It's a dark and stormy night in Newcastle. Somewhere in the bowels of a development house, improbably broad hoses are being fitted to a giant iron casket full of amniotic fluid.
A suitably dramatic number of lightning strikes illuminate a man in a big coat leaping from panel to hose to casket and back again, checking dials and cranking things with a big, I dunno, crank (Mary Shelley did this all so much better).
After a final circuit, he walks purposefully toward some machinery on the wall, turns, looks up at his creation, and yanks a lever downward. Sparks fly. Eels swirl. And then nothing. Nothing at all. He turns away.
He wheels around, gasping, and sprints for the casket. Impatient, he hauls it to the floor. Jizz and eel spill all over the place. And something else.
It's a PS2. And it's LOADING.
Reaching for the remote, he hits the AV button. And up it pops. Driver: Parallel Lines - a reanimated vision of dead GTA ideas, with virtually no personality of its own.
But hey, at least it's ALIVE - after Driver 3, you'd have put good money on the whole thing getting dead and staying that way.
Credit... Well, not necessarily "credit", but certainly "respect" must be directed toward the team at Reflections which had to endure the backlash that followed Driver 3 and try and figure out where to take it from that point onward - because it hasn't exactly taken it anywhere new, but what it has done is sort out a hell of a lot of what was wrong with the last game.
For a start, crashing into flimsy-looking lamp-posts and bits of rubbish on street corners as you hurtle along on someone's tail doesn't stop you dead or catapult you mission-failingly far off-course. Not only that, but you can actually see things for a good way into the distance, so the problems of pop-up that plagued any attempt to drive above the speed limit last time out are more or less done away with.
Missions are much more focused on driving than running around on foot with guns. You still do a bit of that, but it's much more manageable, and far less bug-ridden. Driver 3 became a bit of a joke thanks to enormous numbers of bugs - so many, in fact, that even the usually respectful Official PS2 mag devoted a special section of its review to listing the most amusing ones - but in Parallel Lines there's seldom anything that makes it feel like a broken game, and things that you'd expect to be awkward, like lining up a truck to pick up a car, are not.
By sorting out these aspects, Parallel Lines is immediately well positioned to offer a decent bit of mission-based driving in the style of the original-original, which, the developer says, formed a large part of the inspiration for this effort. To this end, you find yourself in 70s New York - three huge islands connected by bridges - and begin by racing a robber back to his hideout, zooming through speedtraps, collecting money from drop-offs and then taking it to its owner under duress from gun-toting goons, and so on, graduating to more "affiliated" tasks like contributing to a prison break and helping out the local drug trade. Later, you get busted yourself and unlock a modern-day New York, where you're focused on exacting revenge on the people who put you there. It's all very simple, GTA-style stuff: car-jack or pinch parked cars, drive up to big yellow markers, receive a briefing, go and do things.
Car handling was one of the things Driver rarely got wrong, and here it's lovely once you get used to it. Steering requires a feathery touch, and brushing the handbrake as you try to take a corner at pace lets you sweep round it with the composure of a stuntman. The default camera view is fine for driving, but if you want to really feel your knuckles whitening then the bumper cam's the place to be. Traffic is generally well managed; often as not there is a route to be found through it, and it's just a case of managing your swerves precisely. With time, you can.
Trouble is, as you get further into Parallel Lines you realise that darting between oncoming cars is about the most fun you're going to have with it.
Mission design, though perfectly competent, is stuff we've all seen and done before in Grand Theft Auto - and there are similar niggles, like a "scare the passenger" mission in a car whose front wheels have a tendency to fall off very easily.
Racing the cops seems fun at first, as they struggle to keep up with you, until you realise that they're not actually struggling; they can swerve through traffic just as easily as you, and the easiest way to dump their interest is race over grass (which they struggle with), or duck round a corner and swap cars, since your "heat" with the police in these situations is bound to the car you're driving. Switch and they usually don't notice you again. The most annoying realisation you'll have though is that when you crash - at which point the game makes the mistake of slow-mo-ing a bit to really solidify the frustration - the cops often spin to a stop and get out, at which point simply driving off in the opposite direction will often ditch them.
There are various out-of-story missions to help occupy you, and some of these are okay - I liked the ones where you use a repo truck to pick up cars and then have to wrestle with the alarming fishtail effect long enough to get back to the depot, usually while an unhappy motorist is shooting at you and trying to knock you off the road (although since you've just repo'd his car, you do find yourself wondering where he got the one he's in). Street races can be surprisingly addictive too - I memorably spent a good hour and a half trying to complete a single one, and I wasn't just soldiering on for the review either. But others are a bit obvious or tedious - ramming some bloke enough to get him out of his car, and then taking it back to the loan shark you're helping out, for example. And the track races you can compete in are either boringly easy or stupidly hard - Driver's not a track-racing game, and it really shows on the occasions it tries to be.
Technically it's perfectly handsome - with a much nicer frame rate on PS2 than GTA: San Andreas, certainly. That said, it's inconsistent - often slowing to a crawl during complex chases - and despite having the enormity of New York and the psychedelic backdrop of the 70s to work with, the whole thing is delivered in a really depressing range of browns and greys. The only flamboyance you can expect is in the demented hip-wiggling of the characters as they walk - somewhere between models on a catwalk and tissues in a gale. At least the soundtrack's alright - with a much better hit to miss ratio than GTA's latter-day "set Kazaa on random download" approach, if you ask me (which you are, implicitly, aren't you?).
To be fair, Parallel Lines actually has some pretty decent design ideas - including some that Rockstar should have thought of in the first place. Being able to simply hit the Select button or pick a Restart option from the menu when you fail a mission, and to then respawn with full health and car and weapon stock that you had in the first place, is the sort of common sense that GTA's been crying out for (although it's a bit frustrating if you fail due to low health, only to respawn with more, provoking a "why bother in the first place?" sort of reaction). Meanwhile, leaning out of the car window and lock-on targeting other cars is far better than GTA's drive-by stuff, and leads to some of the more engaging mixtures of driving and shooting we've seen in this genre. Elsewhere, being able to go to your local garage where you upgrade your car (bit throwaway, but more of an option than a requirement so it hardly matters) and magically relocate yourself to one of the other four corners of the map is brilliant - imagine if you could have done stuff like that in San Andreas.
Except, well, that's kind of the issue here - we enjoyed nicking a plane and flying back to Los Santos from San Fierro, ditching it into the side of a building as we parachuted down. We even liked zooming around the mountainous countryside on a motorbike. We enjoyed getting distracted in GTA. Parallel Lines has no real sense of humour to speak of (but then it's never been a feature of the series, so that's no great surprise), and its diversionary stuff is all very similar to what you do in the main story mode.
With the exception of the big stars you sometimes see overhanging a jumpable gap, there are virtually no decent collectibles either. Weapons, secret missions, and so on, simply aren't as exciting to discover, and the world's boring to look at for the most part. It can be a pain to navigate, too, thanks to a start-menu map that always orientates itself so that your car is pointing to the top of the screen, and while the problems of sudden-stop-scenery are gone, the scenery and people you do whack into here are enough to chip away at your speed frustratingly.
Ultimately though, the bigger sin is that although driving around the city can be fun, it's seldom spontaneously fun or interesting the way it is in Parallel Lines' most obvious competitor. Or rather, let's be honest about it, the game it's moved on to aping.
There's not too much shame in trying to do what GTA does, of course (and at least it's not about bloody gang warfare for once), but while this is definitely a solid improvement on its dreadful predecessor, it needed to achieve a basic level of competence and build upon it, and it only does that to a very limited extent.