Driver Parallel Lines
The gaming community took an almost audible intake of breath at the end of last week, when Rockstar announced that GTA IV would be delayed until next year. As they collectively pick themselves up the morning after, they may well turn to one of the many other third-person sandbox games to dull the pain of their gaming hangover.
One of these tide-you-over-until-GTA games is Driver Parallel Lines from Reflections. Although for those that remember, Driver has always been more than that; even hitting the streets before the first three dimensional GTA. It was made famous for its strong sense of style and focus on driving missions, even though it had its Achilles heal of over zealous policing and awkward pedestrian modes. In chasing the success of GTA, Driver often seemed to forget what had made it fun in the first place. Whatever the history, there has always been a strong sense of identity running through the franchise that still commands considerable respect and following in the industry, something that is testament to all that Driver got right. The question for us now however, is how its latest release on the Wii fares under the shadow of the aforementioned title holder in the genre.
The game starts in 1978 where you, as the 18-year-old TK, are living in New York City. Through tutorials and in-game direction you soon realise that you can make a few bucks supporting the local crooks with various driving and foot based missions. Before TK really gets going with all this however, he has a little run in with the local boys in blue and has to take something of a break from his activities. Without wanting to give the game away, this story dynamic provides some great potential for varied and interesting play. By the same token, it does a good job of providing some emotional investment in the environments themselves, as (again keeping mum) for one reasons or another, you get to see them change over time.
The format is pretty well established by now, and although Driver has an unconventional story, it doesn't look to re-invent the main sandbox open city play experience. The play space is broken up into three zones that are only accessible via a number of bridges. You soon set about exploring the different offerings in each area and are directed towards the main empire-building gameplay. Some side quests add a little variety, although you are always aware that these aren't the point of the game. This is a lot more linear than the more open play of The Godfather's back street business acquisition play dynamic. The side quests do enable you to obtain a bit of extra cash to spend on your ride, which while nice for a while soon becomes a dispensable luxury as you ditch your various cars when they get too hot. The majority of the main missions are car based and follow the familiar format of stealing, collecting, delivering and setting up a variety of targets. There are some missions that take things to the streets on foot, but these are thankfully less common as the driving is probably the best aspect of the game.
As we alluded earlier, Driver has always been famous for its (sometimes over zealous) police presence. Parallel Lines is no different in this respect. The police are free to roam around the world keeping an eye out for suspects. You attract their unwanted attention if you break the law in your car; anything from speeding, running a red light or mowing down a pedestrian. Once you break the law your car becomes hot and is pursued by police until you have managed to get out of range. You can lose the heat of these crimes by simply changing cars. However, care must be taken to ensure that you are not personally spotted and linked to the crime, as then no amount of car swapping will save you from the NYPD. We enjoyed the tension this added to the game as it stopped you careering around the place and made you at least try and obey the laws of the road. Something of a novelty in a videogame, I'm sure you'll agree.
Being a Wii game we are treated to a variety of interesting control decisions from Reflections. Unfortunately, this reveals that they haven't quite figured out how to make best use of the Wiimote-Nunchuck combination. Driver is probably less intuitive than some other control schemes that we have seen in other games. It falls somewhere between the wide-ranging gestures of The Godfather, and the pinpoint accuracy of Scarface. The general drift all these games exhibit towards some form of bounding box to control the switch between looking and turning will no doubt become solidified once Metroid Prime shows us how this is meant to be done.
As it stands, Driver's controls work only in part. There are sparks of real ingenuity such as driving a car with the Nunchuck and leaning out of the window shooting with the Wiimote. Overall however, we never quite felt at home with the controls, even with extended play. At worst they were jittery and clunky to use, at best they were adequate. They never managed that trick of all winning control schemes, fading into the background and becoming invisible, and consequently felt like a bit of a wrestle throughout.
Graphically, the Wii version looks pretty good. This is obviously a million miles away from the GTA next generation visuals that have had our mouths watering the past few months. That said, the Wii's 480p widescreen output would certainly give either the PS2 or Xbox version of Parallel Lines a run for their money. Driver however, has always been about style over content, and on this front it does a much better job. The various periods in which you play (if that's not giving the game away) each have their own distinctive look, feel and animations. These aspects work together to create not only plausible environments, but worlds that are enticing and fun to play in. This is something that is essential if a sandbox game is going to get the player involved with its world.
Driver Parallel Lines exists in a family of sandbox-city-crime games from the previous generation. They each have different strengths and weaknesses. This release of Driver continues its franchises delivery of a fun stylised world that is built around a believable police presence and excels at re-creating those 70's cop show chases. Whilst it doesn't have the depth of play of The Godfather, or the violence of Scarface it does a good job of playing to its strengths and delivering a highly enjoyable game. Whilst none of these pretenders have so far toppled GTA from its throne, they have certainly kept the bar high for Rockstar's next release. Perhaps they have even contributed to its delay as GTA must now deliver on so many different fronts.