Genre: Driving / Action
Release Date: June 21, 2004
There’s been quite a buzz around Driv3r ever since the game hit store shelves on June 21st, both around the game itself with its significant drop in quality that has been a staple of the Driver series and of Atari’s desperate moves to suppress any possible negative comment before the game’s release to protect their bottom line (For more information on the latter, see Ben Parfitt’s 'The Shadier Side Of Atari'). Sadly most of the negative karma surrounding the game is totally warranted, and though Driv3r does have brief, fleeting moments of veiled greatness as a whole the game seems too similar to a beta product hastily rushed onto store shelves by a publisher intent on cashing in on a game’s hype rather than letting it fully form into the rightful sequel to a series with a fairly decent-sized fan base.
In Driv3r you play as Tanner, a FBI agent attached to the Miami PD who goes undercover to bust a group of international car thieves who are intent on making off with a bevy of expensive and rare automobiles. As Tanner goes deeper and deeper undercover he finds himself in various shades of grey between being a cop and being a criminal, and often finds assistance in those he is trying to capture and hostile intent coming from those who he used to consider his allies. One of the few things Driv3r does right is plot development as dictated by both high quality CGI cutscenes and in-game voiceovers which have a good amount of emotion and inflection in nearly every character. In-game cutscenes are significantly lower in quality for reasons to be further explained later, but as far as what they portray and how they portray it isn’t that bad at all, such as the Driver-series staple of showing a car chase from the viewpoint of the pursuing cars front-right tire.
At any given moment you are essentially doing one of two things in Driv3r, driving or moving on-foot. The driving aspect of the game is undoubtedly the more solid of the two though it has significant flaws of its own. When driving for the mere purpose of getting from point A to point B the driving engine works wonderfully, and really as a whole the way vehicles control and handle as you power slide around corners and weave in between traffic is reminiscent of games such as Project Gotham Racing 2. The problem in the driving aspect comes in a variety of places, the most noticeable one being that most of the driving action sequences are scripted. In the first Driver game pursuit of a fleeing car often meant the car took random turns and bobbed and weaved in between traffic as you tried to cause it to take enough damage to crash, which meant the entire sequence was essentially a test of not only your driving skills but how well you could apply them to disable the criminal’s car, and often with a time limit to boot. In Driv3r instead of having to make the fleeing car crash you merely have to stay within a certain short distance of it as it travels via one of three or four different preset paths, which means instead of skill you can just fall back on “Oh I need to turn here, here, and … here since the car went this way”. Even worse, even if you manage to catch up to the pursuing car and attempt to nudge it to spin it out, not only are the cars unaffected by any damage they take but half the time they can easily shrug off collisions with objects or other cars and keep on trucking. Finally, other than cars, pedestrians, and single pole road signs (such as yield and stop signs) all world objects are static. Imagine this scenario, a semi truck is going downhill at about 80 mph with a trailer attached to it and slams into a traffic light mounted on a 4 or 5 foot tall pole. Instead of absolutely cramming the pole down the collision causes no damage to the traffic light and causes the semi truck to lift itself off of the ground from the sheer force of the trailer behind it. Its realistic that a compact car going 25 mph wont take out a light pole al la GTA3, but I guarantee a semi with trailer going 80 mph would cream that very same pole instead of causing the whole vehicle to buck like it hit a brick wall.
As stated earlier the driving aspect of the game is probably the stronger of the gameplay aspects which means that, you guessed it, the on-foot action is considerably bad. The on-foot controls aren’t too bad other than two aspects therein, the jumping and the aiming. Jumping in Driv3r feels very loose, which would be a small pittance had their not been a part of the game where your jumping skills are put to the test as you have to jump from deck to wobbly box to deck as a squad of thugs are shooting at you. Speaking of shooting, the aiming system in Driv3r is similarly unrefined. As can be expected the right stick controls the aim of your character but the key problem is that there isn’t very much sensitivity to speak of, which causes you to often spend more time trying to line up a target than actually firing at them. More often than not there is plenty of time to do so however, as with a straight face it can be said that Build engine games (Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior) have more advanced AI than Driv3r. In Driv3r enemies are usually told to run or take cover behind something via a scripted action and then proceed to stand there until you either kill them or somehow let yourself die. Though the two games aren’t meant to be alike, at least in the GTA3 games enemies would actually pursue you around buildings and corners, and GTA3 isn’t exactly the crown jewel of the AI world in itself.
Graphically Driv3r is a mixed bag, bits of greatness interspersed with a much larger amount of flaws and shortcomings. The car models are the best looking things in the entire game and look like they have been lovingly created and based upon both classis and modern real-life models. The cars not only look good as they are driven but also look good as they explode which causes bodywork, bits of the frame, and occasionally a tire and hubcap or two to all be thrown about, damaging nearby cars, knocking pedestrians over, or merely bouncing to rest in the middle of the street. On the negative side, the cars are pretty much the only thing in Driv3r that look good by any definition of the word. Character models are animated using a minimal amount of frames and usually make it seem like the character is moving in the stiffest way possible. Buildings are modeled well enough and look very much like the gas stations, municipal buildings, and sky scrapers they are supposed to represent but the textures used throughout are quite bland and lack any form of detail or character of their own. To stick a final nail in the graphics engine’s coffin the frame rate has not only a tendency to drop suddenly which not only affects how the game looks but also how the game controls. In a game where one mistake can cause a player to replay through a particularly difficult chase sequence having a flaw in the game cause unresponsive controls does nothing but annoy, if not cause feelings of a more colorful definition.
Driv3r doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t sound much better. Gunfire is the same canned bangs and rat-a-tats that would be expected from a title with significantly smaller production values, but on the lighter side ricochet and glass sound effects sound pretty good. As stated before the voice-overs are done well enough and fit the characters, and what’s more is the music played throughout the game could likely warrant the purchase of the game’s soundtrack. Still, the meat of the games audio consists of either car sound effects or gunfire, neither of which (with the exception of a select few car engines) effectively portrays the same power or beefiness they should considering Driver has always been a slight homage to the ‘70s and ’80s styled car chases where everything is over the top and exaggerated.
Driv3r’s single redeeming feature that makes up for a little of the games shortcomings and pitfalls is the Director mode, but even this savior has its flaws. In Director mode you take any saved replay and have the option to set up cameras and special effects such as slow motion and motion blur totally as you see fit. It can be actually fun to make your own movies, in one play-through I personally spent maybe 5 minutes playing a level and the next two hours or so placing the cameras and editing them, and even more fun is the option to use Xbox Live to post your completed movies for the world to critique and rate and the ability to view movies made by other armchair directors. Fun as it is, Director mode is still flawed by the lack of a cropping function so you could string together events that aren’t exactly sequential and additionally flawed by a limit on how much footage a single replay can contain (about two – three minutes). In some levels it can take upwards of five minutes to even get someplace cool, so even though you may have found the perfect area to make a movie you won’t ever be able to, and even if you could the viewer would have to sit through five minutes of watching you get there thanks to the lack of a crop function.
All in all, Driv3r is a potentially great game released in what looks, sounds, and plays like the game never left beta stages. The main culprit doesn’t seem to be Reflections as they have proven they can make the Driver series work with the previous two games in the series, but rather the main cause of Driv3r’s massive shortcomings seems to be a trigger-happy publisher who wanted to release their next big thing as soon as possible, quality of a prestigious long-running series be damned. The Director mode is a barrel of fun waiting to be cracked open but even its fun factor doesn’t raise Driv3r much higher than rental status. Driv3r is an overall bearable game to play through, but throughout the entire experience you find yourself noticing the glaring flaws and thinking of games that did a particular aspect better almost as much as you do playing the game. All things considered Driv3r is the textbook definition of “butchered the series”, and seems to try too hard to make itself look like yet another GTA3 clone rather than expounding upon the gameplay that made the original titles such fun to play.