Review by AutoRock

Reviewed: 07/06/04 | Updated: 07/06/04

Unsurpassed

You vicious bastard.

I know your type. I know what you want from these city driving games. You want to kill people. You get your jollies, your kicks - you get your rocks off by cruising around populated areas and running over anyone you like. Sometimes, if your vile, blackened heart feels like it, you'll get out of your car and start punching and shooting anyone and everyone. You disgust me, you sick little pisscake.

I'm afraid you won't be doing any of that here, son. Oh no. The people of America, as depicted in Reflections' Driver, are far too crafty for you - approach them at any kind of speed in your 1970s muscle car and they'll hurl themselves out of harm's way, often chuckling gaily at your back bumper as you plough into an unyielding shopfront. You want to stumble from the smoking wreckage and kick someone to a twitching, shuddering death on the sidewalk? You can't - because you can't even get out of the car! If these revelations disappoint you, then leave now and go frolic on some busy highway - this is a gentleman's driving game.

Now that the delinquents are gone, let's talk about Driver. It's a mission-based driving game in the spirit of car-chase movies and 1970s cop shows that takes place in 4 different cities - Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. While the game cities are far from geographically accurate, they look convincing enough and also feature a few landmarks - the Hard Rock cafe in Miami, San Fran's marvellous hills, and so forth (although the lack of Ken Hutchinson's waterfront cabin in LA is a crying shame).

You play as maverick hard-boiled no-nonsense cliche-ridden cop Tanner, who may or may not have a first name; I myself think of him as Dick. At the start of the game D.T. hands in his badge to go undercover for... some reason. According to the manual it's to nail some crimelord called Castaldi, but the game's plot is lost in underdeveloped storytelling and impenetrable FMV sequences. It serves only as a vague structure for the game. Hanging out in your splendidly-furnished motel room, you receive missions from hackneyed criminals on your answerphone, along with a few comical wrong numbers. Select from the few missions that are usually on offer, and Tanner settles down into driving seat of a heavy automobile, tunes in something funky (cos it's the 70s, you see) and rolls out onto the streets.

The missions themselves are faintly uninspiring - usually a case of getting to a point or two on the radar within a certain time while avoiding the cops, with the occasional goon to be chased to liven things up. Tanner has an unfortunate habit of leaving his room mere minutes before important deadlines, so every appointment becomes a mad dash across town. This would be infuriating, if not for the brilliantly addictive nature of the basic driving mechanic.

The car handling is awe-inspiring. Silky-smooth and realistic with just a touch of movie-style excess; it's why men invented the automobile. I've never driven a muscle car at 70mph in sun-drenched downtown Miami before, but this is how I imagine it would feel. Combined with the convincing (if a little 'floaty') physics and the ability to turn off auto-handbrake on corners (a feature unforgivably removed in the sequel), and just manipulating the car is great fun.

Unlike real life, driving like a highly-skilled maniac in Driver is actually made more fun by the presence of the local constabulary. The police are ubiquitous - drive above the limit or in the wrong lane or up the arse of Horatio Sidewalk and sooner or later, the cops'll be up yours. Being undercover and all, Tanner can't exactly pull over and politely explain the situation, so any time you have a felony rating and a patrol car finds you (signified by an MGS-style frame o' view icon on the radar), a thrilling chase usually ensues. The cop AI holds up surprisingly well even these days; they're generally well aware of the nature of the road and the flow of traffic. There's the occasional moment of excusable idiocy - swerving into a wall when they notice you crawling up behind them, for example - and it all gets a bit silly at lower speeds, as they gently nudge you until your car gives out, but overall they're worthy opponents in a chase.

The game proceeds through the cities at a reasonable whack, and adds up to about 40 missions once all's said and done in the main story mode. It isn't easily finished; some of the missions require feats of McQueen-esque driving skill and teeth-grinding endurance. The opening mission alone is a mule-kick between the eyes of the uninitiated player, requiring all sorts of fancy driving work before you move onto the main game. Finish the main story mode, and there's various driving game options available (including the marvellously insane Survival), and the obligatory free-roaming Take a Drive mode, which is good for some untimed cop-baiting.

Get bored of all that, and the game still has one last ace up it's finely-tailored sleeve: the Film Director mode. As you've probably guessed from the title, this lets you take any replay from your ingame vehicular antics, and edit it with your own camera angles to create a sort of mini car-chase movie. It's not quite as expansive as it could be (the inability to track anything but the player car is a particular annoyance) but there's great potential in it and it's a great diversion if you have any kind of interest in this sort of thing.

And that's about it. A superb driving engine, used to good effect in a great story mode and various addictive bonus games. The only aspect of the game not as good as it could be is the graphical one. There's a horrendous, horrendous level of pop-up, which has a fair effect on limiting the sense of speed you feel. The developers have obviously gone for close-up detail over draw distance and city scope; the cars and pedestrians are realised well and there's some impressive weather and lighting effects, but the cities are somewhat bland and angular (there isn't a curved road anywhere - it's all right angles). The visuals are nonetheless bearable and they're backed up by an adorably funky soundtrack and absorbing sound effects (including the single most satisfying car crash sound ever).

So, it's an excellent game, as long as you don't demand heavenly graphics from everything you play. Skidding in the most graceful of arcs round an LA intersection, crashing through a restaurant table, and sending pedestrians scattering in your wake; if you can get over the fact that they don't roll over your bumper on impact in a bloody mess and that you can't see more than 25 meters in front of you, then there's nothing sweeter.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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