[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.]
As the dust settled after the carnage that ensued from the colossal car crash that was Driv3r, the announcement of a new Driver game was met with tepid trepidation in contrast to the days where it would have been tremendously exciting news. I was naturally predicting that the next game would be called DrIVer however, so the news that it would carry the Parallel Lines subtitle instead created a lot of intrigue about the possible direction the series was heading in.
Things became even more interesting upon the knowledge that everyone’s favourite wheelman Tanner, the long-standing protagonist who was previously left for dead during the climax of Driv3r, had been replaced with an anonymous hippy youth donning a pair of slick sun glasses. It was all a sign that the franchise was about to undergo a significant overhaul: drastic repairs were needed if it was to be ever taken seriously again.
Founder Martin Edmonson subsequently left Reflections following the relentless backlash that Driv3r suffered, leading to the company being reformed in a deal with Ubisoft thus creating Ubisoft Reflections under the new leadership of Martin’s brother, Gareth Edmondson. But was the damage already done?
Well, for a start Reflections presumably hired more competent quality control personnel, as Parallel Lines was thankfully devoid of the long list of bugs and glitches that made Driv3r such an unnecessary hassle to play at times. Mercifully, those pesky lamp posts could also finally be dismembered.
Parallel Lines rightfully attempted to go back to the roots of the original game by placing the emphasis back on what has always mattered most: the driving. Retaining the renowned rigid handling model with a few new tweaks, this saw a rapid decrease of tedious on-foot action, which was a huge blessing for those who laughed at Tanner’s crab characteristics in Driv3r, although in saying that the animations in Parallel Lines were only marginally better at times.
Still, the on-foot sections were far less embarrassing than Tanner’s plodding performance, benefiting from improvements made to the AI and shooting dynamics by giving players a choice of lock-on and precision aiming. In fact, TK could also shoot and drive simultaneously, a feat that Tanner didn’t manage to pull off despite Driv3r’s misleading cover art.
The ability to shoot at your fleeing target added a new dimension to the game’s abundant car chases, making them all the more pulsating, but the auto-targeting system was sadly not as sharp as it could have been. The car chases were also further improved by a new felony system that based your traffic crimes on the vehicle you were seen in at the time, meaning your felony level would disappear as long as you abandoned your car once you lost sight of the fuzz.
The entire cast of characters we had grown accustomed to over the years were nowhere to be seen. Instead, you played as a rookie 18 year old crook simply known as The Kid who, predictably, worked as a getaway driver for bands of hoodlums with tall hair. While TK was certainly no substitute for Tanner, it brought an entirely new tone to the series as you were playing as a criminal rather than an undercover cop.
In keeping with the franchise’s origins, Parallel Lines was set in a 1970’s rendition of New York, a location that was last seen in the first Driver game back in 1999. Reflections has always had a knack for replicating real-life cities in video games, but they surely outdid themselves here – the towering scale of the Big Apple was rendered with astounding realism.
The only drawback was that the geography of Parallel Lines was restricted to just one city throughout its duration when previous Driver games typically included three or four cities, but this allowed them to focus on the finer details. The traffic, for example, saw a noticeable increase in density in order to accurately portray the grid-locked streets of the bustling New York traffic and the draw distance (a consistent blemish in Driver’s otherwise polished graphics engine) was refined so that no unwanted pop-up was evident. Until GTA IV, this was hands down the best portrayal of NYC you could find in a game.
In an unexpected and game changing twist, the semantics behind the Parallel Lines suffix suddenly became clear at the mid-point of the game. As TK becomes framed for kidnapping and remanded in prison, the plot abruptly fast forwarded from 1978 to his eventual release in 2006, evolving into a grisly tale of revenge. It soon becomes clear that the world is a very different place 28 years onwards – a scene in which TK struggles to grasp the remote of a modern widescreen TV is almost moving.
The transition was superbly executed and really helped to make the otherwise insipid plot and mission set much more invigorating. What’s more, the shift in decades had a profound effect on the gameplay aesthetics, as the once orange tinted scenery was replaced in favour of a more garish grey to depict the modern age.
Vehicles transformed from monstrous muscle cars to luxury saloons, the pedestrian’s sense of fashion became less eccentric and even TK’s walking animation visibly changed from a hippy groove to a more subdued stroll. Parallel Lines was also the first Driver game to feature a licensed soundtrack that played like a radio station during gameplay – to reflect the changing times, the likes of David Bowie were replaced by the monotone mumblings of the Kaiser Chiefs. If nothing else, it served as a depressing reminder of how much the music industry has slumped in so little time.
Despite the improvements however, to me Parallel Lines didn’t feel like a true Driver game for the most part. Of course the absence of Tanner was a primary factor, but the tweaks made to the gameplay in an effort to revitalise the franchise consequently diminished Driver’s soul.
This was most evident in the adopting of a new free roaming mechanic that was largely akin to GTA. Whereas before missions were solely undertaken in the Undercover mode leaving leisurely drives to Take a Ride, here everything was implemented into a seamless open world. On paper it may have sounded promising, but in practice it just didn’t fit into the established Driver world and felt distinctly out of place.
Additional mini games could also be found scattered around the expansive map, but they again lacked the convenience of the instant access found in previous Driver games. Speaking of feeling out of place, one mini game revolved around dedicated track racing which was previously uncharted territory for the Wheelman. It was easy to see why though, since Driver’s city driving physics felt considerably unsuitable when placed in a track racing scenario.
But that wasn’t the biggest crime that Parallel Lines committed, because it removed my most cherished Driver trademark that always kept me playing for hours: the Film Director. Being able to cobble together your own rendition of Hollywood car chase films has always been a hallmark of the series, so it was a massive disappointment for hardcore fans to see it omitted. It was reportedly removed in order to improve the performance of the game however, which turned out to be a profitable sacrifice considering how much better the frame rate was.
All in all, Parallel Lines made a good conscious effort to revitalise the stuttering series, but the end result amounted to a game that lost some of its personality in the process by trying too hard to mimic GTA’s conventions, consequently adding itself to the piling list of failed GTA clones. Martin Edmondson had nothing to do with the project following his departure, and it showed. Then again, you could say that this direction was a natural and necessary evolution.
Parallel Lines also spawned a PSP prequel known as Driver 76, which essentially ran on the engine from Parallel Lines with a new storyline set in 1976. For a PSP game it was technically proficient, but as a new entry in the Driver series it was lacking in innovation if you had already played Parallel Lines.
And so, after following the trail of tyre marks engraved by the Wheelman across the globe, we have reached the end of our road trip right back where we started in San Francisco. Driver: San Francisco is currently set for release early next year after an unfortunate delay, marking the first entry for the series on next generation consoles. Martin Edmondson is now firmly back in the driving seat as well, meaning you can forget that Parallel Lines ever existed – move along TK, Tanner is back in town.
Since its debut at E3 2010, San Francisco has already made a name for itself thanks largely to its innovative Shift mechanic that allows you to switch instantaneously between cars without ever leaving your vehicle on-foot. It seems to have divided the fans however, with some scathing at the removal of out of the car action while others have applauded Shift’s execution and ease of use.
The fact remains that the original Driver was never about being out of the car and excelled in what it set out to do. The series went into decline as soon as they introduced the on-foot mechanic which made it lose focus, so it’s natural that Reflections want to revert back to the glory days. Shift therefore sounds like a fair compromise, but my only reservation is the way in which it has been woven into the plot concerning Tanner’s coma. It just sounds too supernatural and preposterous, but its full context remains to be seen.
From the gameplay footage seen so far, my personal gripe lies with the vehicle selection, which now includes licensed cars for the first time. For a game set in San Francisco, there is a strange abundance of European cars populating the streets including Abaths and Alfa Romeos, along with rare supercars such as the McLaren SLR and Pagina Zonda Cinque – only five of these were made in reality so its placement as a civilian car is glaringly unrealistic. So far, the car list would seem more appropriate in Test Drive Unlimited than Driver, but I can only hope for a better balance in the final game, particularly as Reflections has always ensured the car selection is spot-on in accordance to the location before.
With the Wheelman now hopefully on the road to recovery, the anticipation for this belated series reboot is mounting. I wholeheartedly cannot wait for Driver‘s next generation revival – let’s just hope history doesn’t repeat itself from the bleaker days of the past. My only worry is that, due to the level of competition over the years, the expectations for a game of this genre are far higher than they were 10 years ago, meaning that the back to basics approach may not cut it in today’s industry.
Driver: San Francsco will therefore be an important milestone in the series history, as no Driver sequel has managed to fully capture the spark of the original so far. This is your last chance for redemption, Reflections.
That’s it for Driver Month! I hope you have enjoyed the ride. Drive recklessly.