[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.]
Have you ever felt like a game was made solely for you? Well, this is exactly how I felt when a soon-to-be-revolutionary driving game sped onto the PlayStation completely out of nowhere back in 1999.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had an unrelenting admiration for cars, with a particular love of seeing them being bashed about and pushed to their very limits in high speed car chases from Hollywood movies. You could therefore stipulate that I’m a self-confessed fanatic of this particular genre of film, a fact that is testified by my mammoth machinima project Collateral Collision. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm either, seeing that there was another soul who happened to share my passion.
His name was Martin Edmondson (see, we even share the same name: coincidence? I think not), founder and Creative Director of Reflections Interactive who were previously responsible for the Destruction Derby series. If I were to ever meet the man, it’s abundantly clear we would end up spending an endless amount of time nattering away about our favourite car chases. Because just like me, Martin wanted to pay tribute to his infantile fantasy and developed a project of his very own – that project turned out to be not only the ultimate homage to cinematic chases but one of the most influential driving games of the generation; one that is still deeply cherished by its loyal fanbase.
Take a ride with me as we uncover the Wheelman’s untold legacy.
I fondly remember the moment of realisation that my driving dreams had seemingly come true. Since the internet was in its infancy and certainly wasn’t capable of the luxury of streaming videos, I had to rely on magazine demo discs for my monthly fix of nutritious game trailers and demos, and it was here I first stumbled across an intriguing video filed under the name of “Driver.” At the time, I was accustomed with experiencing car chases in pitiful 2D on a little game known as Grand Theft Auto – nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.
Upon playing the video, the camera panned across a stunningly rendered 3D city before introducing a yellow muscle car that looked suspiciously like a Buick GSX (which was curiously absent from the final game but later reprised in Driver 2) cautiously coming into view with a fleet of flashing black and whites creeping up behind its tail.
After briefly coming to a halt just to knowingly tease you and its pursuers, the driver slammed on the accelerator (as a humble Briton I refuse to label it as the ‘gas’), the tortured tyres screeched in protest in a cloud of smoke, and the chase was on. By this point I was instantly hooked and hopelessly besotted to a point I felt guilty about wanting to immediately abandon the now obsolete GTA.
The ensuing chase sequence defined all that Driver was about: squealing tyres, wailing sirens, near misses with traffic and pedestrians, darting through narrow alleyways, ploughing through conveniently placed cones and boxes, performing preposterous jumps and causing wincing wrecks with innocent road users. In essence, Driver perfectly encapsulated the intoxicating thrill of the 1970’s car chase, a feat that no game had ever begun to attempt before.
And just for my beloved Driver devotees, I took the liberty of retrieving the very video I have spent the last few paragraphs blathering on about from my dusty demo for your viewing pleasure:
What you have to understand is that until Driver emerged, a true 3D city driving game was something of a nine year old’s vivid imagination, let alone one that let you run rampant without constraint. It was the Take a Ride mode that made this possible, allowing you to freely tear across any of the game’s four sprawling cities at your leisure – this sense of freedom was of course matched only by GTA, but Driver was in a league of its own thanks to the innovation of 3D. It was as if the bird operating GTA’s camera suddenly saw sense and swooped down to ground level to gain a better view of the action.
Also unlike GTA, Driver was situated in real-life locations renowned for their car chase fame, from the sun-soaked streets of Miami and the dominating hills of San Francisco made famous by Bullitt, to night time freeways of Los Angeles and the hustle and bustle of New York, complete with the World Trade Center in plain view. A bonus level set in the developers’ hometown of Newcastle was also available, providing you had a cheat cartridge to unlock it.
Stop your car for a second and you could watch the world go by to marvel at the fact that each city was populated with law-abiding civilian drivers and immortal, pixellated pedestrians that could never be run over no matter how hard you tried. This sense of realism effectively brought the locations to life and graphically the game was second to none – it was truly staggering how the PlayStation could handle so much activity with its limited supply of RAM. There were some small sacrifices however, such as the terrible pop-up and the same traffic car models would crop up time and time again to preserve precious memory. But then you were having so much fun, you simply didn’t care.
Where Driver really came into its own was the way in which the cars handled, as unlike GTA the focus was firmly on the driving. In an effort to mimic Hollywood as authentically as possible, each of the game’s roster of vehicles was equipped with the soggy suspension that graced lumbering American muscle cars of the ‘70s, meaning you could really feel every jolt after a hard landing from a hill jump. Likewise, careen around a 90-degree corner and the car would perform an all-important tail slide, which is an essential movie car chase staple and mighty thrilling when the police were on your tail while you weaved skilfully through oncoming traffic.
No detail was overlooked, right down to the detaching hubcaps flying off the wheels after sliding around corners. A separate button was even assigned purely for initiating tyre treading burnouts, creating a smoking spectacle all for the good cause of a slick getaway.
Driver’s crash physics were just as revolutionary, expanding on Destruction Derby’s early efforts. Slam into an innocent motorist and the physics were positively devastating: both cars would ricochet convincingly on impact in a shower of debris with an unprecedented sense of consequence. The resulting damage modelling was used to shimmering effect, too, as your pristine car visually transformed into a battered, smouldering wreck. Delicious.
Then there was one of the game’s most surprising, innovative and sublime features: the Film Director. This brilliant tool allowed you to not only replay any chase but create your own rendition of your favourite Hollywood car chases by manually adjusting the camera angles, editing the timeline and saving the resulting sequence.
While operating it was somewhat time consuming with a controller, the results were often awe-inspiring. Personally, I am sorely hoping that Driver: San Francisco will incorporate some community sharing facilities and more advanced editing features, because you could only edit the last game you played. Trying to orchestrate a scripted film in the vein of Collateral Collision was therefore difficult since you had to gather all of your material in a single take.
Driver took many of its cues from notable car chase films of the era such as Bullitt, Gone in 60 Seconds and The French Connection, but none was more apparent than Walter Hill’s 1978 film The Driver. Starring Ryan O’Neil, The Driver was a gritty crime thriller with a penchant for harrowing car chases that undoubtedly inspired the Driver game. Listen closely and you can even recognise the sound effects used for the collisions and police sirens lifted from the film in the game.
In one standout scene, O‘Neil must demonstrate his mastery behind the wheel by thrashing a poor Mercedes-Benz to the breaking point in a secluded car park. Sound familiar? It should, because this was the same premise of the game’s testing opening mission, whereby you had to perform a set of driving manoeuvres within a tight time limit in a similar setting. It suffices to say that many players were initially turned off by the stark difficulty of the game’s opening.
The seedy ‘70s tone of The Driver was also apparent in Undercover, the game’s main mission mode that introduced the leading protagonist of the series, Tanner; what an introduction it was. As a dripping pipe set the scene of the introductory cinematic, Tanner was seen exiting a lift before approaching a lonely Ford Mustang, each individual step amplified by the confined car park. The outcome? You guessed it: another pulsating car chase.
The plot saw maverick detective Tanner go undercover in an attempt to infiltrate a crime syndicate by posing as a ‘driver for hire.’ More often than not this equated to the role of a getaway driver, though in practice many of the missions were linear in design in that they had you continuously drive from A to B while avoiding the attention of the law. Some missions such as one where you had to scare a client by deliberately driving recklessly or another that, conversely, required you to drive reservedly so as not to detonate a bomb hooked to your pickup truck broke the mould however, right up to the hectic conclusion that was The President’s Run.
While you laid low in a sleazy motel, jobs were undertaken by listening to briefs from colourful characters via your on-screen answer phone. The beauty was that you didn’t necessarily have to complete a mission if you didn’t like the sound of a particular task, often leaving you with a choice of several missions at once. In fact, it was possible to skip some entirely and only complete 22 out of the 44 missions on offer.
Completing the package was a series of mini games designed to provide the player with a quick dose of high-octane action. Along with Take a Ride, Quick Chase and Quick Getaway put you right into the foray either chasing after a felon or escaping the clutches of the cops. Trailblazer required you to drive through cones in order to sustain the countdown timer, and fan favourite Survival seemingly pitted you against the entire police force in a challenge to see how long you could survive constant, gruelling punishment.
Driver was a game that was ahead of its time and miles ahead of the competition, instantly becoming a triumphant critical and commercial success. It currently stands as a respected cultural monument having pioneered the 3D city driving genre, securing a mass following of dedicated drivers. To Martin and the Reflections team, I hereby salute you.
But after disturbing the tranquillity of Miami and climbing the hills of San Francisco, the mounting mileage was about to take its toll on the series: it was all downhill from here.
Pull over next week for a look back at Driver 2 as Driver Month continues on Gamer Limit.