1999 was a year of both great sadness and great joy. At the start of it there was only one thing on my mind and I can clearly remember my best mate and I struggling to talk about anything else until around mid-spring. I am of course talking about the fact that after 16 years in the wilderness we were finally going to see a new Star Wars film, and thank the maker for that. Episode 1 was surely going to be the best film ever, wasn’t it? Yeah sure it was, after all, how could George possibly get it wrong after all this time? Tch, it didn’t even bare thinking about. In fact, I remember going to see a little movie called The Matrix purely because it had the Star Wars trailer before it. When the trailer finished (a two-handed lightsaber? Oh wow…) I nearly left the theatre right there and then. I’m so glad I didn’t.
Anyway, the art of conversation was slowly dying in my mate’s house (I was living on his sofa at the time, you know how it is sometimesÖ) until one fateful day his flat mate come home from work with a copy of the Driver demo disc. He’d ripped it off the front of a glossy Playstation magazine in some unsuspecting newsagents and overnight our lifestyles totally changed.
I don’t know what it was about that demo that got us so hooked but hooked we were and in minutes. The 70s music kicked in, the camera panned around your cool muscle car, the engine revved, the timer hit zero and you were off. The demo level was so simple – chase the other car – but in practice it turned out to be so hard. He’d burn off, you’d race after him, he’d take the first corner at full speed skidding all the way, you’d do the same, lose control, hit a lamppost or something and the screen would fade out. “You’ve lost him!” the Playstation would cry and “My go!” your mate would shout as he eagerly grabbed the pad out of your hands. Such was everyone’s first taste of Driver – short lived, irritating and outrageously hard. But for some reason you couldn’t wait for another go.
That demo disc didn’t leave our Playstation for months. Night after night we’d come home, turn the machine on there went the evening. And as we played and played the blasted thing, it all started to kick into place. When you mastered the crazy twitch handling the game went from ridiculous to spectacular just like that. On each go we’d hound that car using every little trick we’d picked up – hand brake turns, wheel spins, opposite lock, you name it – and we’d love every minute of it, mainly because we knew that to be good at a game this hard was really something. Thrilling isn’t the word – you could lose it on any corner so easily but, well, you just learned not to, and it felt great. And it looked good too, so much that it soon became one of those rare one player games that are as much fun to watch as play, so you happily waited your turn. Well almost, anyway.
Of course when the game came out, we went ballistic. Having already becoming accomplished Drivers from playing the demo, we were more than up for the challenge and raced through the game at breakneck pace. Throughout the week after it’s release I was rarely seen outdoors, and I don’t know how many bottles of vodka and packets of cigarettes we went through. Um, let’s just say a lot, but it was all worth it. It was Driver you see, Driver. It was great.
We couldn’t get enough of American muscle cars at that time, so when we weren’t playing we’d track down and watch movies that we thought might have inspired Driver. Some are obvious, like Bullit and The French Connection, some not so, like Gone in 60 Seconds (the original version from 1974), Grand Theft Auto (the Ron Howard film) and Vanishing Point. But then we struck gold – we found Walter Hill’s The Driver, and we couldn’t believe it.
The Driver, starring Ryan O’Neal, is an amazingly cool slice of the 70s. O’Neal plays the Cowboy, a Driver of some reputation who does just that – drive. He lived in a hotel room, had very few possessions, he never asked questions and he didn’t like guns, but he could drive like the devil himself. The film actually has all the ingredients you’d expect from a good chase movie: a charismatic lead on a mission, a femme fatale, a wise-ass cop, a double-cross or two and some of the longest and most beautifully filmed car chases I have ever seen. The influence on the game was obvious: the same plot, similar music, hell – Tanner and the cowboy even dress the same in the cut scenes. And the training level (if you remember, in the underground car park) is ripped directly out of the middle of the picture, when Cowboy has to prove how well he can drive to impress a new client. So, thank Driver for Driver then.
Anyway, the reason for all the preamble is that I watched the Driver again the other day (it’s just been conveniently released on DVD in time for Driv3r) and it dawned on me why Driver (and Driver) worked so well. Driver is about driving. It’s about being a driver – you’re not the gunman, not the shooter, you’re the getaway man.
Which is exactly why Driv3r is a huge disappointment. Let’s run over the game – Driv3r is a crime-caper action driving game like GTA, The Getaway or True Crime. Missions usually involve driving from A to B, jumping out of the car and doing something – usually shooting or protecting someone – then getting back into the car and driving off. Sound familiar? Well, it should, although sadly this is more like The Getaway than a Tommy Vercetti adventure, in the sense that it’s quite a let down.
The driving bits are great fun just like they were in the original, but they’re far from perfect. It still has that over the top twitch handling that takes some getting used to so you’ll probably find yourself crashing your automobile quite a bit when you start off. You might even crash into the odd lamp post or park bench and stop dead, which is a bit harsh and can ruin what felt like a perfectly good run, but if you persevere you might just get it eventually, if you can get over the odd hideously embarrassing glitch.
Actually, this is I where I should point out that pretty much all the staff at Thunderbolt have been playing Driv3r quite a bit now and for the life of us we can’t quite agree on how much these glitches effect your overall enjoyment of the game. This is unconventional for a Thunderbolt review, but since so many of my co-staffers had something to say on Driv3r, I figured why not pull in a few of their comments. Thankfully, there is an underlying theme in most people’s arguments, and that is the more you play Driv3r, the more you appreciate the driving mechanics.
For example, one colleauge pointed out that “much of the graphics look terrible, like the trees and such, and pop up and texture draw in is a HUGE problem. During the short time I played, I had a cop car appear directly in front of my car out of thin air, causing me to crash.”
That sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? Well, the same author lamented a couple of days later. “Actually, the Take A Ride option is much more fun to me than playing Grand Theft Auto III or Vice City. It’s the fantastic car models and physics system that I really get a kick out of. When I’m cruising down the freeway in the opposite lane, knocking oncoming cars out of the way with my Diesel truck and running from the cops, I’m definitely having some good fun.”
High praise indeed and in stark contrast from his comments from a few days before. While you play Driv3r’s driving sections you might just experience moments of gaming nirvana, but on other occasions you’ll be let down by any number of God-awful and quite frankly unforgiveable game-ruining glitches. This is essentially the core of the problem. The driving game engine has the potential to be almost perfect, but the glitch heavy graphics engine simply lets the beast down. Whether or not you can cope with the flaws depends entirely on how forgiving you are as a gamer, although it has to be said that at the end of the day, you shouldn’t have to taste the bitter pill just to experience the sweetness. Not these days, not any more.
And things get drastically worse when you step out of your vehicle. The feeling is akin getting really bad news – a kind of sinking ‘oh no’. To start with, the game looks like a 3rd person actioner but the controls have been mapped onto the thumb sticks like a standard FPS – one stick moves, one stick looks – and similarly there’s very little auto-aim to speak off. This wouldn’t be so bad I suppose if the graphics were up to it but they’re not. Tanner walks like he’s got a tent pole shoved down his back and as you inevitably spend most of the time side-stepping, aiming and shooting, it just looks crap. And this is before I even start on the laughable swimming sections.
Again, my colleauge summed this up pretty well. “…then I launched into the water, eager to see the swim mechanics, only to be let down again. My guy got out of the submerged car and swam to the surface, which was fine, but then a cop car launched into the drink a full 10 seconds after I went in. Stupid. Then, the cops both swam to the surface, and just sat there like dummys looking at me. I swam right up to them, and they did absolutely nothing. I could not attack them in any way either. Then, I swam for the shore and almost wretched when witnessing my pathetic ‘swimming’ animation. Lastly, I got out of the water, pulled out my gun, and shot one of the bobbing cops. When the cop ‘died’ he rose straight out of the water like ghost, performed his death animation like the water was simply solid ground and laid down like he was on concrete.” That’s bad with a capital ‘B’.
So, an average level plays out something like this. You’ll drive from A to B with style, jump out, and then curse your way through the inevitable crappy walky-shooty bit. You’ll often get shot and have to do it again, but thankfully the game does let you restart at the beginning of the walky bit so you don’t have to do the drive again. Sorry, did I say thankfully? Driv3r is cursed by a rigid mission structure, so if you get stuck on a level it’s tough, you just have to keep going and going until you do it or give up. Ironically GTA and, ooh, the original Driver for example, allowed for branching mission structures to ease the irritation, but not Driv3r. What does happen though, is you do get to witness how terribly bad the enemy AI is on foot. In your car it’s fine, they take different routes depending on how you get at them, but on foot it’s terrible. You generally just have to traverse through a few rooms, clumsily shooting the same guards (who make the same responses) until the mission let’s you get back into a car again. The problem is confounded by the fact that some of the on-foot sections are really long, and you get the feeling that some of them might have been made specifically difficult to pad the game out a bit (Driv3r only has 25 levels, you know).
Now, even though I was prepared to grit my teeth through all the crap to get to the cool driving, some of the Thunderbolt staff here disagreed with me. Our editor had this to say…
“The thing is that although the driving sections are quite good, the rest of the game just collapses around you. Why bother wading through all the crap in Driv3r to get to the decent semi-driving sections when other games offer the same, but in an otherwise bug-free, enjoyable environment? Sure, the handling is fairly unique and the physics is good, but the camera and pop-up scars it, making it nothing that special these days.
The on foot sections are horrible, making moving around cumbersome and irritating. You can’t strafe when crouched to shoot around cover and it won’t allow you to pin yourself up against an object for protection.
AI is almost non existant, with the police just driving and jumping into the sea to get you when you’re in your boat. When you walk into an area firing, they shoot back, but when you crouch behind a nearby crate, they just stand there, not attempting to flank you or move at all. They seem to posess as much intelligence as Atari when they made the descision to publish the game.
The glitches aren’t even one off, location specific ones. As Josh pointed out and as I saw last night, shooting someone who’s swimming forces them to levitate above the water to land level and then lie there. The same happens regardless of where you are. How they can get away with it is appalling. It seems that they either couldn’t be bothered to fix obvious and frequent bugs, or were forced to leave them as the release date approached.”
Which is pretty much a case of that’s that. The soundtrack is cool, but not as iconic as the original. The driving sections in Driv3r are good but are glitch heavy and could have done with much more polish, mainly graphically although the frame rate and draw distance need some heavy optimization too (have they not played Burnout 2? We all know what’s possible). But mainly the game is let down by the walky-shooty sections. They stink, and you get the feeling that they just waste your time. It’s a real drop-the-ball scenario – the developers forgot what Driver (and Driver) were all about and what Driv3r should have been about, and that’s driving. Not shooting, not running, but driving. Could this game have been a lot better if the developers had spent more time polishing the driving sections and less time on the crappy walk-around bits? Well you tell me, although I guess we’ll never know.
And, as I said before, I was much more forgiving than my colleague. “I thought Driv3r was going to be good.” He told me, “maybe not excellent, but certainly good fun for a month or so. How wrong I was. After four years of development, this is the best they can give us. Rockstar take three years to produce masterpieces, benchmarks of game design, but Reflections have taken almost double that time and give us an unfinished, unpolished mess. It plays and feels like an Aplha version of a game, something that should never be released for retail. No other game has been so highly anticipated, but has turned out to be such a horrible mess.”
In fact, I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed since that time in 1999 when I went to see Star Wars Episode I…