[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.]
After the gargantuan success of Driver, the inevitable announcement of a sequel in 2000 came as no surprise, and with the dawn of the PlayStation 2 fast approaching, the anticipation for the Wheelman’s second and final lap on the PlayStation couldn’t have been higher. Likewise, my hopes for a worthy sequel were just as astronomical having enjoyed its predecessor like nothing else.
Reflections also had similar hopes for their sequel to be the most successful driving game of a generation, with ambitions of expanding the series to heights many couldn’t have foreseen.
Join me as we shift into the second gear of Driver Month.
Driver 2 (known as ‘Driver 2: Back on the Streets’ in Europe and ‘The Wheelman is Back’ in the US) reprises Tanner, the leading undercover cop who landed himself as a getaway driver affectionately known as the Wheelman from the first game. However, right from the outset you could tell he was no longer the faceless protagonist seen last time around.
The introductory cinematic not only showcased a montage of clips from the central plot, but also served as a pertinent example of the new shiny graphics engine – gone were the distant shots of shadowy unknowns, replaced with a cast of lavishly detailed central characters. To say the least, the cut scenes were a vast improvement, benefiting from enhanced animation and realistic character models that made Tanner more human and the story all the more invigorating to watch. It went a long way in bolstering Driver’s aspirations of cinematic flair.
The plot of Driver 2’s new Undercover mode saw Tanner, now joined by partner in crime Tobias Jones, on a quest to defuse a violent gang war after a US crime lord’s bookkeeper, the podgy Pink Lenny, double-crosses him by securing a lucrative deal with a rival Brazilian gangster. Overall, the plot was much more refined than Driver’s somewhat sketchy story, which made the missions more concurrent when put in context with the unfolding storyline.
Undercover also introduced several recurring villains to the Driver universe, namely the ruthless crime lord Solomon Caine and his callous henchman Jericho, characterised by his black trench coat, a pair of sawed off shotguns, and such friendly wisecracks as “I’m gonna pop your neck with my hands!” and “It’s ok! I’m gonna shoot you in the head.” It suffices to say that the voice acting didn’t quite match the aesthetic quality of the cut scenes.
The mission structure was linear compared to Driver’s flexible answering machine approach, ditching the elaborate motel menu navigation in favour of a conventional textual menu that required you to play through each mission in a set order in accordance to the plot.
While Driver’s difficulty was utterly punishing in places (some players forfeited playing Undercover entirely after failing to complete the initial car park training mission), Driver 2 also had its fair share of challenging, yet memorable, missions. Notable examples include The French Connection-inspired Train Pursuit, in which you chased after an elevated train, and the screamingly unforgiving Chase the Gunman, a car chase that required you to ram the target car into submission across winding cliff edges. Momentarily losing control of your car at any point during these missions was a given, and a restart was almost a certainty. Sure, there was a sense of familiarity in the mission design, mainly revolving around chasing targets down or evading pursers since it is, afterall, a car chase game, but they somehow felt more inventive overall.
While Driver focused its attention exclusively on the US with four available cities, Driver 2 ventured outside the States into the exotic locales of Havana and Rio de Janeiro. Don’t take this to mean that the muscle car territory of America is outrightly ignored however, as both Las Vegas and Chicago (presumably influenced by The Blues Brothers’ comedic car chase setting) are included.
Each environment had a better sense of distinction, with neat touches such as the differing police car markings and foreign dialogue, which added a greater depth of realism to the surroundings. This realism continued with the applaudable design work, as each city was fitted with properly curved roads: something that stands in stark comparison to Driver’s strict grid of right-angled corners. Add in the intricate freeway systems complete with off-ramps and a fully functioning swing bridge that dared you to make a leap of faith, and it’s easy to see why Driver 2‘s city designs were so commendably awe-inspiring for the time.
Of course, the cars are always the stars of a Driver game, and Driver 2 was no exception. The variety of drivable vehicles offered was plentiful, meaning you would now see more than just two different car models dithering about, and you could now also drive buses, trucks and fire engines in addition to tail-happy muscle cars. Best of all, the city of Havana was overrun with a wealth of heavy weight jalopies from the 1950′s that were immense fun to slide around corners and subsequently destroy. Fortunately, the handling was just as lively as before, further establishing Driver as the benchmark for cinematic car control.
Driver 2 even included split-screen multiplayer, an attribute that has sadly not been revisited in recent instalments. It incorporated the myriad of mini games bundled with the original Driver, which made playing cops and robbers with a friend terrific fun indeed. The classic film director also made a comeback, once again allowing you to play the part of Michael Bay and edit replays in order to create your very own Oscar-worthy car chase film.
However, there was one crucial factor that clearly differentiated Driver 2 from the original: you could now get out of the car. The announcement that you were no longer restricted to the confines of your vehicle and were able to walk freely around the city stealing cars may sound primitive by today’s standards, but back then it was something of a revelation. As a result, many had built up expectations of it being the next stride into a 3d version of Grand Theft Auto.
In practice however, it was simply embarrassing. The glitchy stick figure representing Tanner tottered about with very little finesse and commandeering other vehicles never looked right – Tanner didn’t even have to open doors, he simply went through them. What’s more, the pedestrians that populated the pavements had seemingly experienced a miraculous growth spurt: stand next to one of them and you’ll soon realise what I mean.
The on-foot mechanics were also put to use in some of the mission objectives, requiring you to perform limited actions such as detonating explosives or opening doors. Let’s also not forget the fact that you could inexplicably make Tanner sit down on nearby chairs (or thin air, in some cases), which, to me, always looked as if he was squatting down ready to squeeze out a freshly baked turbulent turd.
Fortunately, the on-foot mechanics were used sparingly, and as an early attempt at vitalising seamless transitions of driving and on-foot action, it served its purpose. And yet it was still restrictive, as you couldn’t exit your car during a pursuit, meaning you could still fail a mission if the police wrecked your car.
Such stifling ambition came at a cost, however. Whereas Driver pushed the console to its limit, Driver 2 stretched the capabilities of the geriatric hardware a trifle too much, going far beyond its rev limiter. The result was a graphics engine that, while finely detailed, significantly paled in comparison to that of the original game. At times, it was such a disfigured mess, that entire landscapes would frequently pop out of nowhere, making for a truly dreadful draw distance that was worse than its predecessor’s.
This in turn had a profound and detrimental effect on the performance of the game – the frame rate was, more often than not, unforgivably sluggish, which took away the fluid sense of speed that made Driver such a unique joy to play in the first place. In fact, Driver 2 was so intensive that it had to be released on two separate discs, but even this didn’t prevent the severe performance issues.
There was worse to come, too, as Driver 2‘s innovations and achievements were all but forgotten after the launch of a game that completely set the genre, and indeed the games industry as a whole, ablaze in a hail of gunfire and flamethrowers. I’m talking, of course, about the legendary Grand Theft Auto III.
Previously, GTA was nothing but a juvenile 2D romp that Driver blissfully sneered at with its revolutionary 3D bells and whistles, but with the power of the PS2 creating gameplay scenarios previously not possible, the masses flocked back over to GTA. Here was a game that expanded on Driver’s established free roaming foundations and completely overwrote them, consequently overshadowing the franchise and making Driver 2 seem horribly dated.
There’s certainly no doubting GTA III’s ground-breaking influence on the industry today. I respect it enormously and many credit it for popularising the 3D sandbox genre. Just don’t forget the underdog that did it first.
Driver 2 retained the established emphasis on wild car handling and high speed chases, once again drawing on many movie inspirations and leaving the glowing spirit of Driver that I fell in love with mostly intact, but it was sadly weighed down by its own audacity. Nevertheless, the game still sold well despite receiving mixed reviews, and many fans still regard it as their favourite Driver game in the series. To me, however, it didn’t quite match the majesty that made the first game so compelling.
Still, could be worse. At least they got the spelling right…
Pull over next week for a look back at Driv3r as Driver Month continues on Gamer Limit.