Reviewed: November 16, 1999
Released: October 1, 1999
Driving games have always come in two flavors; Arcade and Simulation, and the people who are loyal to either of these styles seldom find a driving game than can bridge the gap between the genres. Driver, from GT Games and Reflections may have succeeded.
Some of you may remember that Reflections is the company who brought us the Destruction Derby games on the Playstation many years ago. Even then, they knew how to model cars and car damage while keeping the game fun to play and moderately realistic. Driver takes us out of the demolition derby circuit and puts you; the Driver, in a high-performance muscle car in one of four major cities including; Miama, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Add a 70's funk-a-delic soundtrack and you have the template for recreating any of several car chase shows from that era including Starsky & Hutch, Streets of San Francisco, or even CHiP's.
Driver consists of a main story-driven (no pun intended) game that centers on you; an undercover cop who goes to work for the mob. Based out of a dingy studio apartment you receive your assignments from an answering machine. These missions can range from a simple pick-up or deliver to a lengthy multi-stop drive through the city performing various objectives. You generally have at least two missions to choose from so there are a large number of plot-branches allowing for excellent replay potential. Your final goal is always the same but you decide which missions you take to get there.
This freedom of choice is carried over to the game itself. When you climb behind the wheel you can see your target destination on the overhead map but you have total freedom in choosing your route. While the city maps are admittedly scaled down, there are still plenty of miles of city blocks to drive around on and most of the major landmarks are in their proper location. You can choose the narrow city streets, back-roads and alleys, or you can take the major highways full of traffic. Either way, you will sooner or later pick up a cop, and that's when the fun starts.
Driver is about car chases and car wrecks. Theoretically you can drive the speed limit and the cops will leave you alone but sooner or later you are going to get a mission where you have to drive across town in less than 3 minutes and you will be forced to put the pedal to the metal and attract the attention of the cops.
These cops are tough too! The AI is exceptional (and configurable in the options). Police will pursue you through even the heaviest of traffic. Your police scanner will let you eavesdrop on their chatter as they yell out all of the crimes you are committing and your current speed and heading. As you do more "bad things" like run red lights and smash into cars your Felony Meter will increase. The higher the meter the tougher the cops get. They will start calling in for backup and roadblocks. If you hit a cop car or smash your way through a roadblock then they really get mad and come after you at full ramming speed. There is nothing more frightening than having four or five squad cars pummel your vehicle into flaming scrap metal. Even when the TRY AGAIN option comes on the screen they are still smashing into your car.
To add to all this excitement, Driver also offers nighttime driving and random weather effects. Just when you get the hang of hand braking around those sharp turns, a slippery street will confuse you all over again. Your cars are of the plain variety; usually V8 sedans, but there are a few missions where you get to drive a few hot sportier cars and even a taxi. One of my favorite missions is where you start with a beat-up car with the damage meter almost maxxed. One fender bender and the mission is over. You will learn the definition of "defensive driving" when you drive this mission.
A gorgeous opening movie gets you fired up to play this game. The story mode is interlaced with many of these incredibly high-quality movies. You will complete about a dozen missions in each city before moving on to the next. Missions are Pass/Fail. If you total your car or miss the time limit you get to do it over. Some of the various missions lead down new paths and often these can be very hard. It is a good idea to save often so you can always go back to a previous branch and try the other path if things get too tough.
Graphically, this game is at the top of its class. The cars are perfectly modeled with ample polygons, and metallic reflective surfaces add additional realism to the cars. The streets are populated with all the stuff you expect to find in the cities. Night driving and rainy streets are perfectly rendered with real-time lighting and reflections in wet pavement. The buildings will even glow with the pulsating red and blue lights from the cops. You can crank the resolution up as high as your system will allow using Direct3D. I settled for 1024x768 and everything was very smooth with full details and all settings maxxed.
There is plenty of traffic, pedestrians, and a good variety of non-repetitive architecture so all the streets don't look the same. For you Carmageddon fans who just started drooling when I mentioned "pedestrians" - sorry; these people are fast and will always avoid your bumper. I suppose they could have added vehicular manslaughter to this title, but then the younger folks would probably have a hard time talking mom and dad into letting them play. There's plenty of scripted violence in the between-mission movies anyway.
Traffic in the cities is controlled by a good AI system. Cars will use turn signals and change lanes and stop and go at the signals. But they are mainly there to GET IN YOUR WAY. Zigzagging through rush hour traffic is...well a RUSH! Put a few cops on your tail and you have some real tension. You can generally use heavy traffic to lose the cops. They apparently have more respect for innocent citizens than you do.
Losing cops is an art you will need to master early. Cops are shown on the map and each car has a "cone of detection" emitting from it. Your objective is to get out of this cone and stay out for about 10 seconds until you hear those blissful words; "We've lost him." Usually sharp turns are the best way to lose the cops, but if you are on a long stretch of highway and can weave in and out of traffic you can sometimes get ahead of their cone.
Damage is accurately modeled and even affects the way your car handles and performs. Smash through too many street signs, mailboxes, or white picket fences and your fenders will crumple and your hood will buckle. Hit a wall or jump a curb and your alignment will go crazy. This will cause your car to start pulling to one side forcing you to compensate the rest of the mission.
The sound and music in the game are flawless. I cranked the volume on the opening movie and was totally blown away. The game sounds and music are just as good. The car engines are exceptional and the crunching and scraping of metal and squealing of tires is taken right from your favorite car-chase TV show.
There is a good variety of 70's funk with guitar riffs and bass rhythms just like TV soundtracks.
Speaking of TV, the instant replay functions of this title are the best I've ever seen. You can choose to sit back and watch the computer replay your entire mission and pick the best camera angle for the action, or you can sit in the Director's Chair yourself and use the full menu of editing tools to piece together your own replay. You pick the camera angles and you cut the scenes. Save your replays and share with your friends online.
Gameplay is where Driver starts to run out of gas. I've already covered the story mode, which will keep you busy for many, many hours, but many of those hours will be spent replaying missions over and over again. Sometimes you are forced to play multi-segmented missions over, which is even more annoying.
When you are tired of the story you can always load up any of the quick arcade racing modes in Driver. These are great for parties as each game lasts only a few minutes and you can pass the controller and try to beat each other's times or scores.
These arcade modes range from beating the best time in circuit racing to surviving a wild pack of suicidal cop cars the longest. My best time was 1:42 in San Francisco. Other twists on gameplay include racing around town through various checkpoints to get the best time and the course race where you start with only a few seconds on the clock and you must continually run through a path of flags setup through the city. Each flag puts one second back on your clock but it usually takes you at least one second to reach the next flag. This gets very tense, and it's virtually impossible to collect all 100 flags before your time runs out.
Another very annoying requirement of the game is that you must pass a driving test to even begin the story mode. This test is ridiculously difficult and you are forced to do it in a very short amount of time. To be honest, I never did pass the test. If it wasn't for a friend of mine who was able to finally master the parking garage course, this review may have never happened. And even worse is that you don't need to do half the stuff you are required to do in the test while playing the regular game...hmm...sounds like college.
Driver was a Playstation title many months before it arrived on the PC, and this is evident by the horrible menus and non-mouse supported interface. This was clearly designed for a gamepad. Controlling the actual car in Driver can be done using the keyboard, joystick, gamepad, or steering wheel. I had previously played Driver on the Playstation and was looking forward to playing it with a steering wheel, but after a few trips around town with my Microsoft Sidewinder and MadCatz Andretti wheels I found that the best control was with my Gravis Xterminator gamepad. Using the steering wheels was simply too imprecise to pull off the necessary maneuvers to play this game successfully. The keyboard was too touchy and over steering was a big problem. Only the analog pad of the Gravis allowed me to control the car effectively. But there is just something wrong about playing a driving game and not being able to use a wheel.
There were also several bugs present in the "out of box" version. Most of these were fixed with the patch which came out suspiciously soon after the release, but when your SoundBlaster Live! doesn't work (no engine sound) with the retail version of a game you begin to wonder if this title was pushed out the door a bit too early.
Finally, the lack of multiplayer is simply inexcusable. This game screams for team play (cops-n-robbers) and the possibilities are endless, yet nothing is available and nothing is even promised in a future patch. Playing Driver online could have been the best thing since Grand Prix Legends or Need for Speed, but such is the price for a fast conversion of a Playstation title.
On a side note for all your Playstation gamers who have Driver for the PSX. Driver is one of the few titles that plays perfectly using BLEEM! You can crank the resolution up and it will look and play just as good as the PC release.
There is plenty to like about Driver and a few things you may not like at all. Unless you are extremely gifted, your patience will be tested just to pass the driving skills exam required to play the game. Then your continued patience will be taxed while you play and replay many of the harder missions. I'm not ashamed to admit that I located and used the Cheat Codes to either make myself invulnerable or to simply turn off the cops.
On the good side, Driver is the only true car chase game out there aside from Midtown Madness. The action is intense and the replay functions will keep you playing just to watch the playback after you've totaled your car. Despite all its faults, Driver is quite addictive and a blast to play. Drive hard, drive fast, and keep it between the lines.
Check out the Driver Website for additional information and to watch the cool Flash movies from this game.