Reviewed: May 29, 2007
Released: May 8, 2007
Driver Ď76 is the latest game to debut on the PSP offering fast, crime-ridden, driving action in an open-ended sandbox world. While the game desperately strives to compete with the Grand Theft Auto games, it only manages to offer a limited scope of that gameplay, mostly in the form of pure driving and cop-chase action.
You play Ray, a stereotypical grease monkey from the mid-70ís complete with surplus Army jacket and red Rambo bandana, making him look more like a displaced Vietnam vet than the next great getaway driver. He teams up with Slink, the afro sporting, jive-ass talking pimp who has more 70ís black flavor than a case of Colt 45.
Slink is the ďbrainsĒ (something has to be under a fro that size), and Ray is the muscle and the man behind the wheel of more than 40 fully customizable vehicles, for more than 20 missions spread across six chapters taking you all over a massive and accurate reproduction of New York City. Your ultimate goal; to establish your rep and make enough cash to impress Zhou, the head of the Chinese Mafia, and father of the girl of your dreams, Chen-Chi. Ho's before bro's...
Driver í76 takes an immediate departure from the GTA franchise by offering a very structured storyline. The game is divided into six chapters, each with three or four story missions. You can choose which mission to do next from the large scrolling map, or you can simply let the game move you on to the next.
The game does offer open-ended exploration and a huge assortment of side missions, but this is something you must invoke, taking you outside the narrative for some pure driving and exploration. Iím almost ashamed to admit that it took me until Chapter 3 to realize this. I was seeing all these ďtokensĒ floating around city, but the missions were never allowing me the time to actually collect them. I finally figured out that by hitting the Triangle in the map screen I could pick a section of the city and explore at my leisure.
The first thing that struck me in the story mode is just how original some of the missions were. After playing more than a half-dozen GTA games I was sure nothing was left that could surprise or impress me, but Driver í76 has you doing clever things like jacking an ambulance delivering a heart transplant and delivering the heart to a ďnew buyerĒ before the ice melts. Another mission has you luring a rival gang into chasing you as you drive into the underground parking garage of the NYPD then trying to escape yourself, as the alarm sounds and the gates start to shut.
Another cool idea that manifests itself in several missions is the tow truck. You can actually drive this truck around, back into cars, hitch them up, and tow them to a new destination. Naturally, youíll use this to jack several cars in a mission not too far from the script of ďGone in 60 SecondsĒ, but there are even more clever uses like delivering a car to a rivalís mansion packed with explosives, or sneaking a duplicate car into a Latino neighborhood so you can replace it with a car that is already there and loaded with drugs.
There are even some race missions thrown in, one of which is extremely original in that you all start off in your own cars, with the object being a specific (and rare) car hidden somewhere in the city. You must race to the car, get in it, and drive it back to the starting line without trashing it. Naturally, once you get in the car, the opposition will try to ram you off the road and destroy your prize.
Perhaps one of my favorite missions is playing chauffer to a husband and wife team of assassins. Youíll drop one of them off to make their hit then drive their spouse to a second target then drive back to pick up the first. Youíll repeat this process three or four times, all under strict time constraints and possible pursuit. When their final target escapes in his car itís up to you to chase him down and ram him off the road.
As the name might imply, youíll spend most of your time behind the wheel. Out of the 27 missions I think I actually got out of my car and shot people threeÖmaybe four times. A handy auto-locking target mode makes strafing easy, and none of the on-foot shootouts were remotely challenging. You can also lean out the window of your current ride and fire on other cars, although this usually attracts the unwanted attention of the cops.
As with all Driver games, the cops play their part in the game, although they don't seem to be as smart or aggressive as they have been in past games. They are quick to engage in pursuit but are just as quick to break it off if you can put enough distance between them or break their line of sight with a quick turn down a narrow alley. Once you hear the radio say, "We've lost the suspect" it's just a matter of time and avoiding their vision cones, conveniently displayed on the mini-map, before the heat is off.
You wonít be driving all the time. A few missions put you in the back of a truck using machine guns and a grenade launcher to defend yourself against a seemingly endless stream of enemy cars. The clever thing here is that you can target the car, passenger, or driver. By taking out the driver you eliminate the other two. Things get a bit more dangerous when they start coming after you in semi-trucks and giant bulldozers.
Some missions might require you to drive a specific car but most allow you to pick from any vehicle in your growing garage. As you complete each mission you are awarded cash, cars, and other unlockable bonuses. Since you donít really need to flash your cash to earn the favor of Chen-Chi you can spend it on vehicle upgrades like shocks, springs, brakes, nitro, and body mods. These upgrades are usually just diversionary and arenít required to complete any of the missions. I didnít even mess with them until the story was over and I was just working on completing the game.
It wonít take you very long to finish the story mode, and then you can move on to the side missions, which can easily take you just as long, if not longer, to complete. These include all sorts of missions of various difficulty levels as noted by a star ranking when you highlight them on the map. You can race cars on twisty tracks, enter demolition derbies, drive a taxi, or collect delinquent payments for the local loan shark.
Perhaps the most daunting task is locating and collecting all of the hidden star tokens floating around New York. Youíll spot many of them while driving around in the story missions, but trying to remember where they were once you actually have the time to find them is something else. Plus, some of these are extremely well hidden, like the one in a giant cargo container suspended by a crane over the water at the harbor. You actually have to ramp up at perfect speed and arc through the container, collect the star, and arc over to the opposite dock.
Collecting stars allows you to unlock bonus items like clothing, paint jobs, and other bonus items that can then be swapped around like trading cars using the PSP Wi-Fi. You can also engage in multiplayer events like Street Racing, Carnage, Circuit Racing, or even race for Pink Slips where the winner gets the loserís ride for use in their own game.
Despite its recent increase in usage, the comic book style presentation of the story still manages to keep things fresh and offer the game a unique style, even outside of the scrolling pages and panels of the narrative. Maps, splash screens, and character art all have that heavy ink style comprised of individual dots that only show up when greatly magnified.
The game graphics are surprisingly good, especially for the city which shows a great deal of variety and non-repeating textures as well as a lot of original architecture, especially for all those landmarks that everybody is already familiar with. It can get downright claustrophobic flying down the canyons of Manhattan, but then you can find yourself winding through the curvy streets of suburbia or tearing through the warehouse district or crashing though cargo containers down at the pier.
There are more than 40 cars in Driver í76 and most all of them have some sort of original flair about them. They also all deform and come apart as they take damage from collisions with other traffic and the environment. Damage is not purely visual, so you can expect your top speed to decrease as smoke starts obscuring your vision. Draw distance is really good and there are minimal load times as you drive across the city, usually confined to natural transitions like tunnels and bridges.
With the obvious exception of the GTA series, Driver í76 has the best soundtrack of any PSP game to date, hands down. There are more than 20 of the hippest and funkiest tunes ever collected on a single disc, and even more surprising, I had only heard of four of these songs prior to playing this game.
Just how good is it? I actually had my PSP hooked into the sound system at work for nearly a full week, and with more than two hours of blues, funk, and 70ís pop, by the time the soundtrack looped I was more than ready for a repeat performance. I still keep this game in my PSP travel case just for the soundtrack.
The voice work is also quite good with quality performances by Ray, Slink, and a very stereotypical cast of villains. Zhouís Chinese accent is so over-the-top, it fits perfectly with the B-movie presentation, and as already mentioned, Slink has more black flavor than Undercover Brother.
Sound effects are rather limited, mostly car engines, collisions, and gunfire, none of which is terribly impressive, but it all pales in comparison to the rest of the audio presentation. There is some nice radio chatter youíll get to hear during police chases that is surprisingly accurate to the action.
Given my current PSP playing style of about two hours per day, I was able to finish the story portion of Driver '76 in less than a week (or about 6 hours). Iíve spent at least another 4-6 hours going from icon to icon across the map finishing off the races, collection missions, and other side missions available, and it could easily take 5-8 hours of dedicated exploration to find all those star tokens.
Naturally, this type of game design is relying on gamers who pride themselves in completion. There is really no benefit to doing any of the non-story gameplay other than personal satisfaction and the off-chance you'll find somebody else with a copy of the game who wants to trade some collectibles. There is support for GameSharing so you can at least challenge other PSP owners to an impromptu race, even if they donít have their own copy of the game.
Itís really disheartening (and unfair) to read some of the poor reviews this game has been getting. Sure, Driver í76 isnít the end-all-be-all of PSP racing games, but you canít help but have a fantastic time once you climb behind the wheel and explore one of the best handheld recreations of New York City.
Personally, the music alone is worth the price of admission. The game was just a fun and engaging bonus. Perhaps you have to be old enough to remember the 70ís and all of its cultural slang and music, but Iím guessing Driver Ď76 will be a hit with anybody who approaches it with an open mind and modest expectations.