I've waited nearly a decade for Driver: You Are The Wheelman. But before you say that's impossible, let me explain. In my high school days, while everyone else was dazzled by Kenichi Sonoda's claim to fame anime, Bubble Gum Crisis, I was drawn to his much lesser know piece, Riding Bean ( which later evolved to the far more popular manga, Gunsmith Cats). Set in Chicago, Bean borrowed much of its inspiration from the Blues Brothers, but the characters had an edge all their own that I enjoyed. The story, which matches the premise of Driver, revolves around a rogue, Bean Bandit, and his exploits as a courier-for-hire with a knack for aggravating cops with his super-charged car. While I don't think there are any unaccredited Simba vs. Kimba shenanigans going on between Riding Bean and Driver, there is a striking similarity and I was eager to relive an old anime fantasy.
Surprisingly, despite being in the capable hands of Reflections (the developers previously responsible for the Destruction Derby series), Driver comes up flatter than overnight Coca-Cola. Practically the only thing positive about Driver is the controls. To its credit, the cars handle great. I was able to perform J-stops, 180 degree turns, and negotiate tight corners like a professional stunt car driver with relative ease. Everything else in the game feels either rushed, inconsistent, or just plain bad.
Let's start with the terrible full-motion video (FMV) sequences that play in-between missions. The backdrop story of an undercover officer is bad enough, but add to that amateurish 3D modeling and a laughable script with zero drama and things then really start to get ugly. Even at the most basic level of story-telling, the FMV in Driver fails. Scenes are interjected and paced so poorly that I could never tell who was involved or what was going on. I couldn't even tell when my own character was on-screen.
Talking about the gameplay is like adding dead weight to an already sinking ship. There are some serious design flaws that really hurt Driver. Two maps are provided during the game, but both are implemented poorly. The smaller on-screen map is too small for navigating and the larger, more detailed map requires an annoying pause and menu selection to access. I couldn't believe something so functionally critical would be either near useless or buried in the interface. Moreover, non-progressive mission designs meant stages would be either too long and hard while others were too short and easy. Then there's the inconsistent damage model where tiny nudges to the rear of my car would wreak havoc while high-speed head-on collisions only generated mild damage. Both problems served only to further hinder gameplay.
By far the worst thing about Driver is its inability to really draw me into its universe. Everything, from its premise to its marketing, points to a degree of role-playing. Yet, remarkably, everything about the design works against that very notion. Right from the start of Driver, I was subjected to a rigorously difficult, must-pass driving test that made this a really hard game to get into. Why force me to perfect my driving technique before even playing the actual game? Rather than gaining my attention quickly and allowing me to develop the skills while playing the game, I was quickly subjected to practice in needlessly precise training sessions and all in a very abstract fashion. Just about everything else failed to capture my imagination as well. There were no mission selections, car customizations, resource management options, or character developments to sink my teeth into. The use of too many text-based menus rather then intuitive visual cues continually distanced me from Driver. The final nail in the coffin was the unpolished graphics that failed to capture the essence and excitement of the cities they attempted to replicate. Seemingly hampered by the hardware prowess of the aging PlayStation, environments, whether in San Francisco or New York City, seem overly homogenized.
I was severely disappointed by Driver. Hoping to recreate an old anime experience, I was presented with competent car handling with occasional sparks of car-chase excitement debilitated by a game design inept at immersion. What sums it up best is Driver's tribute to the French Connection stage where I chased a monorail in pursuit of a passenger. It goes through all the motions of the film's most riveting scene. But with a horrid FMV scene opening the level, ridiculously tight restrictions in chasing the monorail, and zero follow-up FMV to close the level, its fails to capture any sense of the tension and drama that made the whole sequence famous.
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