Reflections has been at this a long time, this crash-'em-up, bash-'em-up destruction derby driving type thing. The Newcastle, England-based developer is good at making cars that drive fast and crash into tiny bits of flying metal and I've had a hell of a time playing their games over the years. But what surprises me most about the team's progress from its humble origins to a million-plus game-selling development studio is that DRIV3R
, the third in the once venerable series, is almost exactly like Driver
in design, and more importantly, in its aim.
DRIV3R isn't supposed to be like Grand Theft Auto, The Getaway, or True Crime. Its aim is less broad. It's a title designed to resemble a Hollywood car chase movie. It's about the hunt, the getaway, and the act of pursuit. You know, it's the kind of game where your blood runs hot, your car wheels screech and smoke, civilians scramble for their lives, and property damage reaches an all-time high. But therein lays the rub. While a majority of the gameplaying world enjoys the concept just like I do, the majority of the world has most likely played one or all three of the above-listed games. While many, many players enjoyed Driver 1 and Driver 2, and are now about to experience DRIV3R, the world around which this game has dramatically changed.
On its own, DRIV3R is an under-par game, delivering a healthy mix of in-car and out-of-car missions, a lively list of autos, and a well-presented but uninteresting story. On its own, it's troubled with unforgivably terrible AI, poor out-of-car controls, and some awfully designed levels. On its own, DRIV3R is a game that looks and plays like a bigger, prettier version of Driver 2 with band-aids, but no real solutions to the problems that riddled it. But compared to other games of its kind, DRIV3R falls on its face; lacking in every area except that sector that Reflections has always been good at, the skidding, slamming, destructo-style-car-driving area. But even there it's tired.
DRIV3R starts off well. It's presented with a terrific looking CG intro that sets up a deadly shootout which appears to be a final confrontation of sorts. The idea here being that, like a Quentin Tarantino film, Reflections would start at the end, giving you a premonition of what's to come and then start at the beginning. Only it's a lot less complicated than that. The CG throughout the game is technically excellent, showing off good character motion and presenting a story that seems like its significant to the game. Similar to many action movies, however, the story doesn't go anywhere or become interesting.
As always, Tanner is an all-action-few-words policeman who goes undercover, this time to stop an international car theft organization from stealing expensive cars. Taking place in three different countries, Miami, Florida, Nice, France, and Istanbul, Turkey, DRIV3R really is a movie-game with a minimalist story to tell, pieced together with far more engaging action scenes than story scenes. Even though I've played all the Driver games so far, it was at first difficult to identify Tanner as Reflections has a strange habit of making almost all its characters look alike. A majority of characters here have short, military style buzz cuts, large square jaws, and stoic expressions. It's like they're all descendents from the same Germanic tribe.
I will say this though, hearing the voices of Ving Rhames, Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Madsen is cool. They're voice acting did lend authenticity to the boring story, so that the rather dull dialog was given life beyond its means. The transitions from game to cutscenes were also handled with thought and style. You also get a premonition of what the out-of-car experience is going to be like right from the start. The camera is rigidly fixed on Tanner like a pan-handle to a pan. It's not great, but it works. The game then slowly careens downhill from the first couple of missions and bounces from disappointment to disappointment, with the occasionally cool moment in-between. In the three cities, each one providing about nine missions, the last two-three of each city are the most challenging, leading to boss fights, and trial and error gameplay.
Broken up into a rough 75%-25% ratio of driving to walking missions, DRIV3R does what the series has been doing for years. With minuscule variation on the theme since its inception, Reflections' third game gives you "chase and getaway" missions in a variety of cars in large urban centers. The big differences between this title and its predecessors come in these flavors: More and different vehicles, added mission variety, openness, larger cities, swimming and civilian carnage. You can ride motorcycles, boats, and a range of new cars. The mission structure is more mixed this time around, meaning that you might drive a car, walk around shooting enemies, and even pilot a boat all in one mission. One-upping Grand Theft Auto III and GTA: Vice City, you can swim in DRIV3R, which further opens the title's gameplay, too.
The new motorcycles drive stiffly, but they're very fast and wild. They are by far the fastest vehicle in the game and you'll get a kick out of them. The boats range in speed and style, but the powerboats are fun to drive, and they handle smoothly and evenly across the watery surface. The swimming is actually quite fun (even if it's pretty crudely animated), adding in a new layer of control that makes getting out of hairy situations even sweeter. And then there is the driving physics itself, created to give each car a heavy weight, suspension, and relation to gravity that's made each game in the Driver series so much fun to peel out in. These physics are very close in nature to those in the previous games, and thus cars are overly heavy in weight with slippery tires and the tendency to slide out (which makes for awesome peel outs and power slides). Despite these changes, Reflections hasn't evolved the game's premise and players will be sorry if they expect a new experience from DRIV3R.
Out of Control
The in-car experience is good, albeit the same as before. So while it's not changed much, it's still good arcade fun -- if you have the patience. Once you start experiencing the game's walking sections, a familiar taste starts setting in. The out-of-car experience has to be one of the worst for a videogame in this generation. The stiff camera isn't the worst problem but some flexibility could have eased the pain. The myriad of control problems starts with shoddy collision detection, an animation shortage, and sloppy, awkward, and otherwise mechanically inept out-of-car controls.
From an out-of-car experience, DRIV3R is not well conceived or executed. On foot, the collision detection is bad everywhere but you'll notice it particularly when getting into a car or trying to get in and out of a boat. You might be standing next a car and the enter button won't work. You'll press the button and Tanner will turn away from the door. Sometimes it works, other times not; it's inconsistent.
Getting in and out of boats is also a problem. For instance, when you're taking fire, you need to jump from the boat into water. You cannot shoot when in water, so it all needs to be done quickly and efficiently. The game prevents efficiency from happening regularly. If you detach from driving the boat and try to jump out, you can A) meld with the dashboard; B) get stuck trying to jump out, or C) die trying. Also, getting in a boat is apparently magic. You just press the get-in button and voila! You instantly appear locked to the steering wheel.
On foot, you'll have to resort to 16- or 32-bit generation style of play, but not the good kind. Walking in a room with enemies in it must be approached with trial-and-error methods. Actually, the entire game is designed with this tedious default method, but it's readily apparent in the shooting sections. One method is to peer around corners hoping that you've chosen the correct blind side. There are no grenades, there is no wall stealth, and it's totally stripped down. With lock-on, this is slightly fixed, but not well enough. The reticule is also messed up, as it doesn't always recognize the enemy over which it's skimming. An enemy will be in the reticule and it will look on target, but for some reason, the reticule isn't detecting the head or the body it's on. It's embarrassingly inconsistent.
The point is, a handful of games handle these situations far better, and we've grown accustomed to them. I expect to get in and out of a car with no mechanical hiccups. For a game that's based on this, it should be been one of the first things nailed down. While this glitch might make for some funny, ironic situations to laugh at in your spare time, or while someone else is playing, when the timer is ticking and you're taking fire it's frustrating and annoying. Incidentally, DRIV3R isn't actually that hard of a game. But the mechanics and the sloppy controls actually get in the way of A) beating a level using your skill and B) having fun doing it. It's as if Reflections never considered the enormous implications of opening up the world, and then either did a poor job of attacking them or just ignored them.
The on-foot enemy AI is terrible. In many cases, an enemy AI hides out waiting for you to come into its scope of detection. DRIV3R's cone of recognition for enemies is narrow and unsophisticated, so you can walk up to a corner, around which an enemy is hidden, peak out and make yourself known. In dozens of other games, the AI would be programmed to recognize you and react, either by chasing, taking cover or a combination of the two. Here, it sits there idly; waiting for a clumsy nose-to-nose fight. So it stands there like a still, dumb giant target. Sometimes, you can use a corner to your benefit. The reticule sometimes mistakenly gives you the edge; permitting you to shoot an enemy while he stands there taking heat until he dies. The AI occasionally rolls or ducks, but it's so seldom that it's not really worth pursuing. Thus, gun fights instantly turn into the simplest of fights, with you unloading as many bullets into an enemy as possible before he unloads first. The control is such that you'll strafe more than actually try to aim, making it even more simplistic. If this were Gungrave, it would be fun. But it's so far from that. The AI here isn't even in the same league as GTA III, True Crime, or The Getaway.
Reversely, the car AI is pretty much exactly like it was in Driver and Driver 2. In other words, it's wildly aggressive. Enemy cars ram you, fly into dangerous situations to cause major mayhem and cops throw their cars into death traps just to stop you. I guess I've grown accustomed to these situations, so it's not that big of a deal. I actually enjoy that kind of DRIV3R chaos.
Though this could fall under level design, there doesn't seem to be any consistency about the distance it takes to lose a car in chase missions so I've put it here. The general rule here seems to be that if an enemy car is out of sight, it gets away. But distance and sight don't seem to have anything to do with it. I've experimented with several scenarios, and the point at which a car gets away appears random. Sometimes while I'm in a chase, the enemy car can be one block away and in sight, and I've lost it. While in other situations, it can be up to three blocks away and still chaseable. Sometimes I'm actually gaining on it, and it gets away. As with so many of the other problems in DRIV3R, Reflections hasn't designed the game with clear and consistent enough parameters or presented its game clearly enough for players to know.
Reflections designed this new Driver with much of the same chase-and-be-chased ideas from its previous games. But it's added new colors to the palette. For instance, a couple of levels find you in a rail shooter circumstance. In these, you're in a getaway situation and have to man the back. With unlimited ammo you keep the enemies or cops from destroying your vehicle. In one level you get to use a grenade launcher and watch as the vehicles literally explode all over the road, or launch into other cop cars. It's actually the best -- or at least my favorite -- level in the game.
The new "open" design, however, while encouraged, is rough at best. Some levels provide you with choices to complete them. Sometimes that means more than one road leads to the goal, other times it means you can use a boat, a car, or even your strong swimming arms to beat the level. Sometimes it means all three. The biggest problem with the level design isn't that the missions are too hard, and in fact most are easy, or that they're designed terribly in form; but the means by which you must complete them is a lousy experience.
Take the mission Smash and Run, for example. You must steal three cars and drive them into a van while it's moving through town and you must finish the job before the van reaches its destination. You're not told how it all works, but after some experimentation, you find out slotting a car requires precision. Once the car is placed into the van, how do you escape to get the next aggressor? You drop out the bottom of the car -- and the van. Was there some hatch there? I mean two hatches? Apparently you can simply jump through metal. By doing so, you'll take health damage to boot. This small, seemingly meaningless incident adds up with dozens of others to ruin the Driver experience. On that same level, there are no hints telling you this but once you've fallen flat on your face in the middle of the road, you must then find a vehicle -- and usually there are none around. But you should preferably find a motorcycle, which just so happens to the best and perhaps only vehicle that will let you beat the level.
Another level gives a perfectly good example of what's happening in DRIV3R. In Dodge Island, you're supposed to escape Gator's clutches on foot and in a car. One of the enemy cars ruined my vehicle, so I got out, and they pushed me into water. The enemy also fell into the water too. And just like in several other levels, the enemy AI then somehow looses its vigor, its intelligence, and its ability to do anything. The enemy shooters bobbed up and down looking at Tanner as he swam past them. There was one other small problem, which was that there was no visible ladder to return to land and complete the stage. I was left to swim for miles until I found a ladder onto land.
In an Istanbul section, the cops chased me while I drove a fishing boat. I needed to get on land all the way across the map. I found a dock and when I jumped out of the boat, I watched as two cop cars that spotted me drove right into ocean. They then proceeded to sink, and the helpless cops watched as I swam by them and onto shore.
The list of goofed levels goes on, and in fact every level can be used as an example of what's wrong. But suffice it is to say, DRIV3R is a decent game that's seriously hampered with technical problems. What's more concerning, though, is that despite my ability to get better at DRIV3R, skill doesn't seem to make a difference. Beating a level depends on unequal measures of ability, randomness, and sheer luck. I haven't found the exact measurements just yet, but I know skill is in the minority.
So despite the huge cities and curvilinear roads, the list of awesome unlicensed cars, the heavy physics and the totally destroyable car models, Reflections game is basically a better looking, ever-so-slightly fixed Driver 2. Which isn't saying much. In 2004, DRIV3R's design is outdated, and its poor, unpolished levels pale in comparison to other games of its kind. Even if I didn't compare this to any similar games in the genre I would be still be disappointed in DRIV3R's minute evolution from the original.
As a whole, DRIV3R is a better than decent looking game. It sports vast environments, great car models, and interesting looking cities. On the nitty-gritty level, Reflections' title suffers from technical problems, some odd CG character models, and the lack of a distinct artistic style.
What's most impressive, naturally, are the destructible car models, which are shredded to bits, broken into glass shards, bent into scrap metal, and often torn into burning embers via explosions. In short, what makes this thing visually impressive is its particle system. These designers have had their way with the particle systems, in fact, and you'll be the happy benefactor as you watch everything explode into pieces. There's little debate that the lighting systems aren't excellent. The various times of day create greater 3D shadows, colorful skies, and moods and hues that give depth to the game's intense action.
On the Xbox, DRIV3R sports relatively quick load times and little aliasing. The load times and the aliasing and shimmering on the PS2 are more dramatic, but on the whole, neither of these distract too heavily from the whole experience. That said, if you're a picky graphics whore, you won't like this game; if you're relatively easy on graphics, though, you'll probably be a little more forgiving. If you remember Driver 2 on PlayStation 1, then you'll remember the horrible load times and awful, eye-wrenching pop-in. In DRIV3R you'll see pop-up and it's not great on the eyes, but it's far better than in Driver 2 -- making it relatively bearable.
DRIV3R's artistic style has always been rather slim. The cities, although in entirely different locations, aren't that different in effect. You're driving by so fast that only the architecture is noticeable, and Reflections has at least paid attention to that.
The voice acting in DRIV3R is all good. Ving Rhames, Mickey Rourke, Michelle Rodriguez, Iggy Pop and Michael Madsen do a superb job of voice acting given the bland, uninteresting lines they had to delivery. Normally, I could care less if a Hollywood actor is in a game (with the exception of Bruce Campbell), but here, the authenticity of the voices adds a greater level of storytelling authenticity.
The music in DRIV3R stays relatively grounded in hard rock with an occasional stray. The initial tune for the Miami level really captured my imagination. The low level atmospheric vibe started the game off beautifully. The game then develops a rather hard rocking edge to it, neither great nor poor, and the all of the original music here is better than the heinous ear-breaking stuff from the first game.
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