Reviewed: July 8, 2004
Reviewed by: Matt Gonzales
Released: June 21, 2004
Reflections Interactive, the maker of DRIV3R canít stay away from driving games. Besides making all three Driver games, theyíve also produced Destruction Derby 2, Thunder Truck Rally and the innovative Stuntman for various consoles. Say what you will about Reflections (which unfortunately, Iím about to do), but after more than 5 years of making so many automotive games, you can bet your bottom dollar that youíll get a driving physics pedigree relatively unmatched in the video game world.
For those who havenít spent hours on the original PlayStation (remember that thing?) burning the streets of Miami, outrunning Johnny Law just for kicks and watching your favorite replays of it from every angle, the Driver series may sound a lot like Grand Theft Auto. Not so fast there, Bubba.
There are so many games now that put you in the role of either cop or criminal that itís hard to tell who did what first. But, where the Grand Theft Auto series focuses on you leading a life of crime, the Driver series chose the more nebulous world of undercover cop working barely (if at all) within the law. But while those games get their allure in bringing a movie-like experience in terms of story and depth to the world of video games, the Driver series focuses on that cinematic angle in the extreme. Driverís niche is found in literally making you the director of the cinematic experience as you can choose what cameras capture the action in the dynamic replays of each mission. You can even go so far as to save your favorite replays on your memory card for showing off to your action movie-loviní friends starved for a French Connection-style fix.
By now youíve probably played a game of this genre, where you, as the undercover cop, must infiltrate the seedy underbelly of organized crime in Miami, following the trail to Mr. Big through various exotic locales. Hey, if youíre going to be putting your life on the line every minute of the day, you should at least get to travel, right?
The story itself in DRIV3R revolves around undercover cop Tanner who ends up getting himself mortally wounded right from the get go in his attempt to infiltrate a global auto theft ring. This makes the entire game youíre about to experience play out in flashback. Yeah, itís been done, but give them points for trying. There are various major plot points between here and there, but to spare you what little surprises the game has to offer, Iíll not mention them here. One wonders sometimes if there really is a market like this anymore as movies like Gone in Sixty Seconds suggests. Would you really want to buy your exotic sports car from some slimy mafia guy at the waterfront if you had the money to afford an exotic sports car in the first place?
Iíve only played the first Driver for the PlayStation as well as the intriguing but frustrating Stuntman for the PS2. As fun as the Driver mechanic was regarding gameplay it was the difficulty level and wonky AI that made it a mixed bag. Unfortunately, history repeats itself in this latest offering.
If nothing else has changed since the old PlayStation days, the menu system of DRIV3R is now pretty slick in its presentation - it looks like a Steven Soderbergh DVD for crying out loud.
Depending upon your point of view, you may or may not consider games like the infamous Grand Theft Auto series for the PS2 kith and kin to the Driver series. However, they do share many similarities in their most recent forms; being able to ďjackĒ cars, the wide open spaces of the city, and the ability to just start shooting up the place when the mood hits - and it hits often. Personally, I just donít take kindly to unwary drivers dinging my doors when I come screeching through an intersection, thatís just how I roll, man. But where the original game was concerned only with driving missions (hmph, go figure), the series eventually added missions out of the car perhaps in an attempt to compete with GTAís superior intrigue.
Whatís strange is that while Reflections saw fit to add these new foot missions to the series, they didnít bother to make sure that they were worth the time. The foot missions add nothing to the momentum of the game; in fact they tend to slow it down. You get used to flying around the city at high speeds, turning countless corners with a satisfying screech of the tires, only to stare at the back of Tannerís head as he shambles through non-descript locations. What really makes the shooting parts of the game frustrating is that youíre often being shot at by someone somewhere, only you canít turn fast enough to find them, much less draw a bead on them long enough to take them down. And this is one of the first games Iíve ever played where the auto-aim function did nothing that I could see to improve your hitting your intended target. Wha?
The weapons are your standard complement of firearms minus the over the top entries like a rocket launcher, Molotov cocktails, flamethrowers and whatnot. While it would be unfair to rate a game based on how it compared to another product like Grand Theft Auto, I have to mention that I often found it frustrating to switch weapons. Unlike GTA where you simply cycle instantly through your inventory, you often switch to a new gun with no apparent change visually onscreen until you pull the trigger, then Tanner puts the old gun away and pulls out the one youíve just chosen. Not a game breaker, but confusing in the middle of a hot firefight Iíll tell you.
I must warn you too of the bane of games like this: the keep this guy alive scenario. This is largely up to the gameís AI whether it becomes an exercise in aggravation. Case in point, a mission where Tanner and his partner have chased (with guns blazing no less) one of the minor players in the underground scene through the streets of Miami, ending up at the waterfront. At this point, Tanner is charged with gunning his way into a warehouse while keeping his gunman alive. Right, a minute ago I was flying through city streets and traffic while he was firing a machine gun out the passenger window like heís John Dillinger and now he turns into Private Ryan?
Where the real aggravation sets in is when the AI isnít enough to keep this guy from getting lit up by a couple of anonymous goons with shotguns. He ends up standing out in the open as if he wants to surrender! ďHey, cupcake, ever hear of ducking for cover?Ē And Iím supposed to impress this guy that Iíve got what it takes to be in the operation? For crying out loud.
The real problem is that situations like this, where NPCís just go mental, are all too common to really enjoy foot missions where youíre not on your own. And it never ceases to amaze me how the police cars in this game are able to speed up right on your tail through heavy traffic despite your flooring it around every other corner. These guys should be delivering my pizzas.
Iíll say this though: load times are surprisingly limited for a game that has you driving through the better part of expansive metropolitan areas. And you can drive from one end of the map to the other without a loading screen. Loading the level doesnít take half as long as a similar game like GTA. The value of such a feature in this game is up for debate however.
Iím sorry to say that the graphics engine hasnít received the same benefit that other series have in moving from the erstwhile PlayStation to the PS2. Aliasing abounds in this game particularly when it comes to lighting effects. The halo that surrounds headlights looks particularly jaggy in fact. This is particularly disappointing when you consider that two Grand Theft Auto games have already shown up on Sonyís latest console since the last Driver game (Driver 2) and while those games are hardly representative of the best graphics on the system, they do look pretty nice even up close.
What Iím trying to say is that the textures in Driv3r just look sad. Even more sad when you consider how sparse the indoor levels are. Tannerís fancy schmancy house near Miami Beach, which doesnít really serve any useful purpose, is more boring to be in than a sewing circle.
Iíve played this game on the Xbox, and while the mechanics of the game are virtually identical, the graphics are at least much better looking (yeah, itís time to start saying that now). But if Rockstar can make its games look good, why canít a game thatís been in development for years? And where Vice City may overdose on the anti-aliasing, Driv3r seems to avoid it like the plague. Go figure. One bright note is that the cinematics are quite good, even compelling, due in no small part to the high caliber of voice acting (in the form of Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Rodriguez) and moody directing.
One interesting note, are the number of guys scattered throughout Miami and in the other two cities in the game that look suspiciously familiar in their jeans and Hawaiian shirts in a good-natured nod to their main competitor. Give Reflections credit for having a sense of humor Ė and a realistic notion of their percentage of market share.
Your standard complement of weapons, engine and crashing sounds are here and they sound pretty good. Of course, by now, thereís not much excuse for any good development team not having a library of such sounds so itís hard to rave about it, but there you go. The music is utterly forgettable, but not out of place for a game like this. Hereís a game where you wish you had the Xbox version and its superior offering of a custom soundtrack. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Luckily, the use of good cast of voice actors helps give this game a semblance of credibility not otherwise warranted by the lackluster performance in nearly all areas. But Iím afraid it doesnít change much in the final analysis.
The game story, ďUndergroundĒ, wonít take too long to sally through even with the repeated attempts it will take due to the wonky AI and the unforgiving difficulty level. Itís the supplementary games that offer any real replay value. And youíd be surprised at just how fun it is to go cruising through the city, especially when you factor in the compulsion to taunt Johnny Law. Trying to outrun the fuzz is a guilty pleasure only exceeded in its mayhem by Ė yeah, you guessed it Ė Grand Theft Auto 3.
I had high hopes for this game, like a lot of fans of the first Driver did. Fond memories of racing through the streets of San Francisco like the proverbial bat out of hell and the possibility of realizing that experience on todayís gaming hardware made for a lot of anticipation. But that anticipation was all but lost after the first few missions. Itís sad to have to say that at least the daytime missions look better since the lighting is more forgiving, but itís true. The fact of the matter is, the less opportunity for the game to pop in buildings, paint lighting effects, draw buildings in the distance, etc., the better.
Reflections had a chance to show what they were capable of - and quite frankly, in this day of Grand Theft Auto, they had a lot to prove. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball, leaving a new generation of would-be fans with a game about as much fun as playing in traffic. Avoid this game like a speed trap.