Games are an outlet for our sometimes drab and dreary lives. The stories and locations that video games transport us to can give us a taste of a life different from ours.
Being able to travel across the entirety of the USA in a muscle car, keeping the gas pedal to the tarmac, while an army of pursuing police cars grows in your rear-view mirror is something that I can’t claim to have done in real life. But for nearly twenty years I’ve been doing it in several games. One stands out however, for being exactly twenty years old in 2019. That game is Driver.
And as it has been two decades since the original entry was released, I thought a deconstruction was due. Does Driver still hold up?
Reflections in the Car Mirror – A Look Back at Driver
Part I: First Gear – Pre-Production
During the late 90s, driving games had been on a string of hits. Every style was catered for; Gran Turismo was simulation, Need For Speed brought underground drag racing, and SF: Rush brought arcade physics and gameplay to home consoles.
During the latter half of the decade, two British teams were working on games with a heavy emphasis on driving, both with a distinctly criminal tone to them. One was DMA Design, who released crime simulator Grand Theft Auto in 1997. With the ability to drive and steal motor vehicles and partake in joyriding and hit-and-runs, the game was blasted by moral guardians and even debated in the House of Lords to be refused classification.
The other game, by Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive also had shades of reckless driving, but had a more cinematic angle to its freewheeling antics rather than the psychotic gameplay of GTA. Reflections were a well-known studio with several successes under their belt including Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby. The latter game and its sequel were pioneers of 3D driving and in Reflections own words were, “Hailed as a significant step forward…” (1999, para. 5), with both games selling over a million copies each.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto, Reflections saw an opportunity. One of the drawbacks of the GTA series in its infancy was the top-down camera, limiting the action to the 2D plain. The team at Reflections had a thought; could the open-world of GTA be married to the 3D design and driving mechanics of Destruction Derby?
Reflections co-founder Martin Edmondson was a fan of car chase films, stating in an interview with gamesindustry.biz that,
“…one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema…was Walter Hill’s The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.” (2011, Meer).
Edmondson was passionate about the idea and designed Driver to be a reflection (aha!) of his personal love of car chase movies. In the same interview, Edmondson highlighted that was the feeling that the team was aiming for,
“There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or attempts to nail the car chase environment, there really isn’t anything out there. I’m talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.” (2011, Meer).
So the team got to work on developing a new title. The game would evoke the feel of the classic car chase films of the 60s and 70s while marrying it to the 3D work of their previous titles and the open-world aspect that was taking the industry by storm.
According to then Project Manager Gareth Edmondson (brother of Martin) it was a tough production cycle as,
“…we were reinventing gameplay technology in many new ways. It was the first game to; tackle the free-roaming city environment; re-create an entirely new vehicle-destruction system, and develop an entirely new in-game AI system.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 3).
But all that hard worked paid off. Two and half years after the release of Grant Theft Auto, Driver released to the public on PC and PSOne.
Part II: Five Wheels and an Engine – Controls and Gameplay
It is interesting that if you updated Driver’s graphics it could stand toe-to-toe with any open-world game with driving segments.
While the controls have some kinks (Triangle as handbrake is always a little hard to perform as it is further away than X, the accelerate button) it is a solid basis and is intuitive enough that after a few missions you have mastered it. This was Reflections intention, with the original website for Driver stating, “[Our] titles can be picked up and played instantly by a novice yet provide a tough enough challenge for experienced players.” (1999, para. 12).
X is accelerate, Square is brake/reverse, Triangle is handbrake, L2/R2 are camera controls, and the directional arrows or analog stick are for control, all pretty standard stuff. But Driver has a few unique tricks under its bonnet.
Circle is burnout, which spins your wheels to build up speed. R1 is a horn, seemingly to get cars in front of you to move lanes, although on my playthrough I didn’t see a notable difference of cars getting out of the way. But the one new button that I haven’t seen anywhere else is L1, which locks your wheels to whatever side you press the directional arrows or stick. This button is integral to many of the evasive and film-worthy moves that you can pull off such as drifting and the beautiful 180 Reverse. It is also needed as most of the cars in the game have a habit to understeer, so having a button that can flick the back wheels out helps in certain cornering situations.
And that is pretty much it.
The player car has two bars at the top of the screen, one for “Damage” and the other for “Felony”. Damage is straightforward. Every time your prang your car the bar fills up until the car is busted and you fail whatever mission you were playing.
Felony applies to any laws broken in front of a police vehicle. Burnouts, running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, being a public menace, and going over the speed limit (the latter is only available in the PC version) in view of a police officer will start to fill up your Felony bar. Luckily you can’t kill any pedestrians when driving as each one seems to be related to The Flash and can zip out of the way a second before you flatten them. It is a nice addition after the wanton rampages of Grand Theft Auto.
With more infractions the Felony bar continues to fill and more police pile in, chasing you and setting up roadblocks. They hunt you down with the ruthlessness of a tiger but the intelligence of a goldfish. With some chases having upwards of ten police cars, their AI is neutered, making them come at you like the Keystone cops (hey, film reference!). Police cars will fly right by you, ping themselves off geometry, or Austin Powers themselves against lampposts and garbage bins.
The main obstacle you’ll come across in the game is the police. Or rival mobsters. Or the FBI. Or just anyone in a car that is gunning for you. Most rival cars are faster than yours, meaning that they can easily catch you and appear constantly in your back mirror. Luckily a lot of them are weaker than your car, meaning they will get damaged quicker and can be dispatched with relative ease. This is obviously done with the intention to keep the tension high while also being able to shake off your pursuers. The game does also have a selectable difficulty level, allowing players to decide their level of challenge.
Part III: Manual or Automatic? – Game Modes
Speaking of drifting and the 180 Reverse, before you start the narrative you have to pass “The Interview”. Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from 1976’s The Driver, the player must show off their driving skills to some prospective clients in a parking garage.
This mission is infamous for being incredibly difficult; with a sixty-second time limit and only allowing four “penalties” (crashing your car into objects), many players never actually saw the rest of the game because of this “tutorial”. There is a video on the main menu that tells the player the inputs to perform the moves, but isn’t exactly intuitive.
The narrative (known as Undercover) is the meat of the game. It features several types of driving missions; pursuit, evade, rampage, every single idea you could have about driving a car around a city, Driver probably has it. That does cause a problem in that a lot of the missions have the same objectives, just starting at different ends of the map. This repetitive nature does serve a purpose though, as will be highlighted in Part IV.
Alongside the narrative are a collection of mini games. There are time trials, checkpoint hits, pursuit, getaway, and survival (a variant horde mode where the police will never stop pursuing you). While many are similar to scenarios that the player will perform in Undercover, these are bite-size gameplay modes that provide their own unique fun.
There is also the Take A Ride mode. This is essentially a free roam option, with the player dropped into the map with no restrictions. I bet a lot of memories of this game are based in this mode, featuring high-octane chases and crazy collisions without a time limit to ruin a player’s fun. The player can visit any of the locations in free roam, but must unlock them in the narrative first, with the same being true for the mini games as well. The first two cities are open from the start though, allowing for reckless fun even if you can’t beat The Interview.
Alongside the game modes was a mechanic that elevated the cinematic design that Martin Edmondson wanted from Driver. At any time during the game the player can hit pause and enter the Director Mode. Said mode plays the entirety of the gameplay up to that moment and gives the player control over a slew of camera angles and techniques, letting players create exciting short movies of their car chases. It is quietly revolutionary and predates things like Machinima and sharing/streaming options that have become a major force within the industry.
Part IV: Does Anyone Have a Map? – The Cities and Roads
Driver takes place across four cities from all corners of the United States. The cities are Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as a small track in the desert (possibly outside Las Vegas?). There is also a secret city, Newcastle (where Reflections are based) that can be unlocked using cheats and also viewed on the credits. Each city has a day/night variation (except L.A.) and have several weather effects such as rain and snow.
The cities are all distinct from one another, with geography that helps set up the possibility of great movie-esque chases. Miami has wide-open roads for four lane drifts, San Francisco has steep hills to catch some air while speeding, L.A. has long straights that are perfect for police pursuits, and New York has tight-knit neighbourhoods that require excellent use of slaloming. Each city has its own car with unique traits, be it having greater speed or greater traction. While it could be annoying to not be able to choose your favourite car, limiting us to a single vehicle allows you to get to grips with its individual quirks.
Each city is rather small compared to today’s MAHOOSIVE open-worlds (due to obvious memory issues). I timed a drive from one side to the other and it took roughly two minutes to go from point to point on each map. But the smaller intimate design is an asset to the game. With a tight control over player movement, it means that the map gets imprinted on our memory, allowing for quicker recognition and a better game experience, where we know which roads link together rather than relying on the mini map. This is heightened by the fact that a lot of the back streets and alleys aren’t on the mini map. We have to use our minds and instincts rather than the handy GPS in the corner.
Just like using one car per location, the game inadvertently teaches us by dropping us in the deep end. Even just basic map knowledge and semi-competent car control allows for easier getaways and it is more rewarding when you remember which way gives you the best advantage because you know about it, rather than a shiny arrow telling you the way to go.
That’s why the greatest asset to the open-world is the Take A Ride function. Being able to free-roam the map at any point without a time limit holding you back helps novice drivers figure out the basics and lets experienced drivers search for shortcuts to aid in the missions.
Part V: Start From the Top – The Narrative and Characters
Driver does have a narrative, but to call it threadbare is almost a compliment in how non-existent the storyline is.
Inspired by the same car chase films that gave birth to the gameplay, Driver follows NYPD officer John Tanner as he is drafted to go undercover. His target is the powerful and wealthy Castaldi crime family who has set up operations in Miami. Soon the story will take Tanner to different cities all across the USA in a bid to stop the Castaldi family from carrying out a series of high-profile assassinations, culminating in an attempt on the President Of The United States’ life.
Tanner’s backstory is that before he became a police officer he was a racing champion. This is referenced through the story with criminals recognising him from his track days as well as the Police Lieutenant who recruits Tanner saying he is the best driver on the force. That’s pretty much all we get on the man.
Tanner’s dialogue doesn’t give us any hints to his personality either. I would be surprised if his dialogue passes the twenty-word mark from start to finish. It seems the cars we drive have more personality than the protagonist. Sure, he fits the mould of a silent badass (like most great car chase films) and he shows his character through his driving, but it would be nice to learn a little more about the person we are playing as.
Tanner heads to Miami and sets himself up as a wheelman for hire. The game then puts you in Tanner’s spartan apartment, with nothing but a TV and VCR, a toolbox, and an answering machine. Tanner’s apartment is the main menu with each object as a category (VCR is save, toolbox is options, door is quit, and the car keys is Take A Ride). It is a fun concept and cool that the layout changes when the game changes city.
The answering machine is the level select. You listen through messages left by prospective clients in need of your particular driving skills and accept jobs. At the start there is only one message waiting for you, but as you rise through the ranks you will get calls from other criminals in need of your expertise.
It is a limited choice system with only a few branches, but broad enough that a player can have a different experience on a second playthrough. Some missions give a deeper intrigue into the conspiracy at the heart of the story and Driver even has multiple endings depending on the missions that you’ve taken, with distinctly “good” and “bad” endings. The answering machine also houses a few Easter eggs such as repeated wrong numbers.
The game is interspersed with cutscenes. The majority of these are used to set up missions or to help us switch cities. It is apparent that the team were mastering character models, as most walk ramrod straight, with still frames being used when characters are on phones. But there is a charm to it, an obvious want rather than a need. It would have been easy to have talking cars and buildings (much like the more recent Crash Time/Cobra 11 series), but the team went and built over half an hour of cutscenes with character models and camera angles that weren’t needed in the base game.
The voices are delightfully hammy, giving off that 70s grindhouse feel of amateur filmmakers and actors producing a film. The script also has inflections of films from the era, with smooth-talking hustlers, high-pitched squealers, and smoky-voiced police chiefs. These inflections can inadvertently make it hard to understand certain mission briefings, as characters are using 70s slang that hasn’t carried over to the modern day. But since most missions resort to driving fast, we are rarely stuck as what to do.
As mentioned in Part III, the gameplay doesn’t have many variations, only having a few unique missions due to non-standard cars or scenarios. These include levels such as chasing a cable car/yacht, protecting a shipment of guns in a pick-up truck, or escaping an assassination attempt with the President Of The United States. But the team knew that the missions and storyline weren’t the best. In a Developer Diary Interview with GameSpot during the development of Driver: Parallel Lines, original Project Manager Gareth Edmondson said,
“…we were ultimately disappointed in the storyline overall, and we believed the mission design to be weak because it didn’t support the story very well.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 4).
That narrative may have been weak, but it served its purpose. It got us out into the world that Reflections had created and from there they could only go up. And despite the sometimes ropey presentation, there is definitely an attempt at cinematic flair to some shots.
Part VI: Into the Sunset – Legacy
Driver was a smash hit across all markets, quickly going Gold and Platinum. It is the 27th best-selling game on PSOne with over three million copies sold and the 42nd best-selling PC game between 2000 and 2006, with an estimate of close to four million copies.
Despite releasing at the tail end of the PSOne development cycle, the game was massive, spawning a sequel in 2000 named Driver 2: Back On The Streets/The Wheelman Is Back.
Reflections spent only fourteen months on the sequel (Edmondson, 2006, para.5) using the same tech but tweaking it to add more complex road structures and curved objects. The open-ended story was dropped for a more linear structure, with a stronger narrative throughout. The player could also get out of their car and hijack other vehicles around the city, although there was still no interaction besides cars.
Reflections pushed the aging console to its breaking point, trying to squeeze every ounce of processing power into Driver 2. This proved a detriment however with numerous bugs and framerate issues plaguing the entry.
Driver 2 was released just after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. A year later, DMA Design, now renamed Rockstar North, released Grand Theft Auto 3 to the public.
Taking the open world that Driver had popularised, GTAIII took things even further, with out-of-car and shooting sections, allowing player to cause havoc and play at their own pace. GTA even started poking fun at Driver, with missions in both III (GTA Series Videos, 2009) and its sequel Vice City (SebyGaming, 2016) allowing players to kill an undercover cop/driver named Tanner. In the sequel, San Andreas, a rival gangster plays a game made by “Refractions” and says, “Tanner, you suck ass.” (GTA Series Videos, 2010).
With GTA taking the spotlight, Reflections tried to step up their game. The third entry (stylised as Driv3r) tried to tell a sprawling crime tale with several cities, vehicles, and on-foot segments, but came up weak against Rockstar’s efforts. Driv3r was also mired in controversy before it launched, with exclusive access given in exchange for perfect review scores. Driver: Parallel Lines followed up in 2006, fixing many of Driv3r’s problems but feeling more and more like a Rockstar knock-off.
In late 2006, publisher Atari sold Reflections to Ubisoft. After developing a sequel to Parallel Lines, Driver 76, which was released for the fledgling PSP, the series would go dormant for a few years.
It took until 2011 for the series, and protagonist John Tanner, to come back in Driver: San Francisco. With a huge city and a new mechanic called “Shift” allowing players to move seamlessly between cars (alleviating any on-foot gameplay), the series seemed to be revived. The notorious garage tutorial of Driver was even remade in San Francisco, unlocked when a player finds a DeLorean and reaches 88mph (ha, more film references!).
Since 2011, there have been a few rumours but no official moves on the Driver series, despite a few mobile and handheld games. San Francisco was a nice return to form and if it is sadly the last we see of the series, then it means it goes out on a high.
Part VII: Park it Right Here – Conclusion
Driver was one of the first games I remember playing as a child. I didn’t play the story at all, just Take A Ride. So when I decided to pick up the game twenty years after it was published, I was essentially doing a blind playthrough.
The graphics are obviously a sore point. The draw distance isn’t the best and the environments and cars are blocky boxes. You have to look at it when it came out. This was revolutionary design in 1999, giving the small sandbox genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
The story isn’t exactly presented well, but it does the job fine. As I said previously, it gets us into the cities and into the gameplay with little fanfare. It is kind of refreshing after playing games like Detroit: Become Human and The Pillars Of The Earth (both fantastic games in their own right) that Driver gets straight into gameplay without spending minutes at a time in cutscenes.
Controls are fine. It is a strange mix of sim and arcade, but they are easy to learn. Things like the L1 button were completely new to me and it became invaluable during my playthrough. Even Triangle became intuitive after a while. It caused problems when going back to open-world games on my PS4, as most controllers nowadays use the L2/R2 configuration for accelerate and brake. It led to moments where I would accidentally throw myself out of speeding cars because I mistakenly pressed Triangle or Square.
Driver is a curio, maybe one for driving enthusiasts or for those yearning for nostalgic days of the late 90s. It even became available on the PS Now online service for a short time for less than two quid.
And there is really nothing like it. I bought my copy after watching a slew of car chase films, notably Drive, which game critic Keith Stuart highlighted as a film taking from games, “…I do not believe that film would look the way it does if it wasn’t for Grand Theft Auto…” (Ikoc Voice, 2016).
Just like Martin Edmondson said, there isn’t a game that fully captures a real movie-esque chase scene. The only one that comes close is Driver.
And that means it deserves to be remembered and to be played.
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