The latest Driver game from Reflections is finally here, but after playing it you'll wish it never arrived. Just what went wrong in the making of Driv3r?
PS2, Xbox, PC
Driving / Action
I'm not easily annoyed by games, so when the guys asked me why I was swearing at my TV every few minutes, I knew something was up. It's not the easiest of jobs to balance gameplay - get it right and gamers will love you, get it wrong and, well, you end up exasperated, hurling abuse at your television. It is, however, a crucial part of development, and it's a theme that will pop up often in this piece.
Driv3r was a long time in the making. The first two games appeared on the PlayStation in successive years, 1999 and 2000. The initial instalment wasn't the prettiest of games, but it played well, while the second was clearly rushed. Stuntman came in 2002 for the PlayStation 2 and allowed Reflections to take the new technology for a test in preparation for the next Driver instalment. Which brings us to 2004 and Driv3r, a game which builds on the ideas of the first games but somehow manages to get it all wrong.
At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Driv3r is yet another cash-in on Rockstar's ridiculously successful Grand Theft Auto franchise. You steal cars, you kill lots and lots of people - with no blood anywhere to be seen - and there is a mission-based structure to the game design. There is however one crucial difference: there's no sense of freedom. Grand Theft Auto has a balance between free-roaming gameplay and story sections, which allows you to while away the hours without even thinking of doing a mission.
Driv3r is by design a much more focused experience. The story is told through well-crafted movie clips featuring voice acting by notable hard-men Michael Madsen and Ving Rhames. Considering the quality of actors Reflections has managed to secure, the performances are rather poor. I used to think that Michael Madsen could do no wrong, but the ineffectual delivery of his lines sounds like he was going for a pastiche of himself.
One good thing about a game named Driv3r is that you'd expect to do plenty of driving. And you do. It's actually the best part of the game. There are several types of vehicles to command, from saloons and sports cars to semis and cycles. Oh, and boats. The cars handle well with considerable variation between them and they can sustain several levels of damage that have a direct effect on gameplay. There's also a good sense of speed when you, for example, gun it down a Miami freeway in a Lamborghini towards oncoming traffic. The cars can be a little floaty at times, but, for the most part, keeping tire to tarmac is a thrilling experience. It's also during these sections that the graphics engine starts to come apart. Cars and buildings appear out of nowhere, which can be quite disconcerting when you're trying to thread your way through traffic.
Unfortunately, this solid foundation is jack-hammered to hell by the atrocious shooting sections. The controls during these ordeals are taken straight from first-person shooter games - you can even go into first-person mode if you want. There's just one problem: they don't work! Your ability to aim where you want to aim is savagely crippled by the sloppy, unresponsive controls.
This wouldn't be so bad if Driv3r wasn't hiding the fact it should have been called Shoot3r. And it is here that Reflections has made its most egregious error. The shooting sections are very poorly done, and the developer's decision to make them such a large part of the game means that you end up hating a large part of the game. It's hard to think fondly of that time when you hit 200 miles per hour darting about in Istanbul traffic on a Ducati when all you remember about playing the game is redoing missions over and over again because some idiotic guard with poor AI got a lucky shot in and sent you back to the beginning of the mission. The fact that the game engine is so bad that you pop through walls or enemy bullets JFK their way through doors doesn't help.
The missions that interrupt the story segments are surprisingly formulaic, usually involving reaching a place, shooting it up, and then driving someplace else. It gets old in a hurry. There are occasionally missions - the fun ones - where you spend most of the time actually driving around the three highly detailed cities to achieve some goal, and these form the only redeeming parts of the game. One particularly fun mission has you stealing cars around picturesque Nice and then parking them inside a moving truck. Had there been a few more of these, perhaps I would have allowed for some aggravation from the abominable shooting segments.
Much like publisher Atari's other high-profile game - Enter the Matrix - Driv3r is technically a mess. Ever-present pop-up is the most evident shortcoming, with the horizon taking on a building-themed strobing effect as parts of the environment stumble into view. There are examples of vicious slowdown, most evident after major crashes, where the action bogs down the PlayStation 2 and crawls along sloth-like long after the accident is over. Most of the time these flaws are merely aesthetic, but when it comes to bullets flying through walls and invisible barriers impeding your progress, it's clear that this game should have been kept in development a few months longer.
There are a few other elements tacked on to the experience - like the Film Director mode that allows you to put together your own replays, or the uninteresting driving games - but they don't come close to making amends for the shoddy main attraction. All that remains of Driv3r is the poor gameplay, the broken game engine, and the throwaway story. And I'm sorry, Reflections, but that simply isn't enough.
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