June 21, 2014

PSX20 #14: Driver

These days Grand Theft Auto is pretty much the biggest name in videogaming. The most recent instalment, GTAV, sold an estimated 29 million copies in its first week of release. The blend of gritty crime, social satire and immensely playable car chases has made it enormously successful, but it owes a large chunk of its long-term success to Driver.

Let's jump back to 30 June 1999. That's the day Driver debuted in the USA, before being released in other markets around the world over the following weeks. At this point Grand Theft Auto was a single game - its sequel wouldn't be released until October. GTA was also a top-down game, with the player controlling a tiny squeaky criminal and driving around a very two-dimensional playing surface. The tone is there, but the three-dimensional immersion of later instalments is a distant future. Not so for Driver: Driver burst onto the scene as a fully realised three-dimensional driving game with breakneck chases, story depth, grit and replayability. It completely left GTA for dead. Then, two years later, Grand Theft Auto III essentially stole its act.

I'm a huge fan of GTAIV and V. They're two of my favourite videogames ever. I'm aware, however, that neither of them would exist had Driver - and its British developer Reflections Interactive - not been there first to show the way.

This was an immensely slick and playable driving game, and it had a maturity to it that really helped to define what PlayStation gaming was all about. There was a push by Sony back when they launched the console that it was somehow a more mature and adult platform, a clever way to differentiate themselves from the then-overwhelmingly successful Nintendo. Despite this push, comparatively few PSX games felt particularly adult. Adolescent? Sure. Adult was genuinely hard to come by. Driver still sticks in my mind as one of the best mature titles the console had to offer.

Reflections had already developed pretty strong skills in creating driving games with the Destruction Derby franchise. What Driver added to the mix was an honest-to-god plot. It had a protagonist. It had story developments. It actually engaged the player in something beyond trying to race very fast from the beginning of a track to its end.

It also felt incredibly cine-literate, drawing inspiration from a host of classic Hollywood car chases movies and emulating them with remarkably acuity. It even came packaged with its own editing mode, where players could position cameras and drive cars through Hollywood-esque stunt sequences.

It was also an early open-world game: players could, once certain missions had been completed, drive freely around the various city locations. In this respect the game was beaten to the punch by Midtown Madness, but only by about four months. It still felt revolutionary at the time.

A technically superior sequel, Driver 2, followed in late 2000. A third game, Driver 3, limped into PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles in 2004 after a lengthy (and, I'm informed, highly troubled) development period to pretty mediocre reviews. Further sequels have been released in the following years, but as a piece of IP Driver now feels pretty dead. Back in 1999, however, it felt revolutionary.

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