Sunday 20 March 2016

Driver for the PlayStation

Sony's PlayStation made its mark as  the first "proper" adult video games system, and was marketed to the late teen/twenty something demographic. As such Sony was concerned to build up a roster of hundreds of edgey games that would go down well and sell more systems. Likewise, since the furore around the home versions of Mortal Kombat in 1993, software houses knew blood and sleaze shifted units too. The most notorious franchise of the so-called mature turn is undoubtedly the Grand Theft Auto series, but early on - in 1999 - its hegemony was challenged by Driver. As readers (likely) know, GTA set the bar in amoral video gaming. Cast as a gangster, one could pull off jobs for a variety of gangs and mobsters, while shooting up the police, carjacking, and mowing down pedestrians. However, despite its notoriety GTA looked primitive. You had a God's eye view on graphics more redolent of the previous generation, despite the eye-popping (and annoying) scaling effects employed. Driver on the other hand looked like a proper modern title. It took the same gameplay elements but placed them in semi-realistic three-dimensional cities. For a time, it was the most technically impressive game anywhere.

Driver was the brainchild of Reflections Interactive, who made a name for themselves with 1989's Shadow of the Beast, and previously Destruction Derby, also for the PlayStation. Like its predecessors, Driver was technically accomplished and ambitious in scope. Reflections aimed to provide a series of missions over four huge - by the standards of the day - cityscapes that one could also free roam around. And they pulled it off. Located here are renderings of Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. I can't comment on how accurate the road layout it (some sacrifice of detail is inevitable), but all the landmarks you'd expect to see are there. Though while it must be noted that Miami looks a bit sparse, this is made up by the detail on the subsequent levels.

Reflections' previous titles were better known as tech demos than solid gaming experiences. That is not the case with Driver. The game play is quite simple. You drive from A to B avoiding the cops, traffic, and other roadside hazards to deliver a car, pick someone up or drop them off, and occasionally chasing down ne'er-do-wells and trashing their rides. Each mission is a variation on this theme, and sometimes gets mixed up a bit. Instructed to pick up some bad 'uns, you can find the cops in wait and then cue some rip-roaring mayhem as you tear across town trying to shake them loose. Considering it's a PS1 title, the roads are fair packed with Sunday drivers guaranteed to get in the way.

Matters aren't perfect, however. The controls can be a touch twitchy and take some getting used to. Some of the missions are up against super tight time limits. And the cops, ugh. The police patrol the city at semi-random intervals, and have a tendency to come at you all sirens blazing if they see your motor make the most minor of highway infractions. Okay, weaving in and out of traffic at 80mph isn't smart, but there are plenty of frustrating moments when you're slowly squeaking by the cops and they go medieval because you press the accelerator a bit too much. The cops also go properly insane too. As your 'felony' bar fills up, the more aggressive and suicidal they become. Barrelling down the free way at top speeds only to have a copper in the wrong lane determined to smash you head on. Yes, it's the thing evasive driving is made of. And those times you've escaped a death-defying chase only to have the cops certainly turn up again five yards from the objective. Frustrating isn't the word.

The other big annoyance is the tutorial mode. Commonplace by the late 90s, they are designed to familiarise gamers with the controls in a safe space where you won't get totalled by the baddies and your honour impugned. Not here, unfortunately. Before you can play the game the player has to put themselves through a time trial in an underground car park. You're required to pull off a series of relatively straightforward stunts, like lapping, 360 turns, handbrake turns, weaving in and out of the pillars. It's easier said than done. Imagine buying this for £40 back in the day and being forced to spend a couple of hours stuck in a tedious obstacle course when all you want to do is play the game everyone's been raving about. When we acquired it shortly after its release, we tried, failed, and promptly forgot about it for 17 years, give a month or two.

All that said, Driver is a fun, superlative product. It might not be that well remembered today (despite having sequels relatively recently), but it was the wave of the future - not least showing GTA the direction it was due to go in from the third game onwards. But the thing that tickles me most about the game is its edgy creds, which are entirely faux. You can ride around and smash up cop cars if you wish, but the thing is, according to the plot you're not really a bad ass. Turns out you're a copper in deep cover determined to find out what the crims are up to, and this means undertaking driving jobs for them. Interesting that Reflections obviously felt going down the amoral GTA route was something best avoided, even if the game's gangster glamour ends up entirely affected and faux within the game world. What we're left with then is a homage to the car chase movies of the 70s and 80s - it's a shame they fought shy of the cheese when they could have embraced it.

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