John Tanner – the driver of Driver – has had a tough journey, but it wasn’t really his fault. You can lay the blame at the feet of Rockstar, or at least at the metaphorical feet of their ambition, as their success in opening up video game worlds became the forced design aspirations for many a dev team. Reflections – one such team – fell into this trap and managed to turn an epic franchise into a despised mess.
The first game, released on the PS1 in 1999, was all flashing sirens, screeching tyres and alleyways stuffed with cardboard boxes. Featuring an ex-racecar driver as a cop so deep undercover that even his NYPD colleagues wanted to trash him, it was a wild taste of how cases would be solved if Starsky & Hutch was the official training reference.
The key element was the handling. Each car that Tanner threw around the game’s cities had a throaty backend with just a bare understanding of grip. What felt uncontrollable at first soon slid into place, and the feeling of taking corners sideways with raging police cars speeding up behind you was a sheer visceral thrill. To make things even more filmic, your every move could be viewed and manipulated visually within a replay mode that placed you as a film director of a 70s car chase movie. Imagine Bullitt: The Game, and you wouldn’t be far wrong.
So: a great game with a sturdy engine and critical appreciation to match the sales. What could possibly go wrong?
Reflections decided to open the car door and gave Tanner legs. Letting him escape his vehicle for the sequel was a bold move that didn’t entirely succeed. It preceded the singularity point of GTA 3 by a whole year but, while the ambition was commendable, the poor old PS1 just couldn’t take it. My main memory of Driver 2 is not about the tight freedom of driving, but of getting out of the car and trying to wrestle Tanner across the street as the frame rate dipped to flickbook levels. And his staggering amble couldn’t be ignored, with missions being written to incorporate the protagonist’s new trick. It sucked out the fun of what could – should – have been a generation classic.
Then the world gasped as the PS2 smashed what was thought possible, Rockstar showed us the shining grime of Liberty City, and Driver lost its relevancy. The pre-release hype machine whirred into place as Driv3r was announced and only increased in volume as it neared release. A few previews were positive, casting more hope onto Tanner’s comeback. Building to a massive buzz, Driv3r was finally released in 2004, and it was truly awful. Unbelievably buggy, ridiculously clunky and seriously outdated, it was crystal clear that it had been sent out before it was anywhere near finished. Of course, in these days of day-one patches, that’s becoming more normal (see the recent Medal Of Honor Warfighter – or even better, don’t) but the PS2 didn’t share this luxury.
The game quickly became a joke as word spread through gaming circles. It even got to the point where the few magazines that had published glowing reviews fell into scandal with accusations of under table payments, and it was hard to argue against them. Driv3r, for whatever reason, had just turned out to be a terrible game, made more disappointing by the marketing promises thrown around in pre-release.
The series hid after that, occasionally showing its face as a PSP title (Driver 1978) and a weak console offshoot (Parallel Lines), neither of which even trying to pretend that the crown of the PS1 original could be reclaimed. Many people – myself included – occasionally dreamed about how a modern version might look and feel, but it was always accepted that daydreams would remain just that.
So, when Ubisoft (who had bought Reflections) announced that Driver was having a full-blown Tanner-led sequel on modern consoles, the reaction was a pretty even split between glee and trepidation. After all, the effect of Driv3r never really disappeared and it was easy to imagine that the GTA legacy would surely dictate another on-foot disaster. However, it wasn’t to be. Maybe anticipating this suspicion, Ubisoft made it very clear from an early stage that the player never actually moves from behind the wheel. One car? Wouldn’t that get boring? Nope. One driver but multiple cars, made possible by a wonderful stroke of true high-concept imagination.
In the opening few minutes, Tanner is rammed into a coma by returning series baddie Jericho. The rest of the game takes place in his head, with every successful move towards the pursuit of his main target crossing over to aid his recovery in the real world (much like in the BBC drama Life On Mars). And it’s within this subconscious sandbox that Tanner finds he can jump from one body to another, effectively taking control of them – and their car – like a travel-happy ghost. It’s all expertly measured to fit into the structure of a video game, of course, but the fact that we know he’s in a coma from the beginning allows us to take whatever happens at face value. From the snappy script to the permanent magic hour golden twilight, it actually feels like a dream.
As you proceed through the game’s main missions, your power to jump grows stronger until you’re able to pull out to a map of the entire Bay area in order to travel quickly to your next target. For me, this kind fast traversal in an open-world sandbox is becoming more and more vital (perfectly epitomized in the amazing Just Cause 2) to the point where I know I’ll be subconsciously reaching for the hookshot button when GTA V finally releases. Being able to jump from behind the wheel of a cop car into an oncoming truck in order to swerve head-on into the getaway you’re still pursuing is pure magic. Actually, even though the game’s missions are generally good fun, I’ve been spending most of my game time just speeding round, finding new rides, enjoying the sunset. And it helps that every third vehicle is a car transporter with its rack in the declined position.
Once again, the handling is the star of the game. As meaty and thrilling as its PS1 forebear, every time I try to describe how it feels to drift around a corner at 80mph, I can’t help but rub my thumb and finger together. It’s incredibly tactile and, to steal from a better writer than I, to be any closer to the road would be to rub your face along the tarmac. The fantastic cars, clever missions, compelling story and many fan-service challenges (including a drive round the original’s garage testing ground, unlocked by driving a certain speed in a DeLorean) add up to an essential package that should have garnered far more appreciation than it did.
In the world of video games, just like in language, context is everything. I may have taken a long and rambling road to convey just how much I love Driver San Francisco, but its success is made all the more important because of the history it shares. To reverse the downfall and in turn make a game that’s actually better than the original is no mean feat, and one that should be applauded. I can’t wait to find out how it ends for Tanner, but in the mean time I’m happy to drift in the glow of the ever-setting sun.