flung across the city. There are also random buildings that can be driven inside of in some of the cities. Praise should be given for the ambition, but Driver could have been a lot more polished than it eventually turned out.
On the sound front, Driver is fares much better than its graphics. There is no licensed soundtrack like Gran Turismo had; instead it utilises a soundtrack heavily inspired by 70’s cop shows with funky guitar twangs and orchestral sweeps, best demonstrated in the main menu theme, New York At Night, New York Cops, Miami At Night and the Los Angeles theme . Happily, the cars all sound like one would expect; perform a burnout and the engine will rev its heart out while the tyres burn the road. You might find yourself getting annoyed pretty quickly by the constant police chatter as they follow you in a chase though, as stock phrases get repeated about every twenty seconds
Why should Driver be remembered then? Even if it is unfairly difficult and not particularly pleasing to the eye, it is an important landmark in the driving genre, because it showed that you didn’t simply have to drive around in circles all the time ala Ridge Racer or Gran Turismo – you could fit in a decent plot as well. It served as a good inspiration for rival developers Rockstar who would fully realise the potential of 3D cities with GTA III, and would lay the foundations for a series that it still going strong today (Driver: San Francisco is released this week). A good addition to anyone’s PS1 collection.