In Retrospect: DriverPlatforms: Sony PlayStation
With over five titles on nearly ten platforms the Driver series from Reflections is one of the longest running franchises in recent gaming history. With such a distance travelled it is also, inevitably one of the most marred as well. However with the soaring popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series it’s easy to forget just how far ahead of the curve Driver was and just how much of an important title for the industry the original was.
The latest instalment to the Driver series has just hit the shelves late last week. Aside from the brave shift feature it appears as if the development team of San Francisco is returning to the roots that the series first put down on the Playstation console way back in 1999. Later titles such as Parallel Lines and the bug ridden Driv3r very nearly killed the franchise altogether. A lack of focus and a publisher in need of money were never going to do the sequels much good. The original however was a thing of pure beauty and despite the car crashes of its successors the first game remains one of the crowning moments of the 32-bit generation.
Looking back, with the right angle roads, the fuzzy graphics and the pop-up its probably a little difficult to believe for some younger generations to realise but this was a title which pushed the ageing Playstation hardware all the way to the edge. Around a year later the Playstation 2 would be released. Sony's hugely successful original soldiered on for a while longer but Driver was arguably the last title to really push the hardware to it's limits.
Grand Theft Auto 3 took a huge amount of praise for producing a 3D sandbox game but Driver, developed by a team in the cold North East of England, beat them by nearly two years - and on an inferior system. Just how they managed it, and in eighteen-months no less, really is amazing. Chief amongst the problems facing the Reflections team was how to keep the frame-rate up and how to spool out content from the disc for three open world cities. In the end they managed it and threw in a load of details including realistic damage, flying hubcaps and billowing smoke from the back tyres. No mean feat for a console which was reaching the end of it's commercial life.
Many of the main problems stemmed from the fact that Driver was one of the first 3D open-world titles. Particularly for the racing genre this was brave new ground that was being covered. Racers at the time were still traditionally track led affairs and Driver stood out from the crowd for doing something very different. One wonders if Grand Theft Auto would be the dominant force in the sandbox genre if the later versions of Driver hadn’t been rushed or plagued with show stopping bugs.
Looking back the missions and the story were perhaps one of the weakest areas of the game, however it had bags of seventies atmosphere and nailed its cinematic references almost perfectly. 'Bullet', 'French Connection' and of course 'The Driver' all had more than a passing reference thrown into the game. However it wasn't the missions or perhaps even the technical achievement that was the best thing Reflections pulled off with the Driver game. One of the crowning achievements of the game was its pick-up and play style.
At the centre of it all was the superb handling system the game employed. Huge power slides from hulking American muscle cars were the order of the day but what tied it altogether so brilliantly was just how easy they were to do. Not only did the game look cool to anyone watching but when they finally got behind the wheel it was easy to create the look themselves. Sliding a car through traffic in a bid to beat the cops was made a real joy thanks the handbrake button – another feature which Reflections really pioneered in the Driver title. The handling though wasn't quite the best thing about the game. Reflections took the whole film angle of the game one step further with the inspired Director Mode. It allowed gamers to re-run their car chases against the cops and set up cameras around the city to film their chase. It was something which was criminally taken out of the later entries in the series and one which gave the game it's final, glorious finishing touch. Not only was the handling great but you got to marvel at it all again afterwards in perhaps the coolest way possible. No racing game before or since has probably come closer to a better feature.
Driver was very nearly perfectly judged. Unfortunately the charm which was sprinkled through much of the game perhaps fell short on a key area - the missions. Or more accurately the insane difficult spikes. Many will recall the final closing mission in which the game literally threw everything at you. Many never finished it. Some though may never have even got past the first level. The opening car-park scene setter was perhaps as poorly judged as the last mission in the game. Players were forced to prove themselves in an underground car park by pulling off a number of tricks, slides and stunts. If you passed the test you were allowed into the game proper. For an opening level, with some difficult manoeuvres to make, it was a tricky prospect. For a full priced title it was a harsh introduction. In any other game it would have been unforgivable. But Driver had enough magic to get away with one hell of a serious flaw.
Driver went on to be released on the PC as well. However it is perhaps the Playstation where it was most fondly remembered. It was perhaps the final hurrah for Sony's ageing slate gray box of tricks. The time to move was already edging closer and closer but Reflections' Driver game showed just what was possible with a talented programming team. Even the difficulty spikes couldn't harm what was a brilliant title.
The series ultimately lost it's way because it failed to do what the original Driver did so well – deliver a neatly packaged and focused dose of car chase heaven. Indeed as games get bigger and bring more genres together under one title the same can be said for others as well. Despite its tight focus though Driver still managed the feat of being one of the most ambitious titles of the time. Hopefully Driver: San Francisco will return the series to some much needed glory.