Before Driver rolled onto the PSone in 1999, developer Reflections Interactive had already delivered two enjoyable driving experiences, in the form of the Destruction Derby games on Sony’s first console. With a physics engine that delivered a fun drive, and destructible vehicles that had debris flying off their crumpled bodywork after each impact, they were only let down by the sparse games that they were packaged up in.
Driver was an attempt to remedy these shortcomings by transplanting their best parts into a cops and robbers story, heavily inspired by films like Bullit and The French Connection. In the game, you take on the role of Tanner, a cop sent undercover to work his way up an organised crime network, through the judicious use of his top notch driving skills.
Before you can hit the streets, though, you need to pass an interview. This test involves completing a number of manoeuvres while driving your muscle car around a rather small parking garage, all within a sixty-second time limit. Failure to complete the move set in time, or crashing your car too often, will result in you having to try again. This acts as a brutal welcome to the player, and a reminder that tutorials have come a long way in the last 15 years. Each move needs to be performed in a very precise way, leaving you struggling to work out just what on Earth you did wrong, when a particular action fails to trigger.
Unsurprisingly, playing this opening over and over is frustrating, and you can imagine some players giving up, as they’re asked to show some advanced skills before they’ve been given a chance to get to grips with the controls. This sort of difficulty spike is the biggest problem with Driver, and it’s replicated several times throughout Tanner's undercover story – most notably in the ludicrously difficult final mission. Each time that you hit this wall, you'll have to push through to get back to the enjoyable parts of the experience, of which there are a few.
Chief amongst the positives is how the vehicles handle. With American muscle the order of the day, most of the cars move with a real weight, meaning that if you turn too sharply at speed, the back end of your hot rod will swing out. This allows you to pull off some spectacular cornering, where you feel on the cusp of losing control and spinning out, only to keep it together with your metaphorical foot still pressed to the metal.
The destructibility of the environment – while modest by today’s standards – also helps sell the cinematic, car chase atmosphere. However, it’s not just the scenery that you’ll be trashing, as the more that you wreck your car, the more that it starts to affect its performance, meaning that you have to try and keep your ride in a decent condition for as long as you can. This part of the presentation is ultimately let down a little – mainly due to modern expectations – when you find yourself caught out by parts of the environment that you think can be destroyed, only to find that they bring you to a dead stop.
All of this destruction is in service of completing the various jobs that you're given, and at each stage of the story, you'll pick your next mission for the mob from the answering machine in your apartment. Sometimes there’s only a single job on offer, but at others there’ll be a choice, with the selection you make leading to jobs that are unique to the selected path. Before you get too excited, though, these choices don’t affect the overall story beats, but instead let you select the next mission type, allowing you to sometimes avoid those that you may not enjoy that much.
The missions themselves are pretty straight forward, with most requiring you to get from point A to point B, often within a time limit. There are others types that see you chasing down a target vehicle, or tailing one, but by and large whatever the window dressing is, they just want you to drive really fast. That said, you do need to exercise a certain amount of caution, as wrecking your vehicle will lead to you having to start the mission over again.
Your car is most likely to get wrecked by the ultra-aggressive police force that you come up against, so you need to keep an eye out for any police cars that show up on the mini map. If you’re not working to a time limit then it’s best to take things slow and avoid them completely, but when you’re in a rush, you’ll inevitably end up on their radar, as entering their sight – no matter how slow you’re moving – will trigger them to action.
The AI of the game's law enforcement can at best be described as ‘kamikaze’, acting as vehicular homing missiles that make a beeline straight for you once alerted. As they attempt to ram you into submission, every impact drives your felony meter higher, and with it, the strength of the police response. By the time roadblocks – that force you to take damage when you plough through them – make an appearance, you’ll be under a relentless onslaught, where a single mistake will see a procession of squad cars smash into you one after each other.
Due to this, a high felony meter pretty much guarantees failure, so it’s important to outfox the police quickly, by outrunning any attention, while also avoiding trading paint with them. On the occasions that you do get the better of the law, it’s really fun to run circles around their limited AI, but this enjoyment is completely lost in the missions where the setup guarantees a lot of attention from the law, and this is the primary cause of the previously mentioned difficulty spikes.
Each of the open world cities you visit during the story – Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York – have their own visual style, but all basically amount to a different grid to drive around, where every road’s straight, and every turn’s a ninety degree angle. Since Driver originates from a time before collectibles reached the heights that they have today, it’s refreshing to play an open world game that has none at all, making its story the main focus. That’s not to say that there aren’t other things to do, with modes that let you roam around each city to your heart's content, or edit your saved replays into your own car chase masterpiece – but these are merely minor diversions.
Driver deserves to be celebrated as a title that provided the basic blueprints for many of the open world racing games that followed. With a great feel to its driving, there’s lots of fun to be had whether you’re being chased or doing the chasing, and you won’t even mind that the cities are a little on the basic side. It’s a shame, then, that the experience is nearly ruined by frequent jumps in difficulty, which force you to play the same sections over and over again until you luck your way through.