Driver (PlayStation) review
"Being an undercover cop sounds to me like a kind of mental torture, where I am always constantly paranoid that my identity shall be exposed at any moment and inspire the wrath of several Mr. Blonde types with Brooklyn accents, begging the question of why I worked for The Man in the first place. No thanks, I like having ears and all. For a badass like Tanner, an ex-racer/swinger/hustler cop, life is dull unless you're constantly holding on to life by the fingertips, and the best sensation in the ..."
Being an undercover cop sounds to me like a kind of mental torture, where I am always constantly paranoid that my identity shall be exposed at any moment and inspire the wrath of several Mr. Blonde types with Brooklyn accents, begging the question of why I worked for The Man in the first place. No thanks, I like having ears and all. For a badass like Tanner, an ex-racer/swinger/hustler cop, life is dull unless you're constantly holding on to life by the fingertips, and the best sensation in the world is when you're strapped into a GTO pushing 100, avoiding an unending stream of oncoming traffic with only twelve seconds to make it that final half-mile. Anything other than that must be gravy for Tanner.
Recognized as being exceptionally ballsy by the Chief, Tanner is assigned to single-handedly infiltrate the local Mafia, and I guess ultimately subvert the entire infrastructure as well. When given this daunting task, Tanner merely shrugs with a knowing "sure, why not" grin. Is he cocky or what? The M.O. is to front as a "wheelman" for local hoods, all thorns in the Miami police's collective side, working his way up the food chain until, well, they pack up and go back to Italy.
All in a day's work for Tanner!
Within the appropriately named Driver, Tanner exists as a being permanently stuck inside his vehicle. He has become one with his car. This is understandable when he finds himself inside a beat-up Grand Torino with the local Mob recruiter, and proceeds to impress him with his flawless control behind the wheel. Flawless controls, thankfully, are also to be found with a cursory look at the instruction manual. You'll be laying rubber and slaloming between concrete columns and doing 180-degree turns on a dime faster than you can say Hal Needham. This first level is a sticking point for some who would rather get to evading the fuzz before being familiar with the controls. The city will swallow you whole if you don't immediately know how to react when a platoon of Johnny Laws come barrelling down on you like kamikaze fighters.
Your missions for the first stretch of Driver are simple enough to fool you into thinking this is an easy game. "Go from point A, pick up something at point B, take it to point C, go back to point A" summarizes many of these snooze-worthy assignments (and, admittedly, most of the other ones). Between jobs, Tanner prefers to sulk in his hotel room, probably downing cigarettes like Dennis Hopper after a hard day. From a handy answering machine, you can choose between at least two possible missions which are part of a branching tree. While a Grand Theft Auto shortcut of restarting and doing the easier mission if you mess up can be a boon for novices, the typical attractive, intelligent gamer is taken out of the moment.
The challenge sneaks up on you like a bad cold. From the minute an arms deal goes sour on our piss-and-vinegar mute racer buddy and you find yourself careening down two-lane bridges at ridiculous speeds, avoiding an unending stream of policemen who, I think, are able to emerge through rifts in the time-space continuum, and are ruthless in their proficiency at getting Tanner's car flipped over. When that happens, he accepts his fate and would rather burn to death inside a smoldering, metal tomb. One of his more arrogant qualities. Some missions are downright unfair -- be it from an obligatory timer or from overly vigilant 5-0s. A radar display gives away the locations of nearby troopers, but at the speeds involved here, by the time you see that red blip, you have already been T-boned and flung a hundred feet into the side of a building.
Part of me thinks the Driver team had a sense of humor, because cars sometimes behave as if they were made out of very light rubber. Ram a black-and-white at just the right angle and he'll go flying through the air and land about a block away. Gain at least five solid seconds of air from a single ramp-like bridge. Hit the ground at 150 miles and hour and you'll sometimes just bounce off the road with no damage to your car. And, thanks to a handy and hardly necessary Replay Mode, you can even re-watch your funniest crashes and edit them somewhat to make them more thrilling!
Good ways to kill an afternoon, to be sure. We are treated to the most convincing auto damage this side of the seminal TOCA saga, lending a kind of authenticity to the stylized movie-like chase scenes. Pedestrians, as they are modeled, are bigger than Tanner's GTO and are comprised of maybe ten or so polygons. I counted once, and they are part of the forces struggling to turn Driver into a parody, along with the "plot". The story is hilarious because it continues to find ways to top itself and become more nonsensical with every mission.
It is difficult to bitch when you find yourself doing missions for an overghettoized African-American named Rufus who thinks he's in a movie like Shaft and the Big Honkin' Baadassss Superfly, Sucka! Yes, the racial stereotypes come flying, down to the girlfriend with the massive afro who takes shit from nobody. More unintentional comedy comes from the cast of voice actors who attempt to play camp straight and, obviously, fall on their faces. Imagine a line like "C'mon, baby, jus' gimme the piece and we'll make sweet, sweet love by the fire" delivered by someone with the emotional range of Pauly Shore, and you're getting somewhere.
But we press on to bigger, better things. After a chase scene blatantly ripped off from The French Connection (which would be ripped off AGAIN in Driver 2), Tanner winds up in an entirely new city, this time San Francisco. It is rendered just as faithfully as sunny Miami, down to some quasi-recognizable landmarks and night/day cycles. Eventually you will tear up the asphalt in FOUR distinctive cities. No mean feat for a game that manages to cram itself on one tiny, black disc.
So, can Driver be taken seriously? Certainly not after reaching points of absurdity that amount to no less than preventing an assassination plot on the President of the United States (by the Mafia no less), and confronting characters representing almost every ethnic stereotype out there. And no, before you ask, Tanner never once loses his cool. You could write all of Tanner's lines in the frequent cutscenes on a piece of paper, which can then fit neatly into a fortune cookie. Maybe Golgo 13 started the whole "mute is cool" thing. Who knows.
The game really shines when it's not trying to heap exposition on us, and it's just you, the road, and the army of angry laws out to skin Tanner alive. If he was ever caught, Tanner could theoretically flash his badge and walk away from any situation, but as we well know this could violate his code of honor or something. This makes for tension, see.
Some extra modes are thrown in, such as competing to see who can last the longest against a hundred pigs going twice as fast as you, but in the end I keep coming back to play through the story mode; if not for the comedy, for the sugar high that you can only get when you live life on the edge, have no regrets, and would gladly die in a minute than submit to The Man. Maybe someday I'll be as cool as Tanner. Until then, I'll be sucking my thumb while fondling my security blanket and trashing virtual cop cars. For now.
Community review by johnny_cairo (April 23, 2005)
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