DRIV3R is an interesting game. Before it was released, Atari adamantly pointed out that its title wasn’t a Grand Theft Auto knockoff. It wasn’t a True Crime clone, either. It was, in fact, a driving game, much like its two predecessors. But as much as Atari might want its game to stand on its own driving merits, the overall concept and gameplay are simply too similar to already-existing games to be seen as anything other than a “me too.” In many cases, such “me too” games are better than the first ones. DRIV3R, unfortunately, isn’t.
The story in DRIV3R is solid enough: an undercover cop playing both sides of the fence to bust a car-theft ring from the inside. The formula has proved successful before in movies and videogames, and it proves successful in DRIV3R, as well. From the first frames of the opening movie, it’s quite clear that the developers have crafted a good story and great pre-rendered movies. The character development and plot advancement in these computer-generated films is great. The only problem is that DRIV3R is a game, not a big-budget film, and the actual gameplay components are considerably less inspiring than the CG flicks.
Atari was right about one thing: the focus of the game is on driving. The story in DRIV3R unfolds in three cities, and the square mileage mapped in each is astounding. With such serious real estate to cover, it’s clear that the best way to do it is via automobile. Sports cars, sedans, trucks, vans, motorcycles, big rigs, speed boats … you name it, you can drive it, and you’ll need to do so if you want to succeed in some of the game’s timed levels.
The levels start players out with a given car, but much like True Crime and Grand Theft Auto, DRIV3R allows gamers to get out of their original auto and carjack anything they see on the street. Each of these automobiles accelerates, brakes and handles differently, a testament to the developer’s focus on driving mechanics. Each car also damages differently, and depending on where the damage is, it will affect the handling. Run over a tack-lined police barricade, for example, and your right front tire might blow out, which will make the car pull to the right. Smash up the front end, on the other hand, and the hood might fly up, which will reduce your top speed until the physics finally make the hood blow off entirely.
But while Reflections got the little details right, the more “big picture” handling issues are somewhat flawed. Like any racing game, acceleration and braking in DRIV3R are accomplished using the shoulder buttons, and there’s one button each for the emergency brake and boost. But while the acceleration is theoretically pressure-sensitive, it more often than not amounts to either no acceleration at all or a pedal-to-the-metal experience. Likewise, braking is either an exercise in leaving skid marks on the street or seeing no reduction in speed whatsoever. After playing great racing/driving games like Project Gotham Racing 2, these “all or nothing” controls are a bit disconcerting, particularly since Atari had been priding itself on DRIV3R’s focus on top-notch driving mechanics.
Outside the car, the controls don’t fare much better, although they’re infinitely better than the overly complicated controls of True Crime: Streets of LA. While you’re running down enemies, there’s a button to draw/holster your gun, a button to shoot, a button to switch weapons and a button to crouch/roll. That’s all straightforward enough, and the controls would be fine if they existed in a vacuum. But a vacuum DRIV3R is not, with several large parcels of frantic gunplay action that break up the driving.
The problem with these gunplay segments is that the aforementioned controls are hampered by a camera that never works quite right. The default setting reacts too slowly to thumbstick movements, and adjusting the sensitivity from the options menu only affects the horizontal movement. Yet the cities and environments are so varied that vertical movements are just as important, particularly to take out snipers. This leaves players vulnerable to incoming fire from groups of enemies who appear in later stages, resulting in more than one controller-throwing moment and level restart.
DRIV3R isn’t a complete gameplay loss, though, because what it’s missing in finesse it tries to compensate for in variety. Within the driving and gunplay segments exist several variants; an on-rails shooting scenario from the back of a van, a destruction derby-like level in a muscle car and a timed multiple-objective mission through the streets of Nice are among the unique challenges.
The most significant twist is the ability to save your mission replays and make stylistic movies by positioning cameras throughout the level to record the action. This isn’t exactly “gameplay,” per se, but it certainly adds some replayability and spice to the game. On the Xbox version, it also adds some entertainment value, because you can upload your replay to the server and watch others’ replays. Given the number of hilarious (and cool) replays on Xbox Live, people are clearly having fun with the “movie maker” option. But given the actual gameplay, they’re probably having more fun with the movie function than with the game itself.
Graphically, DRIV3R is somewhat of a disappointment. There are certainly nice-quality areas, particularly given the textures Reflections was able to include for roads and buildings. The CG movies are also quite good, easily on par with Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. But no matter how much we realize a game this big is going to sacrifice quality for quantity, it’s simply unforgivable to have a brick wall or other element pop up and cause a level-ending wreck. The draw-in for streets and cities is also noticeable, as is the fact that nearly every enemy is a clone. While these latter two don’t detract from the gameplay, they certainly beg the question: where are those pre-release graphics that showed such next-gen polish?
Movie-making and CG movies aside, the best multimedia element of DRIV3R is its audio. Cars sound different from one model to the next, crashes have a rewarding metal-bending ring, and the soundtrack has an appropriately pimp-cop feel. The use of surround sound is especially solid, with police sirens that bounce from one speaker to the next and environmental automobiles that actually sound like they’re idling next to you.
But sound, replays and CG movies don’t necessarily make for a very good game. Atari tried to add to DRIV3R’s longevity with mini-games, but they end up so similar to the actual gameplay that there’s no real reason to play them. Likewise, creating your own replays can be fun, but that means you have to endure the occasionally sketchy controls. Which leaves us with DRIV3R’s CG movies, wonderful in their own right but not exactly interactive entertainment. If you’re looking for a racing or action game, you’re better off buying a title more focused on those genres.
- Gameplay: 6.6
- The replay features are neat, but the game itself is pretty blah.
- Graphics: 7
- The pre-release renderings border on false advertising, and there’s some serious popup when driving around.
- Sound: 8.1
- Good soundtrack and nice use of in-game Dolby Digital.
- Replay: 6.7
- The movie-like replays are the only thing keeping this score afloat.
- Overall: 6.8
- Shakespeare says: a movie by any other name is still a movie.
— Jonas Allen