Review: Driver 2

Yes, it’s a review!  It’s not the one that comes with a surprise, however. That will be my next one. (Don’t ask, it’s—abstruse.)

So you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site. Either way, you come across Driver 2 for the PlayStation (there was also a version for the Game Boy Advance, but the PlayStation version is the one we’re focusing on today), and you’re pondering picking it up. Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new–but what was cool as a crisp breeze off the ocean then may be trifling better than stiff breeze off the garbage dump now. So how’s one to know? That’s what I’m here for.

Released in late-Two Thousand, it was the sequel to Driver: You are the Wheelman.  The first game was a smash hit, though that wasn’t a huge surprise.  Developer Reflections Interactive had been known for their games that were easy to pick up and play, as well as having interesting visuals and believable physics, particularly in their car-centered titles.

With hits like Destruction Derby and Shadow of the Beast under their belts, it again wasn’t a surprise that the first Driver was successful.  When Driver 2 came around, it enhanced everything that made the first one so fun and added some new things—one of the most talked-about aspects was actually getting out of your car.

These days, that doesn’t seem all that spectacular, but back then, Tony Hawk was still glued to his skateboard, and while the protagonist in the first Grand Theft Auto games could leave their vehicles, the world was two-dimensional.  As such, it created something of a stir amongst gamers.

Now, when it first debuted, Driver 2 was generally well-received.  The question we’re going to try and answer today is how well it holds up.  After all, we’re almost two full console generations away from it; it came out originally on the PlayStation, and here we are with the PlayStation 4 on the horizon.  Plus, we have to answer the question of whether it’s for the gamer that can’t afford to spend all day, every day on it.  So how does it measure up?

Game Play
When you first load up the game and watch the full-motion video cut-scene that sets the basic plot up, you can mess around in the options, though they’re your standard fare, then one selects Undercover to begin a new game.  You’re thrown into your first mission, which, like most of the rest, involve getting from point A to point B in a certain time limit.  This early in the game, the limit is rather gracious, more to let the player get used to the notion of it.

It also starts the player getting used to the on-foot controls, since the player has to navigate Tanner, the game’s protagonist, to his car so he can drive it across town.  This is also where the game starts to be divisive in its reception.

The on-foot controls are incredibly clunky, even by standards of the time.  Compared to now—it’s like driving a tank while blindfolded.  However, the saving grace is that you don’t do much while running around; you occasionally press a button, but that’s rare.  The main reason to be out of a vehicle is to get into another one.  That’s what makes the on-foot controls easier to deal with; you don’t do very much whilst on-foot, and you shouldn’t be spending much time out of a vehicle.

That leads us into the driving controls.  Reflections Interactive lived up to their reputation, here.  Like its predecessor, the game is very much one large homage to ‘Seventies car-chase flicks and television shows.  As such, cars are prone to skidding, and most feel a bit “heavy”—this isn’t a racing title, where cars can feel like barely-controlled rockets strapped to wheels.  It works, though, because it adds nice verisimilitude.  It feels more like you’re really driving the classic cars.

Naturally, this feeling of “weight” is increased in the larger vehicles—you can drive school buses, fire trucks, armored vehicles (like the kind that transport money for banks), and so on.  They are, as expected, much heavier than regular cars, but the trade off is that they’re basically battering rams on wheels.   It’s incredibly fun to hijack a fire truck and just wreak havoc on the freeways, ramming through the little people that were foolish enough to be on the road that day.

The missions are a healthy mix—you have your timed missions, where you have to get from point A to point B in a hurry, and those are as obnoxious as nearly every timed mission in every game, ever, is.  Some of them, though, actually make sense—such as when you have to race to save someone before the baddies get to them.  You’re not just racing an arbitrary clock; you’re racing to save someone’s life.  That helps lessen that obnoxiousness a good bit.

You also have a few missions where you have to get from here to there without any damage taken, and the obvious way to do it would be to follow the traffic laws, since the police will try to ram their cars up your tail pipe for grievous offenses such as speeding or running a red light.  The difficulty here is the lack of speedometer and inability to cruise at a low but constant speed.  So, you’re more lightly tapping the gas button and trying to keep pace with a pedestrian vehicle when the police are around.

There are a few other mission types, as well, but one of the more difficult aspects is that many start you out a good bit from your car, so you have to run to it, get in, and then try to continue the mission.  For the most part it’s fine, but this is true even of many timed missions, so the clock is ticking even while you’re trying to get to your car.  For the most part, even during timed missions, it isn’t a huge hindrance—for the most part.  There are times when you don’t angle your approach just right so don’t enter the vehicle on the first try.  That ups the frustration considerably.

The real problem with the missions is that there isn’t much of a difficulty curve.  Similar to the previous game, the “curve” is more of a “graph”, with spikes and valleys all over the place.  Granted, it’s a fair bit smoother this time around, but it’s still not a real “curve”.

The last thing to mention would be the cheats—normally I don’t go into much detail with this kind of thing, but one has to hand it to Reflections Interactive for how they were implemented.  Two in particular—an “immunity” cheat, which makes it so the police (and certain other enemies) don’t “see” you, and an “invincibility” cheat, which as expected means you take no damage.

You unlock the invincibility cheat in the third city, by getting out of your car at a certain spot and pressing a button.  The thing is that there really aren’t many more missions where you have to worry about your car’s damage. For the immunity cheat, you unlock that one in the fourth world, again by getting out of your car at a certain spot and pressing a button—but being chased by police no longer really comes into play, with one or two exceptions.

Essentially, once you get the ability to get those cheats, you no longer really need them.  They’re still handy for free-roam, of course, but still, it’s a bit humorous, in a good way.  Adding to this is that the buttons you press aren’t obvious in any way; you almost have to already know where they are.

Tanner, a police officer originally with the New York Police, is working with the Chicago Police as a mob war threatens to break out between Alvaro Vasquez and Solomon Caine, the former a Brazilian drug lord looking to expand into the United States, with Chicago as the new base of operations and the latter the “boss” of Chicago who doesn’t take kindly to interlopers.

It starts with a shoot-out in a bar that leaves one Brazilian dead, and a potential witness on the run.  Tanner and his partner Jones hunt all over Chicago, and discover that the witness was none other than Caine’s toady-cum-paper-pusher, Pink Lenny.  He’s on the run because he’s defecting to Vasquez’s camp, and, understandably, Caine was less than pleased.  Caine declares war on Vasquez, and Tanner and Jones go undercover to find out what’s going on and stop it before it gets out of hand and costs innocent lives.

The plot is pretty coherent, and like the core game play rather reminiscent of certain car-chase movies from the ‘Seventies—that is to say, the plot serves as little more than reason to race around like a loon in four different cities.  It works, though.  Some stories that serve only to be a loose framework for something else aren’t often enjoyable or interesting on their own, but this one is both.  It’s not great—it would never win any writing awards, but it does what it’s supposed to do and stays interesting in the process.

The vehicles steal the show, hands down, as expected.  They’re simply beautiful, and while they might not hold up to the latest Need for Speed title out now, they actually aren’t that far behind.  They all look unique, and though there’s some palette swapping on cars of the same type, there is more than enough variety to the models themselves.

As for the cities themselves, there’s a definite attempt to make each city feel real and distinct.  The graphics aren’t, over all, a huge improvement over the first game, but there’s been more fine-tuning, more tweaking to make the game more visually appealing.

Tanner is rather blocky-looking, when out running around, but he doesn’t look terrible.  He’s not meant to be the real focus, nor are you really going to be out of a vehicle for very long, so while he doesn’t look great, it’s forgivable.

The best part are the cut-scenes.  They look so much better this time around than the cut-scenes in the first game—a bit less “stiff”, they move more realistically, and so on.

The soundtrack is simply superb.  Some rock, a lot of blues and soul, everything fitting the setting of an early car chase movie wonderfully.  The tracks are unobtrusive enough to not be a distraction during the game, but they’re enjoyable enough to listen to on their own.

The other sounds in the game are just as good—the skidding of your car as you take a tight corner, the crash that makes you wince as you manage to drive a police car into a pedestrian vehicle, and more.  An especially enjoyable bit is hearing the police talk about you, such as when they’re on the hunt for you and finally spot you.  It kicks off the classic car chase that the game is built around, complete with that pulse-pounding music.

Since the missions are linear this time around and can be just as frustrating as in the last game, there isn’t as much reason to play through Undercover Mode more than once.  There are plenty of things to see in the free-roam, however—secrets to find, nifty little things to look at.

There are four secret cars to find, with one in each city.  They handle a little differently than the other cars in that city, though the main differences are the colors.  The primary attraction is that they each have a unique color scheme, making them visually distinct.  There are also a few other secrets, like secret areas—but the main draw of replaying the game is flying through the streets.

The “Director Mode”, where you can edit your chase film, is arguably the most fun aspect.  Ever wanted to mimic those old chase films, complete with different camera angles?  You can do just that.  It automatically records the first thirty-seven minutes and fifty seconds of your free-roam play, so you have plenty of time to get the perfect shot.  Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way to edit the footage, so you can’t cut out excessive driving or the like, but there are enough camera options to make even the most mundane cruise interesting.

The other thing that can make the player pop it back in after beating the story missions is the collection of two-player games.  There are a few, though they’re somewhat hampered by the close first-person perspective.  Most players play driving games in either a third-person perspective or set inside the car; a first-person/front bumper perspective can make it a bit difficult.  Still, the games are there for players who want to play with a friend.

Final Recommendation
If you like classic car chase films like the original Gone in 60 Seconds and classic car chase television shows like Starsky and Hutch, then Driver 2 is right up your alley.  The game captures the feel of flying through the streets with cops on your tail wonderfully, and is the obvious focus of the title.

The plot is also reminiscent of such older films—it serves solely as a reason to go out zooming through the streets and launching cars from hills, but it stays interesting, too.  It’s a touch over-the-top in areas, but surprisingly less than such stories might have been in movies of the car-chase era.

There are also cars to unlock, secret areas to find, games to play with a friend—but everything revolves around the car chase.

The main competitor to this series at the time was Grand Theft Auto, and to be fair that series did offer a lot of other things besides just driving—but it could never capture the feel of a real car chase like the Driver series was built around.  Yes, it’s a narrow focus, but it does that right.  It does it so well, it’s possible to look past some of the other potential flaws and enjoy being in your very own ‘Seventies car chase flick.

Game Play: GOOD
The cars handle nicely—heavy but without feeling like you’re driving a tank.  You don’t really get into differences in handling until you get to bigger vehicles like school buses and such, though.  The on-foot controls are awkward, but that’s made up for, a little, by it mostly not being necessary that you’re out of your vehicle too often.

It’s somewhat basic—”take down the cartel”, basically, but it’s coherent, and fits the game well.

Graphics: GOOD
The cars are wonderful.  Fantastic, even.  Everything else, not so much.  That’s not to say everything else is necessarily ugly, though the model for Tanner might just be.  Everything else is a bit bland, especially compared to the vehicles.

Sound: GOOD
The music is a wonderful mix of blues and some rock that hearkens back to the car-chase films that inspired the Driver series.  The voice-acting is superb, as well, adding to the story nicely.

Replayability: AVERAGE
The best thing is really just zooming through the streets.  There are secret cars to unlock, but they really only bring unique color palettes, and there are some games for two players, but there aren’t many and the close first-person perspective can make them difficult.

Final: GOOD
The game was built around one concept and one concept alone—car chases.  It may not have offered as much as its competitor series, but what it did offer it did right.


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