I've just walked into what appears to be Atari UK's boardroom in Hammersmith, where I'm going to spend over three hours playing Driver: Parallel Lines. Something's been on my mind the whole way along the District Line to get here, and surprisingly enough given the carriage I ended up in, it's not Twitchy The Tramp's Special Odours.
When it comes to looking back on Driver 3's "overall critical reception" in any detail, there's a bit of an elephant in the room. Actually, it's more than a bit, it's the whole elephant. It's not even just an elephant, it's an elephant so big that if it went for a swim you could plant trees on its back and call it a continent. Its trunk is so big that if it snorted a bit of the Atlantic and shot it up into the air at the right angle any future questions about whether there was water on Mars would be entirely moot. To boil it down to something our lawyers will allow, there was a significant polarisation of critical response. And that's made my job here doubly hard: I can't just be honest about whether Parallel Lines is any good. I have to be brutally honest and nitpick everything, because everyone is watching.
Thank goodness it's good then.
Shall we get the usual "this is what it is" bit over and done with quickly so we can get into it? Right: driving and running around a city doing missions for people; in this case the city of New York in the 1970s and, later, the present day.
First thing to note: moving around on-foot is a lot more fluid but more importantly less integral. Developer Reflections has made a big song and dance of picking through its last game and making sure Driver: Parallel Lines - let's call it DPL to speed things up - is better, and one of the things it's decided to do is make sure this one is predominantly about driving. Atari estimates an 80/20 split between driving and on-foot stuff, and in our experience the latter is far more tolerable. Using the standard two-sticks third-person approach for movement, you can move between cars you're jacking, target enemies by holding L1 and switch targets by flicking the right analogue stick, aim manually with R2, and that's all you need. I saw no fiddly climbing bits, and the only shoot-'em-up section that cropped up was over in minutes, with the game keen to help you through with health packs.
But I've instigated a brutal-honesty policy, so it's important to note there are a few things that proved mildly annoying. While you can punch enemies to stun them to the ground, you can't kick them when they're down there, and they don't always drop their guns until you've beaten them down a few times. Stopping and jacking cars isn't as fluid as it is in GTA. Then again, the problems here are exactly the sorts of things that polish fixes, and, in any event, the reason I've brought up the on-foot stuff straight off is to get it out of the way: DPL really is about driving and the driving's good.
As much as people complained about Driver 3, nobody really whinged about the handling model; we just went on about the pop-up, the stupid things you got caught on, trying to line up with a moving truck ramp, difficulty spikes, etc. The handling was fine. Good even. The handling in DPL is really entertaining. There's a delightful sponginess to the suspension. Feathering the handbrake as you come up to an intersection allows you to fly round corners with enough loss of traction that it's risky but enough control that you can adjust if it's going wrong. Once you've given it half an hour to get used to the handling again, you're left darting in amongst traffic, grinning as you hear police behind you failing to avoid the cars you've dodged, and screaming round corners at just the right angle to avoid the dangerously tame lumps of metal controlled by the regular citizens of New York. Getting it right in the bumper-cam view is a terrific thrill.
In general, there always seems to be a way to snake through the traffic, even if you sometimes make do with an imperfect route. When I saw the game a few months ago, Reflections' Gareth Edmonson said that the developer was focusing on the traffic balance, and it shows; your path is rarely blocked by two cars sitting next to each other, and although police and traffic AI is apparently dynamic this time, the practice of dialling traffic up and down depending on the difficulty and context of the mission you're on seems to work well for the difficulty curve. And best of all, you don't smack into lamp-posts and stop dead. Hitting police or traffic cars full on will stop you more or less dead, as will hitting a tree, but you can always see them coming thanks to a relative lack of pop-up, and everything else is destructible. In fact, the streets and alleys are chockfull of litter, crates, boxes, fencing, signs, lamp-posts and pedestrians that you can smash through with only a token loss of speed; it's better to avoid hitting stuff, but it isn't FATAL like it used to be. Parting an alley-long river of rubbish like the Nile adds to the tension rather than the frustration, and clipping a metal dumpster so that it spins back into your pursuer's path is deliciously naughty.
Elsewhere, while the targeting's been tightened up on-foot, it's now a part of driving too, which is welcome when you realise it means you have to get out and walk even less. By using the same controls - L1 to target, R1 to fire, R2 to free-aim - you can lean out of the window and shoot stuff. Not just to the sides like GTA does it, either; it's an auto-target, so driving-while-firing missions are relatively straightforward. Plus, any cops that prove nigglesome to deal with the old-fashioned bumper-to-the-shins way won't be laughing much when you lean out of the side with an auto-targeted assault rifle. This ain't Los Santos, bitch. As you'd expect, it's subject to a little bit of finger gymnastics, but you won't need four hands like you do for GTA. No wonder they were called gang shootings.
It's not all cars either - there are motorbikes too. The handling for these is markedly different to what you'd expect based on how GTA did it; this does a much better job of representing the key differences between cars and bikes in terms of turning. It's an advanced skill, which makes sense given that the key challenge in a car is dodging your way through ranks of traffic that would pose less of a problem to a practiced crotchrocketeer.
All of which ought to take care of the general foil. The meat of the game, of course, is what you're instructed to do in the car: the missions. These are split between the 1970s, where antihero The Kid gradually becomes part of a proper criminal cabal, and 2006, where we rejoin him after a stretch inside engineered by his treacherous partners in crime. The latter section, I'm told, is quite "Kill Bill" in its approach.
There's definite variety in the types of "main" mission, and a wealth of things to do besides. On one you'll be told to race through three speed cameras at different velocities to test them out. Another involves turning up to test-drive a prison guard's sports car and keeping the needle in the red long enough to frighten him into coughing up details of the prison's security arrangements; later you'll use a truck and then a digger to break into a prison, run around on foot a little, and then escape to a safehouse in a van. Another time you have to follow a chopper from below using a bike, picking up the parcels it drops, and this one's interesting because it varies the pace, going from simple pick-ups to a bit of platforming-style ramp-navigation through to the top of a building, before going for an all-out-sprint conclusion.
Those are all examples of the 70s. In the present day, I saw a couple of other examples, including one involving the escort of a fellow crim's car through ambushes, taking out goons using 4x4s and gunning down the survivors out of the window. The other was one of what I'm told is quite a few film-style missions; a French Connection-inspired chase that sees you following an overhead train uptown, using the pause-screen map to chart a course parallel to it and then chasing the lucky passenger into an amusement park on foot for a bit of leaden payback.
The key thing to note here is that while some missions are tricky, they're never stupid. You might be driving a truck you've got from an airport car park off to get a bomb fitted, but while you're warned not to "scratch" it, you actually get a reasonable health bar to work through. Same goes for the prison guard's sports car; short of actually blowing it up, you don't fail. There are no moving ramps on the backs of lorries to fail to mount, no impossible time limit to fail to do so in. When you do fail missions, you can hit select to restart immediately, with very little load time. It checkpoints them too; when I failed the platformy bit of the bike mission I mentioned, it put me at the start of that section, not the start of the whole mission. You can restart from the pause menu whenever you like. No yellow cab back to the mission-start with no weapons or cars. And while you are screwed if you put a car on its roof, it's okay if it's on its side. You can even nudge it back over onto its wheels with another car if it's mission-critical. There's sensible design all over - you can even view mission briefings from the map screen without having to go the whole way to them.
On top of the main missions, side missions are available to help accumulate cash. Street races, stealing to order, debt collection, track races. You can take these on when you like, and they come in different difficulty bands; track races even let you choose by driving into a particular garage. They're not just throwaway either. GTA's checkpoint races were often incredibly annoying because of that game's mission-restart methodology. DPL just lets you hit pause and restart if you foul up. I spent about half an hour happily attempting one street race over and over and it was fine because restarting wasn't a pain in the arse. Why doesn't GTA get this right?
These races also give you a chance to use modded cars. Ok, I know what you're thinking, but relax, this is no Need For Speed Underground. While you can do custom paintjobs (using slider bars to find your perfect mix of red, green and blue), it's all quite simple: you just spend cash on upgrades or repairs in a handful of areas, and the addition of components like nitrous really make a difference. You can even add nitrous to cop cars.
Garages also serve another purpose: they're virtual teleports. One is located in each corner of the vast map, and you can walk into a green circle and then select another to hop to. And why not? Then you can access your stock of saved cars locally.
Souping up cars also allows you to explore a bit more. DPL doesn't have hidden packages, and exploration doesn't involve picking through back gardens on foot; this is about finding starred jumps. There are 100 big gold stars floating in the sky above jumpable gaps in the game, and locating them and working out how to jump them and securing the means to do so seems like an entertaining diversion, and makes good use of the "thrill cam", which cuts away to a slow-motion view. You can switch between alternative views with R2, and activate the thrill-cam at any time in the game by pressing down on the d-pad to toggle.
And of course, since it's Driver, there are also a lot of general cop chases. You have two wanted levels here - one for you the person and one for the car, with indicators for both. This is useful, since it means that when you're ordered to lose the tail, hiding for a bit and then switching cars out of the view of the cops' telltale cones of vision on the mini-map can save you having to wait around for too long. Taken to the other extreme, you can wind them up to the point they send SWAT and helicopters after you, and yes, you can shoot the choppers down with rockets. Or you can just hop into a cop car to net a shotgun and then go and get resprayed in something else like a proper criminal.
The full game will include some 40 or so missions and 80 vehicles, as well as a licensed soundtrack featuring the likes of Blondie in the 70s through to Kaiser Chiefs in the noughties. You can skip tracks by hitting up on the d-pad. You can even skip all the cut-scenes and plot if you want.
That's really the point of all this. Driver: Parallel Lines has been designed by a very wary developer. Supremely conscious of the last game, Reflections has gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure you're never pissed off or angry about some marginal detail. This isn't real life, and if it's in their power to work around some annoying side effect or design, whether it's being out of position at the point of mission failure or whatever, then they've tried to sort it out. If there's something that sums that approach up, perhaps it's what happens when you accidentally fly into the water: TK just respawns back on the nearest bank and pats the side of his head to clear out the water. No boats, no faffing; just get back in your car.
Which brings us back to the elephant, I suppose, and the need to point out that the fate of DPL now rests in the mission balancing, overall variety, pacing and a number of other factors impossible to get a solid idea of in just a few hours. Most notably, whether or not it actually offers anything substantially above the rest of the genre. Believe me, I'm not trying to offer a cop-out here, but rather to illustrate the contrast between this and its predecessor: I'm looking forward to reviewing this because I want to play it, not because my fangs need a work out. Perhaps it won't make up for the mistakes of the past, but when it comes to scoring it, the clue's no longer going to be found in the name - by design.
Which is a relief, and means I can really focus on the horrors of the District Line on the way home.
Driver: Parallel Lines is due out on PlayStation 2 and Xbox on March 17th.