|The end of the nineteenth
century brought a lot of change. Amidst the restoration of the south and the
industrialization of the nation, Americans began to form a new vision of themselves. This
reconfiguration of the American way of life soon latched on to two new inventions that
have remained immeasurable forces shaping our modern culture: film and cars. The two
technologies have grown hand-in-hand, and there is no surer scene to spice up your movie
than the eternally cool car chase. Even in sci-fi films like THX1138, where what may have
been our society has been completely warped, a little vehicular mayhem can really get
Cars have always been a part of video games as well. Early hits like Pole Position and Spy Hunter followed even earlier driving games, and predated a steady stream of ever-evolving auto-oriented titles. We've seen arcade and fantasy racers, driving sims, combat driving games, and just about everything else possible. But GT Interactive brings the genre into a new realm with their latest release, Driver: You are the wheelman. Driver is like playing classic muscle car chase scenes on you PSX. And I don't mean it's like watching a chase scene. It's like driving the car.
It's hard to make a driving game stand out these days. Competition is fierce, and if a new title is going to be popular, it must have a lot going on in a tight package. Driver is that game. The game combines technical driving controls, an original and involving story mode, in-depth and extremely handy driving instruction, and six mini games. As if all that weren't enough, there is not only a replay option, but a director mode that allows you to view your replay from customizable camera angles. The variety and generally high quality of the different elements of Driver make it a near perfect title that remains entertaining for a long time.
GT gets big style points for the general feel of Driver. The game is set in the later 70s, so you drive around a big old black Camaro among pintos, station wagons, and big four-door sedans. The cops drive classic black-and-whites, and aren't afraid to take you out. You play an undercover cop named Tanner, an ex-race car driver who is asked to infiltrate a crime ring that ranges from Miami, to San Francisco, to LA, to New York. While the story mode is built around catching the bad guys in the long run, you basically do jobs for the gangsters.
Because they're gangsters of a higher order, the hoods of Driver have no need for novice wheelmen. So you have to pass an interview before even beginning the story mode, where you run missions. The tutorial mode will teach you exactly how to pass the interview, and gives much more thorough driving instruction that is necessary to successfully complete the game. The tutorials are very useful, and entertaining since most of them involve chasing a CPU-controlled ghost of yourself through challenging courses.
It's not that the control is difficult. The simple gas, brake, handbrake, peelout and horn set-up makes it easy to play with your thumb, and the steering is among the best I've ever tried. Driving is oriented around properly using your handbrake and peelout to coax the highest-speed turns out of your vehicle without losing control. Regardless, controlling your car is a completely different story when on crowded city streets with the 5-0 breathing down you back.
The mini games are essential for getting real world experience behind the virtual wheel. There are six games: Getaway, Pursuit, Survival, Cross Town Checkpoint, TrailBlazer, and Dirt Track Racing. In Getaway you start out with a cop on your tail and you have to lose him. You chase a car, trying to smash it to bits, in Pursuit. Survival involves little old you and as many seriously pissed off law enforcers as they can muster. You try to stay alive for as long as possible, and over 25 seconds is pretty damn good. In Cross Town Checkpoint you are kept running back and forth across town hitting all of the checkpoints. In TrailBlazer you start with 20 seconds and try to pick up trail markers to get more time. Dirt Track Racing lets you take laps around, yup, a dirt track. While some of these games are only marginal, Getaway, Pursuit and Survival are absolutely addictive.
Once you've practiced up, you ought to be able to breeze through the interview. This is where the sheer coolness of the game becomes obvious. The thugs you're driving around make wisecracks, and when you pull really quick moves you can almost see their fingernails digging into the nagahyde. Once you've passed the test you start getting jobs. You work out of your apartment, and return there after almost every mission. From the apartment you can take a drive, at either day or night, for fun or to get you bearings in a new city. You can also save and adjust the options on your game. To get missions you check the answering machine.
Driver uses a lot of sound. Each mission is laid out by a guy on the phone. The voice acting is great. The gangsters each have recognizable voices with different accents and diction. Even during the mission your passengers make comments about the time limit, your driving, or the 5-0 rollin' up on you. Combined with the FMVs that you get between missions, the story mode really takes on the feel of a 70s crime movie with a whole lot of car chases.
The downfall of games that rely on missions is that the missions start being the same. Driver has 44 missions in all, and they have managed to build in a lot of variety. Different missions have different parameters. You might have to make it to the pickup in a minute, or you might have to drive a stolen car somewhere and not damage it at all. You'll have to pick up bank robbers, break your friends out of jail, scare associates by taking them for a ride, and remind a restaurant owner of the necessity of protection by driving through the front of each of his restaurants.
Not only do the missions not get old, but you do not have to drive all of them to complete the game. You may have a choice of three missions, but when you pick one you move on to a new set of missions. This allows for a lot of replayability because you can go through and play a whole new game by simply choosing the missions you didn't play before.
You start each mission, for the most part, in the parking lot of your apartment or motel room. You can choose how you want to go about accomplishing your task, although on some missions there is only one way to go because of time limits, cops, or your goal is to tail somebody else. It may be day or night, and if it's raining things can get really tricky. The traffic in the cities obeys the rules of the road and the traffic lights, although there's always the guy trying to make a right turn out of the left lane, and they never signal. But otherwise, it's an amazingly realistic flow of traffic. If a cop sees you, they'll chase you, so it does no good to obey the speed limit. You can see where cops are, and their field of vision, on the little map display that also shades the general direction you want to head in.
Driver gives you plenty of occasion to talk smack about them, but what would this game be without the cops? Nothing. Getting chased is a blast. The cops in Driver use the same techniques that they use on World's Scariest Police Chases. They'll try and spin you out when you're going around corners; they'll ram you into walls and dividers; they'll edge you off the road; and they'll set up roadblocks if you really piss them off. They get officers ahead of you, behind you, coming at you from the side, and generally work in a choreographed effort to get you off the road for good.
Once you've driven a mission, or any other play mode for that matter, you can save the replay and edit it in the director mode. You can set up cameras in different vehicles and on the street to get just the shot you want for each segment of your car chase. While this is a cool idea, and the graphics make it totally watchable, the mode is clunky and difficult to use. Mainly, it's difficult because there is no rewind button. You can advance the replay frame-by-frame, but you can only rewind to the beginning. That makes it super tedious to edit a good take, especially if your replay is longer. There is an autodirector option, but it picks horrible camera angles and often doesn't hold a candle to what you saw when playing the game.
I really wish the director mode were better, because Driver has some great graphics. The lighting and weather effects are especially impressive. When you damage your or somebody else's car, you can see the damage. The textures are done very nicely, and the cities are amazing. Usually it is quite noticeable that buildings drop out of or pop into the distance, but there is no such obnoxious graphical behavior in Driver.
Probably the biggest criticism that can be levied at Driver is the difficulty. It's a really hard game, and to beat it without codes requires some expertise. I progressed at a good rate through the first two-thirds of the game, and then hit a level of difficulty that required going back to the mini games for more practice. Fortunately, Driver has plenty of cheats available that will help you out. No, my biggest criticism of Driver is the complete lack of a two player mode. It's not that every game must have a versus mode, but Driver is begging for one. Getaway would be great with one player as the driver and one as the cop. A race mode could be couched as illegal street races or something like that. There are plenty of areas where two people could fit into the Driver world, and I think it's a big mistake to leave that aspect out of the game.
It's worth noting, too, just where Driver fits in with other games like Grand Theft Auto and Carmageddon. By couching the illegal activity in the job assignment of an undercover cop, Driver avoids some of the more literal criticism of GTA. It is also much more visually attractive than GTA. While there are pedestrians all over, you'll never hit them in Driver like you will in Carmageddon. They all scurry out of the way in the nick of time. I've heard kids criticizing this aspect. They want the gore, and they want it now. I like gore as much as the next guy, but it wouldn't fit into the Driver world. In 70s action films there isn't a lot of gore, and it would look weird. It would spoil the feel of the game.
Overall, Driver is definitely the best driving game I've played in a long time, but, more than that, it's just an all-around great game. The replayability, multiple play modes, and the attention that has been paid to the quality of the game make Driver a must-play title. It is graphically dazzling and will keep your attention for a long time. You won't find a better driving game this summer.