I've been known to sip a cold one or two (or three) when I do my gaming. I know it's probably not a very professional thing for me to do—imagine Ebert hitting the bar before his afternoon screening of The Manchurian Candidate. But videogames are time-consuming endeavors. If they're going to get played at all, they have to conform to my lifestyle to some degree, and my lifestyle at this point in time involves draining a six-pack on occasion. Over the years I've learned that six-packs can sometimes make games more palatable, particularly try-and-die games like Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. When I'm sober, I'll lose my patience in a matter of minutes, but if I'm working a buzz, I can try and die countless times and not mind all that much. (If only Pandora Tomorrow had come with a complimentary case of Heineken, I might have gotten through the fussy single-player campaign, but I digress…)
Unfortunately, all the Heineken in the world can't make Driv3r more palatable. My poor television is still cowering in the corner from all the screaming I did at it. (It's not your fault, sweet Trinitron.) I lost track of the number of times I wanted to pull the Driv3r disc from my Playstation, lift the nearest window, and frisbee it into the void.
The game is that bad.
Tanner, a.k.a. "the Driver" (formerly known as "the Wheelman") is the star of the game. In a less-than-shocking turn of events, the perpetually sour-faced cop needs to infiltrate a ring of car thieves. He shepherds crooks around Miami, Nice and Istanbul, doing their dirty deeds, even sacrificing the lives of hundreds of gendarmes in France, all in the name of earning the thieves' trust. The gameplay involves the typical Driver-like missions, meaning I was always either 1: chasing someone, 2: ramming someone off the road, or 3: trying to lose the cops. In an attempt to add a little variety to the gameplay, the developers have decided to emphasize the on-foot/shooting gallery segments of the game (more on this later).
One indisputable bright spot: the game's driving physics are absolutely superb. Hurtling down the narrow backstreets of Istanbul, gunning the engine, can be great fun; indeed, it was in these moments that I got glimpses of the game Driv3r could have been. But whatever fun I was having was almost always brought to a screaming halt by a telephone pole. Or a park bench. Or a sapling. Can somebody please explain how a tiny sapling, nothing more than a twig sticking out of the ground, can crush the front end of a speeding car like a tin can and bring it to a dead stop? Beyond that, why go the trouble of creating massive, photo-realistic cities only to fill them with saplings and park benches and telephone poles (most of which are barely visible as I careened down the street) for my car to get hung up on?
When I wasn't dodging saplings, I was busy trying to make sense of the game's narrative. Driv3r features the most half-assed, nonsensical storytelling I've seen in a videogame in a long time. Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Rodriguez are on hand to do the voiceover work, but they're all wasted on inane, pointless dialogue. The wildly fluctuating difficulty level, a chronic problem in previous Driver games, is unfortunately still in effect; if one mission was too easy, the following mission was always sure to be virtually impossible. And regarding those on-foot segments that I previously mentioned: if there is a hell for game developers, these on-foot segments of Driv3r are what they should be required to play for all of eternity. Chintzy, unpolished, and barely playable, the on-foot portions, even more than those cursed saplings, were the reason why I nearly screamed myself hoarse while playing the game. I cowered my way through them, inching along, seemingly always low on health, waiting for the inevitable moment when one of my enemies would magically appear next to me and unload his shotgun into my belly. I'd honestly rather have someone toss rocks at my head for an hour than have to play through another one of those god-forsaken on-foot scenarios again.
For most of my GameCritics brethren—go ahead and give me the told-you-so's, boys—none of this comes as heart-breaking news. But for me it is. I was a fan (note the word "was") of the Driver series, particularly of the excellent first game. I can still recall the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally completed that challenging driving exam, perfecting my 180-degree turns in that dingy parking garage. And I never really minded the repetitive nature of the in-game missions—something GameCritics has taken the series to task for in the past—simply because I was too busy gaping at the the huge, seamless cityscapes. The sense of freedom I felt as I rubbered from one end of Miami to the other—remember, Driver predated Grand Theft Auto III by several years—was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in a videogame before.
Driv3r was supposed to bring glory back to the series. It was supposed to make it a viable commodity again. It was supposed to out-hustle True Crime: Streets of LA and Grand Theft Auto III. It does none of these things.
I can't believe that this messy, cheap product is the result of three long years of development. It's as if Driv3r was created in a vacuum, though it's obvious that it wasn't. The developers were at least aware of Grand Theft Auto III (the game asks players to find all the "Timmy Vermicellis" hidden through the cities, a reference to Vice City's Tommy Vercetti). If only Atari, instead of making lame, grade-school level jokes, had actually looked a little more closely at what makes Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City superior games. If only they'd made an effort to build on established gameplay concepts—something True Crime did—and tried to find bold, new ways to expand upon the free roaming/car-jacking/bad-ass genre. Instead, Driv3r takes no chances whatsoever. If anything, the series has taken yet another step in the wrong direction.
Sorry to say, I did not finish Driv3r. Only a masochist would have the patience and stamina to finish it. I was on one of the game's final missions when, after what was at least my twenty-fifth re-start, I impulsively hit the OFF switch on my television. I'd had enough. I opened a beer, then sat in the darkness, enjoying the sudden silence and the fact that this game, which had been vexing me for days, was once and for all out of my life.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.