[This month is officially Driver Month here on Gamer Limit. Join us as we embark on an exhaustive road trip in a series of retrospectives for the Driver franchise in the run-up to Driver: San Francisco.]
It would take four long years before another Driver game would burst onto the scene in an intoxicating cloud of smoke, ready to serve its pining fans after Driver 2. To help quench this thirst, Reflections introduced Stuntman in 2002, a game that that played on Driver’s affinity with cinematic car chases by starring you as a charmless Hollywood stunt driver on fictional film sets. In Stuntman, you were required to perform death-defying car stunts in a series of stringently timed scenes for some upcoming action movies.
While the obvious film parodies were fun to watch, the game ultimately pushed the limits of trial and error by constantly demanding precision driving and was, above all else, infuriatingly difficult. As Reflections’ debut for the next generation of consoles however, it served as an effective appetiser that showed great promise for what was to come in the Wheelman’s next outing.
With the avalanche success of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, it’s fair to say that the next generation of Driver had an awful lot of catching up to do. Expectations were running high, especially with the impending release of San Andreas the same year just to add to the pressure. As a result, many were hoping that the third instalment would be everything that Driver 2 should have been, given the advantage of the extra graphical muscle thanks to next generation hardware. Instead, what we were given is widely regarded as one of the most disappointing game sequels in the whole of video game history.
Suspicions of the game’s fate were aroused by merely reading the title. It would have been logical, you would have thought, to simply name the third Driver game as “Driver 3,” perhaps including a subtitle for added effect, but instead the developers went down a ruined road and came up with the most unforgiveable of gimmicks. “I know!” someone in a last minute meeting exclaimed excitedly, “let’s jazz it up a bit by replacing the ‘e’ with a ‘3.’” “Mmm,” the boss responded, “what a splendid idea. Driv3r! It appeals to the current l33t speaking youths, so they’ll love it. If Wip3out can do it then so can we!”
This decision was met with significantly less enthusiasm on my part. What were they thinking? Driv3r. Go on, try to say it. “Driv-three-er” – that is how I always pronounce it, and I still loathe that name to this day. And yet initial promotional material referred to the game as “Driver 3,” so the late name change was hard to fathom. This tragic typography coupled with the woeful box art depicting Tanner shooting out of a car window (a false statement considering this was not possible in the final game) set amidst a yellow sea of empty space set the tone for the game. Something was radically wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong – as a devoted Driver fan there was plenty to admire, as Driv3r did a lot of things right even if elementary spelling wasn’t one of them. Watching the initial announcement trailer back in 2003 made me tingle with the same childish excitement that I felt with the original video for the first game.
The said trailer commenced with a huge semi-trailer truck filling the screen, which for the time was a captivating prospect because no sandbox game had allowed you to drive a truck with trailer before. This theme of showing the game’s newfound vehicle variety continued with a brief glimpse of Tanner riding a motorcycle: unfamiliar territory for Driver but common ground for GTA: Vice City. Even boats were featured.
Fears that Driver had forgotten its roots soon subsided after the belated arrival of a Mustang-esque muscle car taking center stage and sliding about all over the place, reinforcing the franchise’s flair for exaggerated cinematic handling. Mercifully, this remained true in the final game, resulting in the largest roster of vehicles to date that were a joy to drive with distinctly different handling characteristics. It simply wouldn’t be a Driver game without the trademark soggy suspension and heavy handling.
The punishment you could subject your car to saw similar advancements, with improved damage effects including visible crumple zones, shattering windows, and detachable bumpers, doors and bonnets. Impressively, bullet holes would remain precisely indented on the bodywork for the first time in a game, and vehicles would now explode after too much abuse, with the frame of the car splitting into several fragments rather than a solid burnt-out shell.
The choice of locations was also spot-on once again, this time reverting back to the beaches of Miami from the original game along with the previously unexplored locales of Nice and Istanbul. Each city shone with new lighting techniques that provided unique and distinctive colour palettes, along with intricately detailed architecture and the usual array of destructible scenery. Oh, and you could finally run over the pedestrians, thankfully.
Driv3r certainly wasn’t without ambition, either. In keeping with its reliance on Hollywood finesse, a lengthy advertising campaign in the form of a short live-action promotional film was launched in the run-up to the game’s release. Directed by Sean Mullens and airing exclusively on the Driv3r website in weekly parts, the project was known as Run the Gauntlet, which revolved around Tanner’s pledge to deliver a car that results in, you guessed it, a high speed car chase loaded with spectacular stunts.
For fans like myself of Hollywood car chase sequences, the three-minute short was marvelous to watch despite the god-awful dialogue, although you couldn’t help but wish they would produce a feature length Driver movie – such a project has been teased since 2003 but has since been put on hold, sadly. Renowned Hollywood talent such as Michael Madsen and Iggy Pop also joined the voice cast, with Madsen taking the leading role of Tanner, and the soundtrack was similarly graced with note-worthy artists.
All of this amounted to a solid driving experience that would lead you to think that Driv3r was a terrific triumph. And indeed it was, right up until the moment you stepped out of the car. Wait, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
While Driver 2’s poorly executed on-foot controls were almost forgivable due to the fact that they were used sparingly, Driv3r made the mistake of making it a central component of the gameplay that led to the mass critical backlash that the game was subsequently subjected to.
In a concerted effort to match GTA’s popularity, Tanner was suddenly equipped with weaponry, but the shooting mechanics were shockingly dire beyond belief. Admittedly, the grenade launcher was at least fun in its ability to cause havoc, but gunning down enemies felt forced and rather awkward thanks to the lack of a cover system. Meanwhile, stilted animations made Tanner amble around with all the dexterity of a constipated crab crippled with arthritis.
Then there was the lousy AI, which often led to enemies standing still until you approached them at close range – it’s hard to recall a game that featured worse enemy AI for its time. And then when you finally shot them, the brainless foes didn’t shed a single trace of blood. It was stark confirmation that while Reflections were exceptionally talented at creating exuberant car models and driving characteristics, they were not only incapable of spelling their own game correctly but also evidently inexperienced with programming third-person shooters.
The advent of weapons made the game severely lose focus since it felt as if mission objectives carried just as much shooting as they did driving. More often than not, the missions that made up the game’s undercover mode were an absolute chore to trawl through with each uninspired shootout becoming identical. The driving portions didn’t fare much better, either, owing to some fiendishly timed objectives and scripted traffic events that were solely designed to make you swear very loudly at the screen. Mind you, this was nothing compared to the immovable lamp posts of death that could single-handedly prevent you from completing a mission should you plough into them.
Still, there were at least some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in the mission design. The Speed-inspired Booby Trap whereby you had to maintain your speed above 50 MPH in order to avoid an explosive surprise was suitably enthralling and reminiscent of the Hollywood thrills the series strives to replicate, and the trashing of a Miami shopping mall made it impossible not to imagine you were driving the legendary Bluesmobile whilst wearing dark sun glasses.
Sadly, the plot was largely uninteresting; amounting to a string of nonsensical, though polished, cut scenes that illustrated Tanner’s latest mission to infiltrate a notorious rig of car thieves. What was interesting, however, was that the game’s intro acted as a flashback of Tanner’s final showdown with Jericho, concluding with Tanner being rushed to hospital after a gunshot wound. As the staff desperately try to revive our hero, Tanner’s fate is left uncertain when the EMG machine flat lines and the game begins six months earlier before ending with the same scene.
Driv3r was also notoriously plagued with a host of unfortunate bugs and glitches to the point that I could easily write an entire article listing every last one. Featuring everything from sinking vehicles to flying pedestrians, it’s staggering to think that this game managed to pass quality control. Even the film director, one of my favourite features of the Driver series, wasn’t let off, often playing entirely different footage to the sessions you had just played. The fact remains that Driv3r was fundamentally broken as a result of being rushed to a deadline.
Reflections has always had a bit of a rivalry with Rockstar Games and GTA, but this feud fully blossomed with Driv3r. The case in point was of course the hidden enemies known as Timmy Vermicelli, an obvious jab at Tommy Vercetti from Vice City. Humorously, Timmy was shown to be wearing arm-bands in a joke aimed at the fact he would instantly drown when introduced to water, in comparison to Tanner who now had the ability to swim.
Rockstar would have the last laugh however, as CJ in San Andreas could not only swim but dive underwater. What’s more, a cut scene in the game deliberately poked fun at Driv3r’s failings by having characters subliminally hurl abuse at the game during a cut scene, asking how “Refractions could screw up so badly.” In fact, you could say it was Rockstar that started the whole feud in GTA III – a mission entitled “Two faced Tanner” started with a clear message to Reflections about a “strangely animated undercover cop“ who was “useless out of the car.” So true Rockstar, so true.
And herein lies the problem: Driver was playing catch-up to GTA instead of focusing on what it did best. Truth be told, the market had seemingly moved on from the simple days of 1999 where Driver was a revelation, so it’s easy to see why the pressure was on to compete after Rockstar stole the spotlight. Nevertheless, Driv3r remains a potent and infamous example of the hype train becoming derailed, and it ultimately suffered the consequences of its rushed upbringing with a strong and unforgivable wave of negative press and disappointed fans. As Tanner was left for dead at the end of the game, sadly so was the once untouchable series.
Pull over next week for a look back at Driver: Parallel Lines as Driver Month concludes on Gamer Limit.