Kristan likes graphics. I've known the man for well over a year now, and it's clear to me that he is a great lover of eye candy. And physics. He loves knocking things over, banging things about, and generally watching things interact. I remember the first time he saw Half-Life 2 in Los Angeles. His little eyes were darting excitedly around his head as he struggled to absorb the unprecedented physicality of the world Valve had created, all the while his pupils were melting under the strain of so many perfectly placed pixels. Given that DRIV3R also combines his twin obsessions, I'm not overly surprised that I wound up digesting the fact sheets and poring over the fine details of Martin Edmonson's presentation last Friday, while he decided whether or not he liked playing it.
Since we've already dealt with DRIV3R's intricate beauty, Hollywood handling and redeveloped technology (robbing only the physics from Stuntman in the source code stakes) whilst compiling our first impressions, it was just as well that Edmonson focused on the structure of the game, which brings back sharp-suited undercover cop Tanner, alongside his long-time partner Tobias, on a quest to infiltrate - what else? - a global car theft ring. "What DRIV3R is really about is car chases," says Edmonson, firing up the Miami setting and opting for 'Quick Chase' mode, one of the driving games included besides the main undercover mode. Along with Checkpoint Races DRIV3R also offers a mixture of chasing and being chased against the clock. "The aim [in Quick Chase mode] is to try and get rid of the cop as soon as you can. A lot of the missions themselves make use of this. Obviously if you're in the middle of a mission and you pick up a cop, you end up with a cop on your tail. This shows you the cop AI, and what we've tried to do here is to maintain a consistent chase, so we don't want to just chuck loads of cops at you."
"It's very easy to pick up and play, you don't have to think about it too much, and it's just designed to be fun, basically," he remarks at one point. It's a theme that seems to continue throughout the game. There's a gritty story-driven side to DRIV3R, but it also wants to let you play by your own rules and have fun with cars. "The 'Take A Ride' section just allows you to go into any city and mess about with cars. Choose any car you want, choose different weather settings and so on, but it really is just to have fun with. No specific games in there." It seems unlikely that Reflections will pack in the same level of minor tasks and distractions peppered over Liberty or Vice City, but by the sound of it there won't be much time for such frivolity in any case, leaving us with a free ride mode equivalent to its counterparts in The Getaway or True Crime. "Compared to the previous two games it's a huge game," Edmonson confirms. "There are 156 miles of drivable road in the game - that's actual drivable road on the map. On top of that there are back alleyways and so on that are not marked on the map and 35,400 individually placed buildings across the three cities as well," which sounds like a sensible ploy, adding tension to the pursuit of outrageous shortcuts.
"The basic set up is to choose which city you want to start in 'Take A Ride', choose the time of day... You can basically set it up how you want, and you can have rain, overcast or clear. When you select your car, there are about 70 or so vehicles in the game, and rather than see a rotating picture of it you get a mini-movie. Some of these vehicles will be locked and you have to progress through the game to open these. There are various types of boat, different cars... There are also a few bikes in there, cranes, trucks, a fully articulated 18-Wheeler in there, a fishing boat, even a tugboat," he says, finally making his mind up and selecting something. "We'll start off with a classic old Istanbul car and show the basic driving, the way that the car handles, some of the elements that make Driver unique such as the physics, the realism of the crashes and the chases and so on."
As Kristan has already argued, the physics and damage modeling is happily ahead of anything else on any of DRIV3R's target platforms. Edmonson sums it up quite eloquently. "Anyone who's played Driver, Driver 2 - or Stuntman for that matter - will be immediately at home with it: It's got the classic Driver handling model. And that means backend is really slidey and the car basically over-steers so you can do big power-slides and pull the handbrake up and all the stuff we had in Driver 1," he says, as we all grin. "There's a special mode, which allows the player to drop the camera and take a TV-style view of the action. And this being a game all about car chases, that's the reason that's in. As you drive around you can see the suspension move - you can see when I bump the kerb - and it's all designed to have a very realistic handling model. I can also do a full power burnout with no traction control. So basically I can do donuts with that," he says, spinning the car round in a circle repeatedly. I don my rose-tinted specs and drift away... I'm doing the 60-second qualifying exhibition in my head. Burnout. 180. 360. Speed test. Come on! (I always messed up that bloody reverse-180.)
When I return to reality, the conversation has also turned. "When you go into the city, it offers you a number of start points," he continues, "and these are unlocked as you play the game. Initially you've only got one of them open, and eventually you'll have them all open, just so that you don't have to go driving halfway across the city to get to your favourite bit." A bit like GTA's system of hide-outs, then.
Grand Theft Also?
Indeed, while we've been ducking the GTA comparisons for the most part, it's no secret that the two games have a lot in common. They even share the same camera mechanics. "Using the two shoulder buttons I can look left and look right, and by squeezing the two together I can look behind, and that's basically used as a rear-view mirror," Edmonson says as everybody scribbles the words "GTA control scheme" on their jotters and PDAs. Also rather like GTA, DRIV3R has drawn in some high profile Hollywood talent. We've already noted Ridley Scott Associates' movie short "Run the Gauntlet", commissioned by Atari as part of a monstrous marketing spend for the game, and the publisher has also confirmed that the likes of Michael Madsen, Mickey Rourke, Michelle Rodriguez and Ving Rhames will be voicing significant characters.
Unlike GTA, however, DRIV3R's cut sequences will be rendered rather than in-engine, because, says Edmonson, "it allows us to have a level of realism that you just could never achieve with the game engine." Obviously Rockstar North's GTA engine showed us that characters could be emotive, even developing the odd peculiar mannerism, without relying on oodles of polygons to make the point, but Reflections clearly knows its strengths - just as well, given that we were less than convinced when Tanner went sprinting about on-foot. "The other thing it demonstrates," he says of the cut-scenes, "is that we've licensed a lot of music from various up and coming bands - certainly not chart stuff and nothing you'd be immediately familiar with - and edited the cut-scenes to them to emphasise the movie element." Sounds like we can expect a CD soundtrack at some point.
The star-studded cast, high production values and obscure, individually tailored soundtrack are all tacit reminders, however, that DRIV3R aims to be both a fun game about car chases and a serious slice of cop fiction. Reflections is promising a deep and engaging narrative that "recreates the attitude, action and car chase sequences of modern gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and Pulp Fiction," with nearly an hour of CG video slotted in amongst Tanner's shenanigans.
Are we there yet?
All of which gives us plenty to think about. A word of caution is due here, of course, because with the game due out worldwide on June 1st, there is still an awful lot to do. But, and it's a big but, if Reflections can pull everything together - the visual gloss, the incidental detail, an absorbing plot, compelling characters, and, no pun intended, the gripping physics model we all anticipate - then DRIV3R could well do the business that Atari desperately needs. And nobody should be happier about that than you and I.