The Kid is a country boy looking to make his mark in 1978 in the beautiful and brutal city of New York. He hits the streets of the Big Apple again in 2006, looking for revenge on the men who framed him and left him to rot in Sing-Sing for 28 years. So begins the story for Driver: Parallel Lines; the mixture of old and new characterizes the game, as does the often-indiscriminate combination of classic and novel, which leads Driver to slightly mixed results. The Driver series follows a similar path. It was a massive success on the original PlayStation, the sequel was well-received, and the PS2 rebirth as Driv3r earned adequate sales but a poor response from critics. Parallel Lines is where design ambitions are reduced but aspirations remain unrealistic, and improvements occur often but at final judgment fail to earn early parole for the franchise.
The plot is simple: Come to the city, make it big, get framed, go to jail, and get revenge. The story itself is well-told. The characters tend to be interestingly amoral, with quality dialogue and missions which nestle comfortably between their cinematic wrappings. The young TK is reminiscent of a young inbred Travolta, with an entertaining mix of arrogance and naiveté. The post-prison TK is a truly likeable character, more cheerful and friendly but quietly tougher and more driven. TK's response to the new world of 2006 is well observed, like the unexpected popularity of "foamy coffee drinks." There are three narrative venues: gameplay, where the missions capture the conflict of the story while making it interesting and fun; cinematic sequences, where well-chosen camera work and quality art design highlight character-driven writing and professional voice-acting; and the in-engine cut scenes, which emphasize the repetitive character animation and the limitations of the in-game visuals while showing how poor pacing and cinematography can easily undercut an attempt at creating drama.
After taking leave of the cinematics and heading out into the city, the limitations of the engine become apparent. While the engine does stream a huge city seamlessly, including a wide variety of buildings and constant dense traffic, the view is constantly sabotaged by the flicker of aliasing. The vehicles are nicely detailed with nicely implemented, if simplistic, lighting. Parallel Lines makes excellent use of its day/night cycle, with elegant transitions through dusk and dawn, though visibility becomes a problem in night missions, especially when driving hastily through alleyways, which the game requires. The vehicle damage that will result from driving hurriedly through an alleyway is nicely modeled with clear visual cues. Engine damage is depicted through increasingly dark smoke, while bare rims spark on the pavement, rare examples of clear communication with the player. An example of poor communication would be the difficulty in identifying, especially at high speed, which objects can be driven through and which are immobile. Fences, for example, often hide shortcuts or partially fill alleyways. They are also often immovable objects that will bring a vehicle to a halt, accompanied by a bonus of massive engine damage and a flash of white light reminiscent of being brutally hit in the head.
Crashing into a wall or other object is well conveyed through the audio, with the sounds of crumpling metal, squealing tires and additional noises from whatever the car struck. All of the automotive noises are evocative of the appropriate car, with muscle cars providing a cheerful rumble, foreign sports cars an energetic whine, and beaters an agonizing transmission grind. Driving is accompanied by an apt soundtrack for the era, with some quality songs for each period. The '70s music is rather more iconic though, with few songs on the '06 lineup that really distinguish themselves or will be remembered in a couple of decades. The music interface is, however, miserable. The only control is a skip button, and the game never indicates in any way which song is playing. Dialogue cleanly mixed into the environment, especially when it's used for mission cues. The gunplay is the one area where the audio falls short. Weaponry tends to sound thin, even guns with high caliber rounds. It tends to get lost in the ambient noises while driving, and even on foot, it never dominates the experience as firing a gun should.
As a whole, combat is a less-than-exhilarating experience. It mostly revolves around tapping the lock-on button and hoping for a little luck, and occasionally requiring the use of cover. The lock-on implementation is poor, requiring the player to spend a fair amount of time pushing the camera around so the reticule will attach to the enemy standing right next to TK. This quickly becomes irritating and an impetus for a return to driving, where the targeting functions better and keeping the enemy front and center is simpler. A few sequences resembling an on-rails shooter prove to be more entertaining; one of these has TK in the back of a moving truck, and aiming and firing a grenade launcher is all that's required. This becomes a common theme - anytime TK is not running around on foot is more likely to be entertaining.
When the game forces the player to abandon a wrecked car and find new transportation in the middle of a police chase, as it will do, the flaws quickly become apparent. Braking while driving involves pulling down on the right thumbstick, unless the player wishes to depend on the minimal analog capabilities of the face buttons. When braking frantically and bailing out, the game takes this thumbstick position as its cue to point to the sky, which is not the ideal perspective for finding a new ride. After sorting out the camera, likely while being shot by police, TK must be maneuvered to a new automobile. This is vaguely annoying, due to the erratic camera behavior and the tendency of nearby cars to be useless, but it's certainly doable. Entering a vehicle requires precisely positioning TK next to one of the doors and emphatically holding down the Triangle button, while hoping the game will recognize that intent. Any objects within a few feet, such as a police car or even a pedestrian, will keep the door from opening. This fussy and fidgety behavior is typical of the on-foot gameplay, but luckily, things improve once TK's inside the car.
The driving is where Parallel Lines succeeds most. Solid-but-still-entertaining physics allow for precise driving and generally realistic collisions, though enemy drivers receive certain physics advantages in lieu of proper artificial intelligence. It's particularly noticeable in the racetrack sequences that the opposing drivers have a distinct advantage counter to the principle of conservation of momentum. This makes the races more an annoyance than a pleasing diversion, but luckily, they're largely optional. Motorcycles serve as an additional style of vehicle, serving mostly as an annoying new thing to learn to control. After a certain level of mastery, however, the motorcycles do become useful.
Exploring the city is entertaining, with a variety of stars, cars and motorcycles to collect, and plentiful side missions to earn cash. Irritatingly, there are absurd numbers of parked cars congesting valuable driving space everywhere, including what appear to be major highways. The two keys to the game are learning when to obey the traffic laws (staying under the speed limit, stopping at red lights, and knowing that the appropriate speed is usually lower than top) and how use of the analog gas is essential to success. Having to use the emergency brake to park is an odd quirk of having reverse triggered by holding the brake button. It's hard to keep a low profile when backing into a parked car or a police cruiser.
Behaving while in view of the police is an essential skill for Driver, which functions like the automobile equivalent of Metal Gear Solid. TK and his current vehicle both have a felony level, based on the crimes the police have witnessed. The patrolmen monitor everything within their vision cone (shown on the mini-map), immediately identifying felonious vehicles or crimes being committed, and noticing TK after a short time if he is wanted but driving a clean car. Pretending to be just another commuter in front of police is a key tactic. Also essential is developing the ability to quickly parse the mini-map and avoid patrolling cruisers while working towards goals, in an almost Pac-Man-like fashion. Reading the map and environment and planning carefully are as essential to success as driving ability. Missions will include driving slow or delicate wanted vehicles, and completely avoiding the police is most effective.
The missions, accompanied by the cinematics, serve as the center of the story, and they generally succeed in telling the tale rather than simply being an annoying task that interrupts the watching of cut scenes. Frequently clever premises and smart integration into the narrative create a natural flow of events, pacing difficulty well while providing varied tasks which mix different driving tasks with combat and exploration. The AI limitations can be problematic, with some tasks made easier because poor pathfinding traps enemies in easy gunshot range, and some made harder because the AI can't find its way up a simple ramp into a parking garage. Mission checkpoints are frequently poorly placed or nonexistent. In one example, there was a checkpoint between the first and second tasks, while the remaining four steps in the mission had none. Frequently, the only option is restarting from the beginning, while other missions are unfinishable because of vehicle damage held over by a checkpoint, and sometimes major mission elements aren't communicated to the player.
The single greatest flaw with in Parallel Lines, more important than the combat, is the game's unfriendliness towards the player. This begins with the manual, which is poorly organized and written and bereft of all but the most basic information; the existence of a melee attack is left out entirely. This same apathy towards actually informing the player pervades the game. When hopping into a vehicle, the name is not displayed at all, and in order to find out a name, the car has to be taken to a garage. Within the garage, the vehicle's rating within three categories is displayed. What these scores stand for is not shown or explained anywhere (it appears to be handling, speed and durability, but no guarantees).
Also available at the garage is a variety of possible upgrades. While "Engine" is self-evident, the function and benefits of "Adjustable Ride Height" is not so clear. The manual mentions the garage briefly but explains it not at all. The stars littered throughout the city are not explained, though the rewards for collecting them are useful and a great incentive. For some reason, when the HUD changes for '06, the mini-map changes to a light blue, which makes the police essentially invisible. Most importantly, the training missions make no attempt to introduce the player to the strategies needed to do well at the game. Teaching the player the basics of avoiding the police is just as important as teaching them which button makes the car go and which number counts bullets.
The Driver franchise isn't quite ready for a bullet in the head, but it's definitely tired. Atari needs to let the series take some time off until there's a compelling non-financial reason to produce another installment, and Reflections should do some soul-searching to figure out which parts of the game work. Diehard Driver fans will probably enjoy Parallel Lines, and driving fans who have exhausted Midnight Club and Most Wanted might want to give it a go, but otherwise, treat the game the way you would a patrol car on your commute: Approach with caution.
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