It's a rare - indeed, almost unique - day that something exciting happens in the world of Jonathan Davies. But Monday 4th August was just such a day. It was the day PC GAMER decided I could review Driver when it turned up. After stammering my thanks, I danced a small jig then went back to gazing out of the window.
I've been looking forward to Driver more than Christmas. Despite the ominous ooze of advertising and marketing activity that accompanied its release on the PlayStation a few months ago, it's a game that promises the world. Short-cuts down alleys full of cardboard boxes! Warbling police sirens! Crumpling bodywork! Being an undercover cop! And, most importantly, innocent traffic caught in the crossfire! But let's start at the beginning.
Driver focuses on one type of car. It focuses on the kind of vast, wallowing, crap American car that's still rocking gently on its springs long after you've parked, locked it, got out, gone indoors and made yourself a cup of tea.
What's that you say? You'd rather have a Ferrari? You clearly don't understand. The brilliant thing about 1970s American cars is that they're a) hopelessly overweight, and b) almost entirely incapable of gripping the Tarmac. So they're unable to negotiate even the gentlest curve without breaking into a long, glorious slide, hubcaps scattering hither and thither and the back end sprawling wide until you wrestle it back into line with lashings of opposite lock. And they're propelled by bellowing V8 engines which, when the tyres finally stop smoking, heave them forward at enormous speed.
Your first chance to try Driver's novel mode of transport comes in Mission 1, where, as an undercover cop in the guise of a getaway driver, you have to prove your credentials to the underworld. So it's off to a car park to demonstrate your skills.
First, floor the throttle and then, just before you slam into the opposite wall, hit the handbrake and twist the wheel. You'll do a splendid 180 spin, and 'handbrake turn' will be ticked off on your list of objectives.
Next, hit the 'burnout' button. The engine will howl, the tyres will scream, the car will lunge forward... and the auto-box will stay in first gear. Now nudge the steering wheel and you'll go into a dramatic pirouette, slowly becoming shrouded in acrid rubber smoke. Lovely.
Now slam it into reverse. Floor the gas pedal again, then hit the 'rear view' button so that you can see where you're going. (Imagine you've just squealed round a corner straight into a rozzer roadblock.) Once you're up to speed, wrench the wheel and you'll slide into a reverse 180.
After a few more similarly rash manoeuvres, you'll qualify to try a proper mission. Your objectives are imparted via the nifty device of an answering machine in your seedy apartment. "Get your ass on down to the Chinese Theatre, man," a crackly voice will suggest. "There's something going down." Sometimes you'll find more than one message, and be able to choose between jobs.
A typical mission might run thus:
It's late at night, and you've got 45 seconds to make a pick-up. Following the pointer on the map, you squeal off, weaving between startled cars, slithering round corners, jumping red lights and swerving to avoid the van that's turned across your path. Passing an apartment block, you spot a big red arrow and screech to a halt beneath it. Three blokes run out and jump in the back. You've then got one-and-a-half minutes to get them to a particular bar. Off you hurtle again.
"Do something! We've got a tail!", someone shouts. Sure enough, sirens are wailing behind you, and there are red and blue lights in your mirror. Not one but two patrol cars are bearing down on you.
You lurch from lane to lane, trying to shake them off. They're too skilful. Desperate, you veer to the opposite side of the road. Now you're driving directly into the oncoming traffic. Dazzling headlights. Beeping horns. Your engine roaring.
You look behind. The cops are swerving frantically now, but they're still coming. You look ahead. Both lanes are blocked. Two cars are coming at you, one in each lane, shoulder to shoulder. There's no way round. You go through the middle. You glance in your mirror just in time to see one of the cops fail to make it, smack into a car and spin off. Superb. It's the asteroid belt chase from The Empire Strikes Back.
And so on until, with seconds to spare, you skid to a halt outside the bar. The boys jump out and go inside. Shots are fired. They run back out and you're off again, squirreling towards the safety of a lock-up across town. And there go the sirens again.
It's been done before.
Along with Half-Life and Hidden And Dangerous, Midtown Madness is one of the three best PC games of the last 12 months. I think so, anyway. It's got a city full of traffic, it's got big American cars and it's got exciting police chases down the wrong side of the motorway. It comes from a different direction to Driver, of course - ordinary races instead of missions. But the important thing about both games is this: you've been let loose with a fast car in a densely populated city.
So let's do it now. Let's see which one of them is the best.
Round 1: Handling Midtown Madness does a pretty good impression of everything from Beetles to Juggernauts. They drive nicely enough. But powerslides are tricky to pull off, and doughnuts are out of the question. Round 1 to Driver.
Round 2: Number of cities Driver has four entire cities. Granted, they're all full of unconvincing right-angled corners (even the freeways), but each has its unique atmosphere, and there's much fun to be had unlocking them one by one as you play the missions. Midtown Madness has only Chicago. It's a very good Chicago, but you'll know it backwards before long. Round 2 to Driver, too.
Round 3: Traffic The key to both games, remember, is that the streets are filled with traffic. And in Midtown Madness they really are. Cars, lorries, vans and buses queue up at traffic lights, forming huge tailbacks behind motorway pile-ups. Driver, however, offers only cars and vans. They don't cluster together at junctions quite as pleasingly as MM's, either. Midtown Madness is the clear winner in the traffic division.
Round 4: Crashes A tricky one to call, this. With its from-the-makers-of-Destruction-Derby heritage, Driver does an excellent line in crumpled bodywork. It manages engine fires too, and cars perform somersaults with balletic ease. But Midtown Madness gives you wheels coming off. It's also far more horrific, with a minor car/bus collision at a junction swiftly escalating out of control as a lorry piles in, and then two police cars come spewing round a corner and can't stop in time, and another bus skids in and rolls over... Driver's traffic is too good at staying out of trouble. Both games have superb crashes, but Midtown Madness wins.
Round 5: The stuff you do Midtown Madness is a racing game. It can be played in a whole catwalk of different styles (Checkpoint mode is perhaps the best). And you can plan your own routes. And the computer cars race in an astonishingly human way. But it's basically an old-fashioned racing game. In Driver, one minute you're chasing a train across town, the next you're trying to ram a van off the road. Then you're racing from phone box to phone box, like in Die Hard 3. And, in a mission called "The Set-Up", you arrive at your destination and someone says "It's a set-up!" and you have to run away again. For sheer imagination, Driver triumphs here.
Round 6: Laughs. When it comes to making you grin, Midtown Madness can't be beaten. Unfettered by Driver's must-be-like-a-1970s-car-chase-film straitjacket, it's free to be, quite literally, mad. You don't know what it's going to do next. Something entirely unexpected happens every time you play, whether it's an opponent suddenly leaving his chosen route to come at you head-on, or a pick-up truck colliding with a bus and sending it cartwheeling into your path. By comparison, Driver feels a bit grey, a bit serious. I can't remember smiling once as I played it. This round to Midtown Madness.
Round 7: The opposition Both games boast cops that won't give up 'til their patrol cars are smoking heaps of scrap. But Driver's seem even more tenacious than Midtown Madness'. And the fact that they appear on the map means you can plan cunning routes to avoid them. But then Midtown Madness has those splendidly clever computer-controlled opponents to race against. So it wins this one.
Round 8: Action replays Driver has its excellent Director mode, enabling you to position cameras and combine the edited bits to make movies. MM criminally omits any kind of replay facility, handing victory to Driver in the final category.
So that's four-all. A draw. But wait! Driver hasn't played its trump card. The cut-scenes. The 1970s-movie-style cut-scenes, with everyone sporting hang-glider collars and calling each other 'man'. Wacka-wacka guitar. Huggy Bear doing the voiceover. Huggy Bear, for heaven's sake. Fantastic.
I hate the cut-scenes. They're awful.
For me, the cut-scenes do Driver more harm than good. They were its big chance to tie everything together into an exciting story and send Midtown Madness spinning into a hedge.
Here's a cut-scene I've made up, in the style of Driver:
INT - ROOM - DAY
PAN SLOWLY ACROSS TO:
TABLE with TWO MEN seated at it. We can't make out their faces as they're too far away.
RUFUS, or possibly TANNER (it's hard to tell) Need you to get a safe- AS HE SPEAKS WE CUT TO:
EXACTLY THE SAME SCENE, but viewed from ten degrees to the right.
RUFUS (continuing) - key. It's a sweet deal. In and out. Wham, bam, boom. Get the-
EXACTLY THE SAME SCENE, but from another ten degrees to the right, and a bit lower.
RUFUS (continuing)- key or stay out of town. Dig?
Another interlude gives us lots of time to decide if we dig. Just as we're starting to wonder if the CD has jammed
PULL SLOWLY BACK TO REVEAL:
EXACTLY THE SAME SCENE, but from 18 inches further away.
I don't understand. Why aren't there any close-ups of anyone? How am I supposed to follow the story if I can't see who's who? Where's the wacka-wacka guitar? Where's the action? The fighting? Aren't these people supposed to be bad guys? What's the safe key for? And if I'm meant to be an undercover cop, why do cops keep on hassling me?
At the beginning of the game, when the Lieutenant sent me out disguised as a getaway driver, he said: "I'm the only one who's going to know about this". But I didn't get the feeling that it was a good thing that he was the only one who knew about this. And, as I fled yet another gaggle of jam sandwiches bent on ruining my carefully planned undercover operation, I had to wonder whether it wouldn't be better if one or two other members of the force were at least vaguely in the picture.
Was I really an undercover cop?
Or was I in fact a baddie? Had someone simply tacked on the scene with the police Lieutenant in order to try and make me a more sympathetic character? Maybe it's just me, but I was having problems with my motivation.
Thereafter, I gave up on the cut-scenes and the story and stationed a finger permanently over the Escape key. Driver, I decided, was best viewed as a weird kind of racing game. Follow the arrow, keep to the time limit and close your eyes as you streak through red lights.
And, with its tyre-squealing handling and its ever-present danger of slithering round a corner to find yourself face to face with an oncoming van, Driver makes a splendid weird racing game. It's arrived at a time when racers don't seem to know which turn to take next (better graphics, more realistic handling, even better graphics... er... even more realistic handling?), and opens whole new avenues of motoring fun.
But while Driver is a more imaginatively structured game than Midtown Madness, it isn't quite such sheer, raw fun. It also won't take long to polish off. After a hard weekend behind the wheel, I've reached New York, the final city. But I've left an awful lot of answerphone messages unanswered, so there's potential for going back and trying the many missions I've missed.
And then I'll be keenly anticipating Driver 2. In case anyone from Reflections is reading, here's the list I'll be sending Santa:
No damage incurred in the 'Take a ride' mode, so you can cruise around the city ad infinitum. More varied traffic. Vastly better cut-scenes, replacing the tedious expositional conversations with exciting fist- and gun-fights, ideally done using the game engine rather than with pre-rendering. Show it, don't tell it - as they say in the movies. The option to lean out of the window with a gun every now and then. Decent police radio chatter, rather than the repetitive "Suspect is heading North", "Suspect has hit another vehicle", "Suspect is heading North". Need For Speed III is the benchmark here.
Fewer arbitrary time limits on missions. How about, I don't know, only giving me a limited amount of fuel on one mission? Or putting a Speed-style bomb on board, so I can't dip below 50mph?
Most importantly, more of the same.
Driver's one of those rare games, like Half-Life and Hidden And Dangerous and Midtown Madness, that gives you hope for the future of PC gaming. We're not destined to burn for all eternity among piles of Gran Turismo clones and C&C-alikes after all. Phew, eh?