Driv3r is the most important videogame launch ever. Never before has an entire company's fate rested so heavily on the release of one product, but Reflection's long-overdue sequel is that kind of game, and Atari is doubtlessly slightly peeved that in the last three years it has had to watch from the sidelines while Rockstar, Sony and even Activision have cleaned up in mission-based driving stakes. All that pent up aggression and realisation that "we could be doing that!" has resulted in one of the most concerted marketing campaigns ever attempted for a videogame - and we're not even in the launch month as we scribe!
But just how does a hit-hungry publisher top the 12 million combined sales of the previous two titles, and compete with the Grand Theft Alsos that seem to effortlessly fly off the shelves? For a start you build awareness to a fever pitch, and we're now at the sharp end of almost 18 months of drip feeding information. But despite a massive amount of coverage, it's been all about the cars 'n stars: there's been no real opportunity to deliver playable impressions, given that the game's public debut back in February was so unfinished it was impossible to tell one way or the other.
Enter the marketing spend
We had our concerns back then that the game would make its June release window, but this week we actually got our grubby mitts on some playable, nigh on finished Xbox code stamped promisingly with 'May' on the disk. We say 'promisingly' because the game's due to hit the high street shelves on June 21st, and in our experience the game ought to be very close to its finished quality. With this in mind it's quite a responsibility being tasked with offering constructive comments on a game with such a mighty amount riding on it, and an unreasonable level of expectation heaped upon its padded shoulders. It is, after all, only a game - just one that happens to have a 10 million sales target attached to it. Forget Enter The Matrix's piddling four million target - this is the real deal. Make or break time: 10 million - or over a million in the UK alone.
You can almost feel the glare of Atari execs over your shoulder as you speed around the sunny streets of Miami, wind down the ornate Nice coastline or the urban chaos of Istanbul. Make no mistake, this is the most important game the company has ever released and it needs it to be a benchmark product; one to rub shoulders with GTA in every sense. Critically it needs to live up to expectations as much as its commercial promise, because happy critics and frenzied word of mouth will translate to the kind of kind of grossing dollars that would dwarf most action blockbusters in the movie theatres. And save Atari in the process. Feel the pressure.
Once again you fill the designer shoes of Tanner, an undercover cop who does "whatever it takes to bring the bad guys down". In a loose sense, this means the typical run and gun of any modern action adventure combined with madcap car chases. According to Reflections supreme Martin Edmondson, the game is weighted roughly 70-30 in favour of car chases, and that's a good thing for several reasons, which we'll get to in a moment.
Set across 30-odd missions in the three highly detailed cities of Miami, Nice and Istanbul, the Undercover mode is where you'll spend most of your time with the game. Kicking off with a typically dramatic and stylish cut-scene in Istanbul, a street shootout between a posse of shade-wearing uber criminals results in someone - we don't know who at that stage - being gunned down and rushed to an emergency ward amid scenes of frantic medical staff frantically trying to save the man's life. But it's too late - a flat lining EMG machine heralds Driv3r's beginning as it flashes back to six months previously, where as Tanner you're tasked with heading to the Miami police HQ for your first assignment of the game.
Tanner's abode is typically salubrious - an almost entirely white-themed interior suggests our man wipes his feet before he comes home - or more likely has a downtrodden cleaner that come as standard issue in middle class American homes, but she's nowhere to be seen. His low security house features the latest in automatic sliding doors, and the patio exit slides open giving you a chance to go for a quick dip in your swimming pool fully clothed - entirely pointlessly, of course, but Tanner has a mean front crawl action, and is entirely waterproof as well, it seems.
Jumping into the nearest automobile gets us straight into what the Driver series does best - screeching around the streets like a raving madman on the run from the law. For serial bank robbery, multiple felony and undoubtedly mass murder. All in the line of duty, you understand. The handling is almost exactly how veterans of the series will remember it - all spongy, reactive and slidey as hell, giving us every opportunity to throw whatever vehicle we're in control of around bends for fun. It's a world away from The Getaway's stiff model, and way more extreme than GTA ever manages, and the way the cars wobble and react to your steering wheel molestation insanity is as beautiful as you could reasonably hope it to be. After Stuntman, it feels so good to be free of the overly precise shackles that that flawed gem imposed upon the player, and anyone who loves pure driving will have a fantastic time in Driv3r just hurling themselves around the often beautiful cityscapes and trying to cause utter mayhem.
The damage modelling once again builds upon what Reflections have been perfecting ever since the heady days of Destruction Derby, and in terms of accurately replicating the impact of crunching your car at high velocity, it's hard to think of another game that does it as convincingly. Sure, Burnout 3 beats it for sheer eye-popping shock value, but for real-world practicality Drive3r nails the balance between making it look spectacular enough to excite, and actually keeping it within the realms of playability.
It's also wonderful to appreciate that all your bumps and bruises have physical implications. For example, you'll note that enemies are smart enough to try and shoot out your tyres, and if successful you'll be sparking around the highways on your wheel rims desperately trying to find another vehicle to highjack while trying to avoid the onrushing attentions of your aggressor. The chances are they'll be trying their level best to run you over, but the game makes it possible to shoot them through the windshield, pull their limp bodies onto the tarmac and screech off in your aggressor's vehicle. Either that or you can shoot up their ride, blow out the tyres, riddle the bodywork in bullet holes or maybe force them into the water, where they'll attempt to get out of the car and bob around in the water still trying to seek vengeance.
And yes, there are motorbikes in it! Typically you can simply bash off a passing rider or pinch one lying around exactly as you would in GTA. The ride works in more or less the same way too, allowing you to pull back and wheelie your way around the city, or pull 360s if you really feel that way inclined. Reflections has made the whole free ride process more entertaining in allowing you to dynamically move the camera around Tanner at any point, as well as including a Thrill Cam, which switches to a dramatic slo-mo view of the action from a typically exciting viewpoint that really shows off just how well implemented the driving physics really are, giving you a chance to appreciate the dynamic suspension, as well as the intricate way that objects crumple, the fantastic explosions and a whole world of minute detail that you could write an entire thesis on. Just to see it action, it's clear how much talent there is at Reflections when it come to all things driving-related.
Credible family fun
But as we all know, there's a lot more to Driv3r than simply caning it around the streets having fun. There's an appreciable amount of effort that has gone into ensuring that the game has a structure and a cinematic narrative to hold the whole experience together. Every mission is interspersed with lavish and moody cut-scenes, voiced by Hollywood names, notably Michael Madsen, Mickey Rourke and even wiry smoke dried voice of living dead rock star Iggy Pop of all people. It all helps, but don't expect the wry delivery of Vice City or the attempted shock factor of The Getaway. Driv3r is fairly family safe entertainment, involving gravely voiced hard men and plenty of double-crossing intrigue to get your head around. Fortunately, any mission can be replayed once it's unlocked, and likewise all the cut-scenes can be manually watched again at your leisure if the plot's all becoming a little confusing. Both additions are definitely a welcome, and Rockstar could learn a thing or two in that particular department.
Although the vehicle-based activity is benchmark in terms of feel and technical quality, the first impression of Miami is one of slight disappointment. This isn't what we were expecting from those frankly incredible screenshots that leaked out at the beginning of last year. At this stage we'd expect the technical quality to be unchanged from this build to the final gold master, and it's unavoidable to note some rather unattractive pop-up issues throughout, with a technique that draws flat buildings in the distance then 'pops' the textures on top much later than you'd expect. Sometimes when you're driving around with a distant view of the city, most of the building are evidently no more than flat grey blocks, and much of the time Driv3r can look quite vanilla as a result. Some of the interiors are a big improvement, however, with some intricate texturing adding greatly to the general atmosphere, and when you have a spin around Nice it's hard to believe it's the same game sometimes, with some incredibly impressive views and a degree of design care that really makes the most of the engine's capabilities.
The truth is, through, the flatness of Miami really does Driv3r little favours, because it's not an engine that's really flattered by having to cope with massive draw distances. The windy hills of Nice are a totally different matter, though, and it's surprising Reflections didn't try and make sure the game looks at its best at all times, rather than just now and then.
Rebel Strike syndrome
As we've discussed, Reflections is one of the top driving specialists in the world. No doubt about it. It isn't, however, the master of third-person action games. It isn't even remotely renowned for third-person action, for that matter, so it probably shouldn't come as a massive surprise that any time you're engaging in these sections, you're instantly jarred, nay shocked and literally staggered by the realisation that they're not very enjoyable at all. Not just 'not very enjoyable' but actually a dreadful, tedious mess - so much so that we're having a great deal of trouble comprehending how, after three and a half years of development, they can possibly be in this state with a matter of a couple of weeks of development left to go. Did someone mention a dark angel?
Cor, blimey. To date, we've played roughly a third of Driv3r's single-player missions for the purposes of this hands-on, or roughly five hours, and while we don't in any way want to prematurely prejudge an unfinished product, we have no choice but to raise a whole catalogue of concerns over the controls, the cameras, and the enemy AI. We'd have honestly played more, but we didn't want to spoil it for ourselves. It'd be like doing a taste test on a cake just before it's ready. But this isn't, like, halfway through baking, here, this is with weeks to go. We want to cry. Seriously.
The recriminations start here
From the top, the controls are hampered immediately by an inability to turn or aim quickly - the camera bizarrely restricts how far up or down you're allowed to look to the extent that trying to shoot enemy from above or below is way too hit and miss, literally. Also, the lack of a lock on or ability to move the reticule with speed or precision means you end up strafing your target as opposed to actually aiming. The camera, meanwhile, makes things rather more difficult than they should be, and tends to lurch into an over the shoulder viewpoint indoors when you don't want or need it, while the enemy AI at this stage is almost entirely absent - with the brainless drones shrieking in comic fashion if you so much as open a door (yeah, like you knew I was coming) and then mostly stand rooted to the spot until despatched - with the occasional attempt to run to another pre-scripted spot or strafing. We have to assume that this will be fixed for the final version, but if it isn't the recriminations will be absolutely terrifying.
We're hesitant to be too quick to criticise elements of the game which may well come together at the last minute. It would be irresponsible and misleading to do so, but for Driv3r to be a critical success and fulfil its evidently massive commercial potential, Reflections categorically cannot afford to release the game with the third-person action elements in the state that they are in in this current build. Put simply, the entire third-person control system feels sluggish, the combat/shooting is currently nowhere near the standard it needs to be, and the enemy behaviour is, to put it in the most diplomatic terms possible, just not ready yet. We do have a reserve of faith, though, and are prepared to accept that sufficient tweaks and last minute polishing could dramatically bring it up to standard. At our most pessimistic, however, we fear that expecting a driving game specialist such as Reflections to make a benchmark third-person section in the game is akin to expecting Id to make a good RTS game.
Sometimes you've got to hold your hands up and stick to what you're best at, and it wouldn't exactly be controversial to suggest that attempting to compete with the Grand Theft Alsos with their third-person action elements hasn't been the smartest move Reflections has ever made - especially when the actual driving model is so, so good, and some of the technology in the game so impressive. But like we said, we're only a third of the way through an unfinished game, so we'll have to keep our fingers crossed and pray that the finished article can somehow pull it out of the bag. We're truly hoping beyond hope that this is the case, because as things stand there can be no room for failure from the most important title Atari/Infogrames has ever released. In summary: Reflections and Atari simply owe it to everyone involved to not release this game until it's ready.
Wanting to forget
Although we were repeatedly (and wisely) warned by Atari to consider that the game is still not representative of its final quality, and urged us to judge it fairly on that basis, right now, the harsh truth is nobody on Earth knows precisely what that final quality benchmark is supposed to be. Driv3r is so far away from being releasable in a catalogue of serious and fundamental ways that make us question how on earth the game will have all its problems sorted out by its June 21st release date.
To our minds, as long-term fans of the series that genuinely care about its quality and the reputation of Reflections, the sooner these facts are brought to people's attention, the more likely something will be done about it, because releasing it in an unpolished state would be a crime of Angel Of Darkness proportions - and Atari really doesn't want that on its hands, does it? For the sake of the brand, the developer, the publisher and the fans, the development of Driv3r needs a 'done when it's done' policy urgently introduced, not a shareholder-friendly deadline that will have massive repercussions if the game comes out and everyone slams it (apart from the good old official mags, of course - bless 'em). Driv3r deserves to be one of the best of the year - scratch that, of its generation. The bottom line is that there's a lot of hard work to be done before it can manage that - but it can be done. Make it happen Reflections. Please.