"Before the 1999 release of Driver, the driving action genre didn't even exist," boasts Atari in the glossy press blurb dished out at the launch of its big summer hope DRIV3R. Strictly speaking, DMA Design might be justified in raising a quizzical eyebrow at such brazen comments, having laid the groundwork with the enormously successful Grand Theft Auto 18 months beforehand - albeit a top down, rather than fully 3D take on mission-based driving mayhem.
What isn't open to question is that both Driver and its quickfire sequel were incredibly popular titles of their era, selling a combined total of 12 million worldwide. Expectation for the long-awaited third is understandably huge, and that's why I'm prepared to sit up through the night typing out my notes in order that you fact hungry fiends will be sated. By the time you read this, I'll be enjoying a well earned holiday.
Driven to distraction
The much-publicised delay of the game's release to June 1st worldwide is hardly surprising for several reasons. The most important is that this is a game that Atari cannot afford to screw up. It's investing 10 million Euros in the marketing for the game throughout the first half of this year, and is keeping its fingers crossed that the game will sell over 10 million units worldwide.
If Reflections gets things right, this will be a given, because the game clearly has the potential to be absolutely stunning. But as thing stand, the game's far from finished. In fact in a little over an hour the presentation was halted at least ten times to reboot the PS2 for one random lock-up after another. Of course, these kind of technical issues tend to rear their ugly head when demoing early code, but not normally this much. From long, bitter experience of the state of pre-release software, I'm holding out in hope rather than expectation that the long list of issues present can be sorted out in time for its June release.
While it was all to easy to get bogged down in the possibility that DRIV3R may be delayed yet again, there was more than enough to admire from a technical standpoint. Reflections has created an engine of colossal power that the PS2, by rights, ought to have absolutely no business being able to cope with. Those infamous screenshots released over a year ago gave us an improbable hint as to the ambitions of the Geordie developer, but it's not until you see it running for your own eyes that you realize that the wait almost certainly will be worth it after all.
On a basic level, the sheer amount of detail being shifted around on screen as you wind your way through Nice, Istanbul and Miami is staggering, all pulled off with some incredibly impressive lighting effects that cast real-time shadows over the equally impressive vehicles. The likes of GTA and Mafia look comprehensively humbled next to DRIV3R, and the attention to detail would embarrass Team Soho's Getaway efforts had Reflections attempted London as a setting.
Throw in some immensely impressive physics (always one of Reflection's strong points), and a damage modeling system that easily matches anything I've ever seen, including Burnout 2, McRae and co. Arguably it beats both hands down, allowing the player to get out of the car and shoot individual tyres, leave individual bullet holes in everything you shoot, as well as lob grenades and watch as a whole cluster of vehicles get blown sky high. As a gaming spectacle, you're unlikely to see many that can match DRIV3R on this generation of console technology.
The only slight flies in the ointment as far as I was concerned were headed up by the rather bland texturing on distant buildings, which would tend to suddenly draw onto them when the engine deemed you were near enough in an unconvincing level-of-detail effect. Tanner, also, lacked convincing animation, once again demonstrating that while Reflections may be the king of the motor vehicle, it still hasn't quite got the hang of how to convincingly replicate the movements of a human being. In this demo build, Tanner rather lumbers along, while AI characters also lack substance and a proper presence. Finally, the first-person combat looks odd without the gun in view - as any FPS fan will note if you remove the weapon from the screen. While I can't fault the vehicle related antics in DRIV3R, there's something relatively disappointing in the overall 'feel' outside of the car.
But as Reflections' Martin Edmonson says repeatedly, this is a game firmly focused on car chases, so we don't expect too much of the game to involve running around and shooting - unless the plot dictates it, and given that it's a 35 mission linear romp with expensively produced cut-scenes, let's hope the developer plays to its strengths.
Although Edmonson spent an age taking us through the nifty-looking video editing suite, we can't imagine too many of you will be that bothered with cutting together footage to impress your mates. While it all looks good and shows off the engine, it did rather smack of an attempt to mask the fact that the game wasn't really in a very playable state. The fact that the hapless Reflections MD couldn't succeed in any of the missions he attempted to demo kind of said it all, and my own experiences on the Xbox and PS2 weren't any better either!
And before you ask, this is another game that's been designed to make the most of the PS2, and then ported swiftly to Xbox. There was precious little difference between the two save for a slightly improved frame rate on the Xbox, and the lack of general texturing on areas such as the vegetation was more apparent on the Xbox, and uglier for it. If anything, the game looked far more at 'home' on the PS2, if that makes sense. Either way, it's still a lovely looking game, but like any game with such a vast play area, the cracks are there to be found if you're a fussy git like me.
Grand Theft Angel
To wrap up my first impressions, I'd like to think that Reflections can take on board as much of the criticism as possible, bask in the glory of the initial praise and go on and make the game that we all hope they can. For the love of god let's hope this isn't 2004's Angel Of Darkness.