Review by Donald Love 87
Technically interesting, a good start to the series, but not perfect
Are you one of those people who played the first Grand Theft Auto back when it was released on PS1 and said that "It's cool, but it'd be even better in 3D". You soon put that thought aside though, thinking that it'd be too much to squeeze out a huge city in 3D for the poor console, and instead started thinking that maybe the next console generation will be able to pull that off. Well, for the GTA series that was true, the first 3D installment was GTA3 for the PS2, but if you looked a bit outside the box you were able to find Driver. While certainly Driver has its own ideas and inspirations and is in no way trying to rip off GTA or being just a "GTA in 3D" - heck you can't even run over the pedestrians, there are some similarities and it sure managed to stop the hunger for high-speed police chases in 3D through a big city.
Considering this game is a Playstation game it's impressive how much they managed to cram into that disc, but it comes at a cost - while you have four rather large, nice cities to drive around in, there are extreme amounts of pop-ups. As you drive along a street, you clearly see the buildings and traffic appear out of nowhere further down that street. Also no attempt has been made to hide it - there's no fog in the distance, which probably is a good thing since it's something at least I got really tired of during this console generation. Though the game has different weather conditions and obviously it's way less noticeable during rain/snow/night than it is in full daylight. Also, this is understandable but just so you know it the cities feel very square like they're on a grid; there are no curved roads and there are many places that's just walled-in next to the road. It can sometimes be frustrating when you see a patch of grass you want to take a shortcut on but you missed the small wall by the side of the road ending it in a crash. But even then, just pulling off the four cities on a PS1 is compensation enough for that.
Speaking of something that really look good, it's the cars. Especially the one you're driving is of high quality, and there have been a lot of attention to details. The cars are deformed when they crash (after all, it's developed by the same guys who did Destruction Derby), when you do a sharp turn in high speed you can see the hubcaps come flying off and when you stand still at a redlight you can see how white smoke comes up from the exhaust pipe and then disintegrate when you speed away from there. It's very nice to see so much attention to details; and it also proves how much Reflections love cars. Humans haven't got the same treatment; instead in-game everyone is very blocky (almost on Minecraft levels!) with few polygons and extremely strangely animated. There are many cutscenes between the missions too, which are better than in-game but still unusually stiff - many of them are even a bit "faked" too, with a small animation of the protagonist picking up a phone then it turns over to a still picture during the actual conversation. Probably had to do that to save space on the disc, but it still looks a bit weird.
Sound effects and music
The music in this game is pretty fitting, and really feels like driving music - the songs really sound like they could've been lifted out off the soundtrack of any 70's car chase movie. The songs are cool, and they just feel funky! Though one thing you really should do as soon as you start the game is to go into options and change the balance between SFX and music volume, music is preset at 50 while SFX are at 100, meaning the engine noises will entirely drown out the music. It's a bit strange to see exactly how unbalanced it really is, and the sound effects just aren't that... interesting. Sure it's good to hear how your engine's roaring and listening to sirens to tell how close the police are, but ultimately the music is of more value to hear when just playing the game.
Another thing this game has is voice acting, and a lot of it. Due to almost every mission comes in through an answering machine, there's much dialogue to give you information about the missions you're about to take part of. But there's one big problem about it; it's so muffled it's hard to hear exactly what's being said. It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason for this; either it's that the actors tried too hard with the "criminal accents", or it's compressed heavily to conserve disc space, or it's possible that it's some filter used to make it sound like a worn out answering machine tape. I'm leaning towards the last one, considering how the cutscenes outside of the hotel are usually easier to listen to. It's a shame it's this way since it makes it much harder to follow the story, and the game has no option for subtitles either.
At least there are some parts of the story that I've been able to hear (also, the introduction is in the manual)! The game starts off with Tanner, a New York policeman not always following the rules, being called into his boss' office to get a new mission - to go undercover and infiltrate the Castaldi crime syndicate as a wheelman for hire. His journey starts off in Miami, continues through San Francisco, Los Angeles to end up back in New York again. Basically, the story is mostly about how Tanner climbs in ranks in the criminal world, trying to get in contact with the big shots. Each mission has a small story too (as mentioned recorded on the answering machine) more or less connected to the main story. But it's a bit hard to keep track of who's who and who did what due to the voices being so hard to hear, but overall it's an interesting story, and it's pretty fun that you're actually a good guy but you're still being chased by the police since the only ones knowing about this operation are Tanner and his boss.
To be able to be an efficient wheelman, you have to master the controls of the game. The game make use of every button on the controller, and the layout is the more classic style, before shoulder buttons started becoming the standard for accelerating. Instead, X is the button used to accelerate the car, and Circle is used for doing a burnout - a both fun and useful move and it's great to see it got it's own button. With Square you brake, and when you've stopped completely the car will go into reverse, while triangle lets you throw the car around tight bends using the handbrake. L1 is used for something called "hard steer", which is basically a fast oversteer-correction, and R1 is used to honk the horn - though no missions require it in this game so there are no posts about it on the boards! With L2 and R2 you look left and right, or behind you if you press down both at the same time. Select switches through camera angles and start pauses the game. If you've got a DualShock controller you can choose yourself if you want to use the analogue or digital way of steering; the analogue sadly feels a bit too unresponsive (like there are only a few gradual steps instead of full analogue) but I still vote for it as the better option.
So when it comes to controls overall, they are responsive and fast. There's an option in the menu too, which lets you set auto-handbrake to on or off - having it on will make the car oversteer in corners (due to the handbrake being pulled) while if off the car will understeer. It's up to you which you think is easier, having to countersteer around the corners or manually use the handbrake in even doses.
The overall gameplay idea is simple, very simple, to say the least - you drive. Everything in Driver is done inside a car, neither you nor any other driver will go outside of the car during gameplay. Instead, there are a lot of different modes available for you, and we should probably go through them. The most basic of them all is "Take a Ride", and it's just what it sounds like - pick one of the cities in the game (Los Angeles and New York has to be unlocked through story progression) and just take the car out for a spin. While it might not sound fun, it depends on your driving style; if you play by the law sure it'll be a boring Sunday drive, but if you do some speeding or run a few red lights then you'll have the cops after you and have to work to get them off your tail. At the top of the screen are two meters; the Damage meter which keeps track of your car damage and will go up when you hit or are hit by other objects. The other meter is the Felony meter, which acts as a gauge on how much on the lookout police are for you and how much of an effort they'll make when chasing you. Since as mentioned no driver in this game can exit their car, the only way the police can stop you is to ram your car until you stop, and felony will decide how many police cars are chasing you, how violent they are and how many roadblocks they'll put up. What's interesting about felony is how realistic it feels; if you go by the speed limit, on the right side of the road and stop at red light, police will ignore you if your felony meter is empty. If you get in a chase though, you can either choose to try to outrun or outsmart the police or just try to smash their cars to a halt - that'll make them give up the chase, though they will be more on the lookout for you now that they know your car. To your help in avoiding the police you've got a radar, which both acts as a mini-map to show you possible routes to go and you can see police cars and their vision cones to let you know how much they can see, which is much larger when you have some felony. Also to your help during the chases themselves, you've got red arrows at the bottom of the screen - each of these signify a police car, and a bright red means it's close and almost transparent means you're about to outrun them.
If you're not the one to just aimlessly drive around, you should try out the Undercover mode. This is the story mode of the game, and follows Tanner as he digs deeper into the criminal syndicate. There are 44 missions in total to complete, but you won't finish them all during one playthrough (if you don't read up and do some save managing) as sometimes the story branch off slightly - in each city you've got a sort of "hub" inside your motel/hotel room, and here you can go for a ride, back out to the main menu, check the toolbox for options and listen to your answering machine - your bosses will leave messages there for you about missions you can accept, and when there are two or three available you can only pick one. Though they all lead to roughly the same ending, it still helps keeping the game fresh during replays. When it comes to the missions themselves, they're varied within a few groups - one of the more common types of mission is to get to somewhere in town, pick them up, then drop them off at a hideout. Another fun type of mission is where you have to chase a car down and crash it - just like the cops try to do with you. A personal favorite of mine is one which is sadly a one-off, but where you have to drive recklessly and dangerously to fill up the fear meter of a passenger in the car, the developers probably liked it too since similar missions has appeared in later installments of the series. The only real problem with the undercover mode is how unfair it can be at times; instead of doing things scripted, cops can appear randomly at any place in town, which means that in a mission with a strict time limit it'll be a huge difference if the cop shows up behind you (so you just keep on driving), in the opposite lane (just slow down a bit), in front of you (ok, slow down and... what now?) or on a side street totally off your route. This is also made worse by the fact that many missions require you to arrive at your destination without a tail - meaning that you HAVE to avoid or shake off the police. Thankfully though, there is a difficulty adjust in the options menu, and setting it to Easy is probably a good idea to maintain your sanity and the fun of the game - it seems that not only does it affect the police AI when chasing you, but it also makes them appear off-route a bit more often. Speaking about difficulty, the last mission is probably the worst difficulty spike I've ever witnessed in a game - it's very likely that you'll spend as much time on that mission alone as you've done on all previous missions combined. Just sayin'.
In addition to these two modes, there are also several driving minigames you can try out; there's the training, which also is an obligatory kickoff to the Undercover mode, where you have to cross off a checklist of driving skills (doughnut, burnouts, 180, 360, handbrake turns and similar) in a driving garage. Then there's Pursuit, which basically is like the missions in undercover where you need to crash a car you're chasing, and then we have Getaway where you're timed in how fast you can outrun the police of a halfway-filled felony meter. Then there are Cross-town Checkpoint and Trailblazer - both of these have you chasing checkpoints, though the first one has you traveling over longer distances while the second one has 100 closer spaced checkpoints but you don't have to hit them all. Survival is just like Getaway in that you're starting with the felony meter filled, but instead of outrunning the cops, the idea is barely to survive, which is easier said than done. The last bonus game mode is Dirt Track where you go out on a slippery dust road and have to swerve through cones and tight bends chasing the best time possible. All in all, there are a lot of different modes and you're sure to find something to enjoy - if you like just driving, it's here; if you like a story (as long as you can hear it), it's here; if you enjoy cutting hundreds from time trial scores, it's here.
The last "game mode", which was among the most talked-about when this game was released, is the film director mode. Considering how much inspirations the developers drew from classic car chase movies when they made this game, someone probably said during a meeting - "Hey, what about letting people try to direct their own movies?". So said and done; after you've completed a game, either by finishing a mission or getting your car wrecked, you'll have the option of going into the film director mode and edit and save your replay to be able to watch it later. This editor is a powerful tool (for a PS1) which lets you direct just like you want - just like in any other film editor you've got a timeline and you've got the possibility to place out camera angles pretty much wherever you want. On your car or the car of the pursuers? A tripod camera on the sidewalk which may or may not follow you or any of the pursuers. It's a really neat feature, especially if you manage to finish a mission in a spectacular way, but of course saved replays have a tendency of filling up memory cards quickly - though if you're playing on a PS3 or have some other means of copying saves this isn't a big problem.
Overall, Driver is an enjoyable game even though it has a few flaws. The cities are big, and while the graphics have some pop-ups it's nothing you're surprised about in a PS1 game with ambitions this high. The controls work very well and there are a lot of game modes available. The only thing that could've been better is the randomness of the missions and how often you feel that you're just lucky when some go well - though until the final mission it can be adjusted by lowering the difficulty. I like Driver, both as an idea and as a game, and I give it a 7 out of 10.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Driver (EU, 06/25/99)
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