I hate Driver. Playing through the game in 2019 made me beyond angry, evoking feelings of frustration I hadn’t felt for a long time. Maybe I’m being too harsh on it and maybe I’m just bad at it. Probably both. Fear not though, I persevered through for you dear reader to see how Driver holds up today.
When Driver (You are the Wheelman, in American releases) came out in 1999, it was phenomenal. Following on from their Destruction Derby games, Reflections Interactive released a game that was pure 70s inspired car chase brilliance. It both looked and played amazing and really pushed the aging PlayStation 1 to its limits.
Times have changed and things won’t look the same, but how will they play?
As I said above, the game made me angry. I had no problems with the title back in 1999 but 20 years later, I seemed to struggle a lot. At least to start with.
Taking on the role of undercover cop John Tanner, players are tasked with bringing down a crime syndicate. To do this, Tanner must become their Driver, hence the title of the game. In this first entry to the series, it’s all about driving. Tanner never leaves the car, there’s no shoot outs or anything else you’d find in something like Grand Theft Auto.
The first Driver game did also release on the PC, GameBoy Color and mobile with some differences such as the graphics and soundtrack. The GameBoy version was a completely different top-down entry. For this retrospective, I was playing the PS1 version and I’ll be ignoring any differences from the other versions, simply because I have never played them.
For my 2019 playthrough, I jumped straight into the undercover story mode, however, before starting my new career I had to take a test. If you’ve played Driver before, you’ll know what that means. The Parking garage.
As an opening tutorial level, it’s brutal. You’re tasked with showing off your driving skills by performing a number of maneuvers such as a J-Turn, burnout and a lap of the garage. Not too bad, however, you have to do everything on the list within 60 seconds and if you hit anything 4 times, you fail.
I took 4 attempts to get through, which I didn’t think was too bad and after that, I was able to play the main game proper.
Driver is set across 4 different US cities, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. To my untrained eye (I’ve not visited any of them), they looked to be pretty good representations of the places they are supposed to be. At least good for the time.
Graphically, Driver has aged about as well as you’d expect for a 3D PlayStation 1 game. It looks fairly pixelated and suffers from pop up. Huge buildings will just appear at the side of the road as you drive. We are talking a 20-year-old game here so I can forgive it as thankfully the driving is fairly smooth.
There are plenty of missions in the first Driver game and each one will basically see you driving from point A to point B with some sort of variation. For example, you may have to deliver a car somewhere or outrun cops to get back to a safe house. Things like that.
Some missions have time limits and these can be extremely tight. One particular mission I failed a few times until I managed to improve my driving exponentially and I somehow arrived at the destination early. Too early in fact. The game told me to come back later.
Thinking I knew best I decided to stay on the checkpoint, assuming that when it was time I would pass the mission. How wrong could I be? Despite being where I was supposed to be I had failed the mission. Had I reversed back 10 feet and driven forward again I would have been fine. I was not best pleased.
To make things more challenging are two meters to watch out for at the top of the screen. Damage and felony. The damage meter fills up as you expect and should it hit maximum the car will catch fire and the mission will be over with a failure.
The felony meter increases as you drive recklessly. Hit things or speed past a police car and they will begin to give chase. The higher the meter, the harsher the police presence. The police in this game are also relentless. Indicated as a white mark on the on-screen map, they will do anything in their power to stop you should you be caught ignoring the rules of the road.
They will set up roadblocks while other cars chase you and if you hit these at speed say goodbye to the damage meter. The chasing cars will also ram you and act extremely aggressively to try and force you off the road. Managing to lose the tail was actually pretty thrilling.
As well as the police showing on the map, you are also told which way to go for your objective. Vaguely. A black cone will show you roughly what way to go and it’s down to you to figure out how to get there. Take a wrong turn and it could easily be game over. This meant one of two things, learn the roads or pause the game to open the full map. I prefer option number 1 as pausing the action to bring up a map really takes from the experience.
All of the above is inconsequential if the game doesn’t play well, so how does it play I hear you ask.
To start with, not well and that’s not Drivers’ fault, it’s mine. I’ve been spoiled by modern games and their shoulder trigger driving. Going back to how things were was difficult. It felt like the handling was dreadful and I was getting frustrated. The more I played, the more used to it I got. I was still frustrated at times but I managed to have fun and get through much of the game. I’ll admit to not having finished it yet, I’m still playing but I’ve put many hours into it, partly thanks to some of the other modes on offer.
For those not interested in the story you can just take a drive around and explore the city, should you have unlocked them all. That is if you can stay away from the driving games.
I won’t go through all of these but will mention my two favorites. One see’s you chasing a car trying to do enough damage to take it off the road. After all the damage I had received myself it was a fun way to get some payback.
The other has waves of police cars chasing you as you try to survive as long as possible and is hands down the best mode in Driver. Couple that with some of the cheats available, such as crazy suspension that will cause cars to launch off of things and I had a great time. Too much time was probably spent here. Top that off with the film editor that allows you to save any drives you have completed and make them look as if they belong in a movie and you have a pretty good package overall.
Despite my anger at the game, I have enjoyed playing it. Much of it was caused by the design from the time. What wasn’t an issue then is more of an issue now. The aggressive AI and tight time limits, however, would always have been an issue. As would the cheesy 70s style music, although some people will love that.
Let’s not even mention having to retype a file name every time you save.
If you have a fair amount of patience, I would recommend giving Driver a try as there is still fun to be found in this aging title. I would love for them to remake this for the modern-day, especially if they let us play the driving games online. That would be beyond fun.
Have you ever played Driver and would you like to see it make a return? Let us know in the comments your thoughts on it and the franchise in general.