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.