Reviewed: July 7, 2004
Reviewed by: Travis Young
Released: June 21, 2004
There is no doubt that DRIV3R is one of the top five most hyped games for 2004. The game has been in development for nearly as long as the Xbox has been in existence, obviously targeted for the PS2 and suitably tweaked and ported to the Xbox. Reflections has quite a legacy to live up to – after all, they pioneered the smash and crash driving model back in the late 90’s with their Destruction Derby games, followed by the first two Driver installments and eventually the frustrating Stuntman game for the PS2.
“DRIV3R is an action-packed driving-adventure game that recreates the excitement of a Hollywood blockbuster car chase and plays like an interactive movie.” That is a quote from the media hype and there is a level of “truth” to it. DRIV3R is indeed a very cinematic experience and the opening movie and all of the cutscenes that follow until the closing credits are exceptionally well done, but as is the case in these “interactive movies”, the fun stops when the game starts.
Obviously influenced by the success of recent action-crime titles like Vice City, True Crime, and The Getaway, Reflections decided to expand the concept of DRIV3R to include some pedestrian missions. It’s about a 70-30 split between driving and walking (or running) in favor of driving (thank goodness) but that 30% of the game you are not in the car is pure hell and something that fans of the original Driver games won’t be expecting and certainly won’t like.
On the surface DRIV3R appears to have it all with over 150 miles of streets and highways spanning three massive cities, 70+ vehicles ranging from cars, trucks, motorcycles, and speedboats, and a list of Hollywood talent that would make Roger Ebert want to review the cutscenes.
There is no denying that DRIV3R has it all, every last ingredient required for making a smash-hit that could change the face of gaming forever…except, it’s just not any fun to play.
The game opens with a cool cutscene that sets up the characters and the semi-interesting story that has the potential for paying tribute to Gone in Sixty Seconds but quickly loses its focus halfway through the first city of Miami. By the time Tanner heads off to Nice and Istanbul you are simply caught up in the mission structure and responding to printed objectives rather than living the life of a profession car thief, or an undercover cop pretending to be one.
Tanner is a cop that has gone so deep undercover that you often forget you are a “good guy”. You’ll steal cars; kill people (civilians and other cops) without remorse or penalty, assuming you don’t get busted, all to prove you can be trusted.
There are 25 missions spread across the three cities and almost every mission follows the same exact formula. Take a 5-10 minute driving sequence and either preface or finish it with a 5-10 minute run and gun segment. If you are lucky you might get a checkpoint between these two very distinct elements, but most of the time you get to replay all or at best, half of the mission over and over and over again until you learn all the subtle nuances (read: memorize all enemy locations and patterns). By then you can play the level in your sleep, which is handy because you will probably be dozing off.
Admittedly, the driving portions of the game are DRIV3R’s strongest element and they feature all of the intense arcade driving physics, destructible car damage, and tire roasting goodness that we have come to expect from any of these games, especially from the Driver franchise. The cities are massive, there are often multiple paths to each objective, and even the objectives vary substantially to give you a fresh take on the tired old “car chase” theme.
One interesting “feature” that surprised and pissed me off at first was the various paths the AI would take on several of the chase missions. Normally in games like these you tend to slowly learn the path the target car takes in gradual steps as you play and replay the level. DRIV3R mixes things up by dissecting the overall path from point A to B into sections, then randomizing those sections so at certain intersections you can’t always be sure the car is going to hang a right – it could go straight. I appreciate the theory and the fact that it definitely extends the gameplay; I only wish it was featured in a better game.
You have the standard assortment of chase, pursue, and escape missions. Often you will have to retreat to your hideout but you must first lose your pursuers. The cops and the rival gangs are relentless and escaping by clever driving is nearly impossible. Your best tactic is to exit the car and unload a few clips into the pursuers. Dead men tell no tales.
Control and physics are always important to driving games and DRIV3R excels in the driving department. The cars all have a nice weight and feel to them. They slip and slide around corners and bounce over curbs and hills. Motorcycles are lighter and faster, and boats skim the surface and turn realistically based on your forward momentum. The massive semi-trucks take forever to get up to speed but once they do they are nearly impossible to stop.
Once you step out of the car you might want to switch to a gamepad you don’t mind dashing against the wall and smashing to bits. Controlling Tanner when he is on foot is an exercise in frustration. The camera is horrible and you can never get the angle you want. The turn rate on the camera is slow – very slow, so when you are in the heat of a gunfight you simply can’t turn the camera quickly enough.
You’ll quickly learn to “work the system” by keeping your distance from the enemy and sniping them from a half-mile away. Thankfully, your target cursor changes to red when you pass it over an enemy; even an enemy that is invisible. Early in the game you drive a boat out to a shack in the bay and rather than exiting the boat and fighting them on the dock you can find a comfortable range where you can shoot them but they can’t shoot you. Just pass the cursor over every square inch of the building and fire when it turns red. Sure it’s cheap, but so is the game.
Ultimately, after a few dozen replays you can memorize the location and movement patterns of enemies then line up your crosshair at the headshot elevation while strafing back and forth. The entire experience is very sloppy and consists of a lot of trial and error. Of course, dying will often result in you having to replay a driving segment leading up to the pedestrian portion, or even worse; you fail a car chase after a firefight and must repeat the walking portion. Either way, there is a lot of replay in DRIV3R but not the kind we associate with “value”.
Tanner moves like a robot, sliding across the ground. You steer him by moving the camera, which also aims the gun sight. There are also some issues with proximately or collision detection. Getting in and out of a boat is hit or miss and can often result in you taking a swim.
Perhaps the worse example of bogus controls was on Mission 22. You start in a parking lot on foot and you must pursue the “Bagman” who is already in a car and screeching out of the lot. This entire mission relies on precise timing with about a 5 second margin of error. Running up to the car you hit the button to get in. You have a 33% chance of the door opening right away. Other events might include a lengthy animation of you putting away a firearm, or you might crouch (even though crouch and open car door aren’t the same button) or you might walk to the back of the car and look at the trunk (don’t ask me why). If any of these things happen other than you getting in the car, the mission will end in failure before you even get out of the parking lot.
Enemy AI is non-existent, but then again, they can afford to be stupid because you are limited by the terrible controls. There was one mission where I had to fight my way through a maze of cargo containers and enemy thugs were all over the place. This was one of those missions that started and ended with driving and the foot portion was in the middle and there was no saving anywhere. Needless to say I played this level 16 times (yes I counted) before I finished it, so I had plenty of time to observe the scripted enemy movements. They always start in the same location and move to the same location taking the same path.
There is also car AI, but this is always shown on the map as a “cone of awareness” so as long as you keep your distance you can usually avoid any hassles on the road. Once they do detect you both cops and thugs slip into nitro-fueled street machines capable of closing impossible gaps. I can drive my tires off making flawless turns and weave through enough traffic to knit a sweater and they will still catch me. That’s when I hop out and unload a few clips into their engine. BOOM!
Another aggravation is some simple inconsistencies like in the pursuit missions. I’ve actually had the game tell me on several occasions that ‘I’ve lost my target – mission failed” when the target was in plain view – not just the red arrow bouncing over the car but the actual car itself. Apparently, if you take a parallel path or “head ’em off at the pass” the game can’t interpret such cleverness.
Even when the game shines there are some dull spots. One of the cooler missions has you stealing three cars and driving them into the back of a moving truck before it reaches its destination. The timer is basically the travel time for the truck, so you need to find transportation that is faster than the truck, get ahead of the truck, steal the car, and then find the truck, get behind it and drive the car inside. Cool, huh? Yeah, it could have been.
Getting the car into the back of the truck, much like everything else in this game is hit or miss. Failure usually results in the car careening wilding off to the side and if this happens more than twice the car is damaged beyond worth and the mission is over. If you are lucky enough to get the car into the truck you are then tossed onto the street where you take about 25% damage. This means that you will take 75% damage if you play this mission perfectly leaving you only 25% health for random screw-ups.
There is significantly more fun to be had in the mini-games and racing challenges found after you have finished or given up on the main game. You have checkpoint races, gate races, chase and getaway races, and my favorite, survival mode where every cop in the city become a rabid dog and somebody stuffed a cat down your shorts. There is no multiplayer support, but these games are short and scores are kept so it’s easy enough to hand off the controller and compete with your buds.
In keeping with the Hollywood theme, there is a director mode that allows you to watch your replays, cut and edit them and even choose from several camera angles for the action. It’s certainly the most advanced replay system of any game in the genre, perhaps any game at all. You can then save these independent films and exchange them with your film school classmates or just show off to people on your Xbox Live friends list.
The overall visual style of DRIV3R bugs me. The graphics are good, don’t get me wrong, but they feature that hazy smoothed over style that we’ve seen in countless other games like Midtown Madness 3, Project Gotham 2 and others.
Technically, the game is excellent with detailed car, truck, bike, and boat models. Vehicles deform and break apart, smoke, burn, and eventually explode as they take damage. Explosions are not simply pre-rendered events, but rather a complex expansion of actual and identifiable vehicle parts. One mission had me driving a sports car that couldn’t go less than 50mph or it would explode. Believe me, I saw it explode many times and it was different and cool each and every time.
On the flip side are character models and animations that are rather bland. Aside from the key characters, there only seems to be a few core character models that are redressed to suit the county you are in. Everyone walks and runs stiffly and even when they do a diving evasive roll it’s predictable.
There are some nice night and day effects, so you can drive around in the dark, at noon, or during low-light conditions of dusk and dawn. The skies are colorful and full of clouds and the light reflects and casts shadows to bring these environments to life. Textures are rather bland and repeat often but you seldom have time to sightsee in this game so it’s not a huge issue.
The Xbox does a good job of loading these massive cities in a relatively short time. It can take you several minutes to drive from one end of the map to the other and there are never any load screens or pauses other than perhaps a short hiccup as new textures are loaded. There are over 70 cars in the game but you are likely to only see about a dozen at any given time, similar to the phenomenon we’ve seen in the GTA games.
There isn’t a lot of interaction with the environments other than the random objects than can be destroyed. You can go inside the drawbridge control room in Miami and operate the bridge but that’s about the extent of button pushing. What can and cannot be broken is a bit cryptic. You can smash through a park bench but hit a thin metal stop sign and your car will implode.
Interior parts of most of the levels are boring and repetitive. Wall and floor textures blend together and rooms are not very detailed as far as furnishings. Areas like the hotel in Miama and the building under construction in Istanbul are merely maze-like environments where you can play “cops and robbers”.
The menus are pretty slick and the cutscenes have the look of a feature film. Some of them actually look like film, particularly the scene where the yacht explodes out on the bay.
The music includes an interesting selection of rock and alternative. There aren’t any themes like the GTA games, although Miami starts off with some cool vibes before it devolves into the standard rock beats that drive the rest of the game. There is actually a soundtrack available for DRIV3R, which I picked up and the music actually holds up better outside the game. There is even some cool narration from Madsen between the tracks.
The voice talent is star quality with Ving Rhames, Mickey Rourke, Michelle Rodriguez, Iggy Pop and Michael Madsen all lending their vocal talents to the mix. The script is well written if not a bit trite, but such is the nature of the genre.
Sound effects are exactly what you would expect; plenty of squealing tires, crunching fenders, gunfire, explosions, sirens, and a unique engine noise for just about anything you can drive. There is also radio chatter typical of what you would hear on a police scanner and you even get cell phone updates during some missions.
There are 25 missions and each one takes about 10-15 minutes to complete, once you complete them. Of course with all of the trial and error leading up to that magic moment you can expect 15-25 aggravating hours of gameplay. To further frustrate you, the game likes to lock-up, mainly in the Nice levels, and usually near the end of the level just before it saves. The cars will just freeze and the sound loops.
I doubt the replay editor will offer too much added value since by the time you finish a mission the last thing you want to do is relive the nightmare. The mini-games are actually a lot more fun than the Underground mode and will deliver countless hours of racing fun for you and your friends.
DRIV3R was a huge disappointment and I wasn’t even looking forward to it that much. I can only imagine how dejected fans of the series must be, but the simple truth is that there are plenty of other games out there that can satisfy just about any craving this game attempts to fill.
The decision to create so much gameplay outside the car could have reinvented the series, but instead, it merely bogs it down with clumsy and frustrating gameplay. The poor save and checkpoint system will have you playing and replaying portions of the game to the point of insanity.
If you tolerated or possibly enjoyed the frustrating and repetitive nature of Reflection’s previous game, Stuntman then you might have what it takes to enjoy DRIV3R. Anyone else looking for a good driving game would probably be better off looking somewhere else. There are just too many design and technical hurdles to leap over before you could ever truly enjoy this game.