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Grand Theft Auto III may have kicked off the 3D urban open world boom but it technically wasn’t the first game to do that kind of thing. I would argue that the game Driver, which released two years prior, is one of the first. Driver introduced players to an open world experience centered on cinematic-style car chases. It does not give players the same kind of freedom and options as GTA III but there was also nothing quite like it at the time. Developed by Reflections Interactive and published by GT Interactive, Driver was released for PlayStation in June, 1999. It was ported to PC that same year and the Game Boy Color game was released in May, 2000. For this review, I played the PlayStation version.
The plot follows N.Y.P.D. detective John Tanner who is sent undercover to investigate a crime syndicate which takes him to multiple cities across the United States including Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Driver aims to deliver a cinematic-style experience clearly based on films and shows from the 1970s. From the way people talk and dress to the music, the whole game conveys a sort of funky 70’s vibe. I can’t say the voice acting is amazing but some of the dialogue is humorous and the plot is only alright.
I think for the time this released, the cinematic style was unique and different. The cut scenes typically show characters interacting and I like how you rarely get a clear look at anyone’s actual face. I’m guessing it’s due to technical limitations but, nevertheless, I think the cut scenes are creatively done. Characters are either facing away from the camera or positioned in a shadowy spot or the camera is positioned at an angle that makes it difficult to see faces clearly. Yet, the information being conveyed is clear and I feel the presentation successfully conveys the cinematic style, tone, and atmosphere the developers were aiming for.
Before getting into the nitty gritty I just want to say it’s very hard not to compare Driver to the 3D Grand Theft Auto games and that’s because we all know what GTA has become and Driver is basically a spiritual precursor to those games. It was ahead of its time. When it came out, GTA was doing its top down thing, but if you’ve played GTA III and/or any of the future titles, Driver will feel very familiar. I have played this once or twice before but not for very long. Not long enough to actually realize just how similar the driving style and gameplay structure is to GTA. So when I played it for this review, I was an actually in awe of what I was seeing and experiencing. I had always heard it was similar but I had no idea just how close it was because I never gave it a real chance. Driver is a very impressive and ambitious title, especially for the hardware it’s running on.
Driver is a driving game. I guess you could call it a racing game because you’re often racing against the clock but I would classify it as simply a driving game. It centers a unique concept, car chases. It aims to capture the style and spirit of the car chases you would see in movies and television shows. I think the big difference between Driver and GTA III is that GTA III is more of an open world sandbox and Driver is just open world. Character interactions and on-foot sequences are all conveyed in cut scenes. Your job is simply to drive from A to B. You cannot get out of your car, you can’t run around the environments, and you can’t shoot people. You just drive. That’s it. If you take away the story, there’s nothing to really do in the cities other than drive around and explore and get into car chases.
Driver comes with multiple game modes. Undercover is the story mode and I would recommend jumping into that first because progressing through the story is how you unlock cities in the Take A Ride mode and once you beat Undercover, you unlock Cheats, although they can still be activated beforehand if you know the codes. The Take A Ride mode allows you to drive around any unlocked city with no time limits or objectives. You can also participate in numerous Driving Games and try for record times. My favorites are the more action-oriented ones like Pursuit, Getaway and Survival. The objective of Pursuit is to pursue or chase another vehicle and try to stop them within the time limit and Getaway requires you to lose your tail or in other words, the cops. Survival is similar to Getaway but the cops are extremely fast and aggressive and the objective is to survive for as long as possible.
I do think Driver holds up really well because of the simple concept and controls. It’s pretty easy to pick up and play. You drive cars around. That’s the whole thing. The actual driving feels great and you can even use the joystick on the Dual Analog Controller. You can accelerate, brake, perform burnouts, 180s, 360s, and vehicles have a good sense of weight. During gameplay, you can play from a “behind the car” or “front of the car” view and also switch the camera to a cinematic view. You can watch and save replays of your gameplay and there’s even a Film Director mode where you can set up multiple cameras at different points, and rotate them, adjust the zoom and their angles. It’s very cool.
Undercover plays out through jobs or missions and as you progress through the story, you travel to the different cities. You have a hideout in each one where you can save your game, take a ride, access your voicemail messages and accept jobs. I found this whole hideout concept to be quite immersive. You may have multiple messages on the machine which typically equates to multiple jobs and there are different mission paths through the storyline.
Many of the jobs or missions in the Undercover mode are actually pretty tame but what makes any of them exciting is more or less the situations the game puts you in. For example, picking up guys after a bank job and evading the cops or chasing vehicles down. Shit like that. There’s a lot of jobs that are simple and straightforward like simply driving to a location or transporting someone. Some missions do contain multiple what I’ll call “parts”. For example, you’ll complete your objective and then watch a cut scene before continuing where you left off to complete the next objective, almost like it’s a checkpoint. While many missions may seem unexciting and tame, especially today, I feel that element is easy to ignore because of everything else the game has going for it. The car chases are exciting, the open-ended environments are impressive, and each city looks and feels distinct. Not only does the game feature partial recreations of four real-world cities but also includes desert environments which can be accessed in the Training and Driving Games modes. I actually found that to be somewhat impressive. Four cities and a desert.
Driver does feature a damage system and felony system which represents police aggressiveness. Most objectives have a time limit so if you don’t get to your destination in time, you fail the mission. You also fail if your vehicle takes enough damage. Crashing into things and getting shoved around by cops will result in damage. Your felony meter increases when you commit crimes in view of police like running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, and speeding. On your HUD is a radar or mini-map which not only shows you the roads you can drive on and where your target destination is but also what cop cars are nearby. Once you’ve committed a crime in view of police, they will begin chasing you and they will even setup roadblocks. Outrunning them is not easy because they can move fast and kind of rubber band to you so I often had to slalom around vehicles and obstacles on the roads, hoping the cop cars would crash and to complete many objectives, you’ll often be required to lose your tail. There is no way to reduce your felony meter and there’s also no way to repair your vehicle so you’ll have to drive fast, well, and carefully. That’s the challenging part.
Overall, I think Driver is an excellent game. However, it’s not perfect. I do think the difficulty spikes at several points and some jobs in the Undercover mode lean more towards frustrating than fun. For one thing, I think the first mission which is also one of the Training missions is unnecessarily difficult. You’re in a car park and must show off your skills by completing a series of maneuvers within a time limit. The mission is obviously designed to show you the ropes and ensure you know how to do things but the time limit seems unnecessary and it can become frustrating. I think it took me close to ten attempts before I beat it.
The felony system is very cool but also flawed. One thing to note is that because of the technical limitations, pop-in rampant and I can accept that. You’ll frequently see things like buildings and vehicles pop-in as you speed down the roads. The best way to see if cops are nearby is to glance at your radar on the HUD and they will often appear on roads seemingly out of nowhere. You won’t often see them move into view on the radar, like their dots don’t usually come in from the edges, they usually just appear. That said, if you’re blazing down the road, it’s very possible to attract police attention before you even realize a cop appeared nearby and that can be kind of annoying.
One small gripe I have is that some of the objectives really don’t seem like they need to be timed and only are to add an additional layer of challenge. The problem with some missions is that your first objective may require you to reach a destination within a time limit and if you don’t speed, you won’t make it or you’ll cut it extremely close. That means you have to risk attracting police attention before even starting the arguably more challenging objective and it’s all because of that first time limit which may not even seem necessary. It’s either you speed and commit crimes to get there or drive carefully and fail because you were too slow. You may have to do a bit of both if you’re trying to avoid police attention. Speed until you see a cop and then slow down and obey the laws and then drive like a maniac again once they’re out of view.
I really wouldn’t consider the time limit a problem if the cities had more roads to drive on. If you’re on a straight road and behind a cop, you basically have two options. Speed by them and try to evade them or take it slow and wait until you come to an intersection so you can turn to take an alternate route or get around them. Cops can also appear behind you which can be a problem in this situation if your felony meter is even partially full. The cities don’t contain many alleyways or ways to cut through city blocks. Most buildings are directly connected or attached to other buildings. A good rule of thumb is if it’s not a red line on the radar, it’s not something you can drive on. Yes, there are some parks and alleys and areas of the cities that are not roads that you can drive around but for the most part, the cities keep you contained on the roads.
I think a good example of most of my frustrations with Driver can be found in the mission called “The Rescue” which is set in New York City. The first objective is to reach a destination within a time limit to pick up some people and you will have to lose cops if they’re on your tail when you get there. As soon as you pick the people up, your felony meter instantly increases. Now this next objective is supposed to be the core and challenging part of the mission, taking them to the next destination (which is also a decent distance away I might add) while evading cops. The area where you pick them up is behind some buildings and there’s only one way to get back to the main road and it’s kind of a bottleneck. As soon as you pick them up, two cop cars are already there and heading for you so there’s a good chance you’ll take damage before even getting back to the road. Now you have to speed across the city evading police and try not to wreck your vehicle.
It should be noted that roadblocks can actually block entire roads so depending on the roads you take during this mission, there may not be a hole to squeeze through in the middle or on the sides of the roadblock. What does this mean? It means you’ll have to plow through the cop cars and take the damage or take a different route which could mean turning around because as mentioned before, there’s not many alleys or ways to cut through city blocks. However, turning around can be dangerous because there’s typically a cop on your ass and he will most likely ram into your vehicle, inflicting damage. This mission is also a good example of a spike in difficulty because in my experience, most missions before and several after it are not nearly as challenging or frustrating.
Other than “The Rescue”, it wasn’t often I got frustrated with the gameplay. The final mission can be a bitch and I did read that there is a way to glitch through it. As for some of the other difficulty spikes, I thought some of the missions in San Francisco, which is the second city you visit, were overly difficult but all the ones I completed in Los Angeles, which is the third city, were pretty easy. In general, I felt most missions were fair and I can’t say any felt truly impossible. I’ll even give the more challenging missions, including “The Rescue”, a pass because of the game’s age and certain technical limitations among other things. Just know that some missions may feel very trial and error.
I would consider Driver to be part of the open world genre because each city is essentially an open world. You can drive around and explore them freely, although exploring is best done in the Take A Ride mode since there’s no objectives or time limits. When it comes to games like this, I think immersion is important. If the world is an empty soulless playground, I’ll have a difficult time getting into it. Luckily, that’s not the case here. The cities may not be as detailed as the worlds in games today, but for it’s time, what’s on display here was really impressive stuff.
As mentioned earlier, each city feels distinct. They are partial recreations of real-world cities and feature some iconic buildings, landmarks, and areas. But that’s only part of what makes them immersive. You’ll drive at different times of day, sometimes in the rain, see pedestrians walking around, vehicles on the roads, and all kinds of objects like vendor stalls, trash cans, crates and trees among other things scattered around the cities. AI vehicles stop at red lights and signal when they turn, you’ll hear horns honk, and cop sirens and radio chatter as you’re being chased. It’s all the little things that help bring the cities to life and make the game feel somewhat realistic. Playing it now, Driver obviously looks dated and some of the technical limitations can break the immersion. For example, all the pop-in and there’s not enough cars and people on the streets to make the cities feel like heavily populated urban locations. But, honestly, that’s just nitpicking because these kinds of things were easily forgivable at the time this released. If the game featured bumper to bumper traffic and floods of people on the streets, it would probably run like a slide show. What the developers did with Driver was incredible in 1999.
Visually, I do think Driver was a great looking game for it’s time. The cities look and feel distinct primarily due to their presentation. The skyboxes, buildings, and lighting all help set a unique tone and atmosphere for each city. I was really impressed with the little details like graffiti on the sides of buildings and the numerous storefronts on display. They’re not just muddy textures, either. A lot of the signs and text are actually legible. Vehicle models look good and crashing will result in visible deformities, smoke, particles flying into the air, and hub caps can come off. As for the audio, your vehicle engine roars, tires will screech, cop sirens are loud, and crashing results in the sounds of metal crunching. The gameplay is accompanied by some funky tunes that help convey that 70s style the game is going for. On the technical side, I did witness the frame rate dip here and there when there was a lot of action on-screen. Other than that and seeing some vehicles clip through the environments, I encountered no major issues.
I had a great time with Driver. It was very unique for its time. Not a lot of games were doing this. I love the concept, style, and all the little details and it still holds up really well. I do feel the difficulty spikes at certain points and some missions are frustrating but, overall, Driver is a very entertaining game. I do wish it let you drive more vehicles and I am a little surprised at the lack of variety. You get to drive a different primary vehicle in each city and certain missions will let you drive something else but it’s not often. The game would also benefit from explosions. I would have loved to see cars explode during chases, like if they crash and flip over or take enough damage or crash into a building or barrier head on if moving fast enough. You see that shit in films all the time so I think it could have added to the game’s cinematic flare. Ultimately, what’s here is amazing and it comes with quite a bit of content. The Take A Ride mode and numerous Driving Games can keep you occupied for a while and the Film Director mode essentially lets you create your own little car chase films. If I had played this as a kid, I could see myself messing around with that for hours.
I would absolutely recommend Driver. I think it’s one of the best games for the PlayStation and its flaws are easily forgivable. The scope and ambition of what’s on display here was something to behold in 1999 and the result is fun and impressive. The freedom, details, immersion and amount of content on offer should keep players coming back for a while and even though this type of open world formula has been expanded upon significantly over the years, Driver still holds up because of it’s simple concept and easy to pick up and play nature. Definitely check it out.