Driven to tears.
Pop psychology tells us that when men get lost, they refuse to ask for directions. Something to do with pride and ego and an innate desire to lead our people to the Promised Land, I think, though I don't really subscribe to the theory. Once you've gotten lost alone in Cracktown, East Oakland, you learn pretty quickly that pulling over and asking for directions is a WAY better idea than relying on some sort of amphibious instinct buried deep in your caveman brain to find your way North again. Especially at two in the morning.
And for further proof that bad things happen when you don't ask for directions, just take a few hours and play DRIV3R, one of the biggest video game disappointments of the year.
See, if the folks at Reflections (the same team behind the brilliant original Driver) had bothered to ask people like me or you for directions, we would have told them to drop the crummy third-person action garbage they tried squeezing into the deplorable Driver 2. We would have told them to work out the severe graphical kinks that plagued the engine to better take advantage of the next-gen hardware. We would have directed them to ensure their next game had smooth control, no noticeable glitches and solid, creative design -- a reinvented, updated version of the awesome gameplay found in the excellent original.
You reprise your role as the slightly crooked cop Tanner, who now is trying to crack an international stolen car ring. Your investigation takes you from the warm shores of Miami to the crusty French loaves of Nice and the narrow alleys of Istanbul, where you must navigate a complex web of confusing double-crosses, shady accomplices and plenty of brutal murders. The plot is actually a lot less interesting than it sounds, a fairly hackneyed take on a myriad of smuggling films that seems more in love with its style than its storytelling.
This all plays out in the game's main mode, Undercover, which carries on the series' tired tradition of forcing you to take on linear mission after linear mission. These usually involve chasing or tailing vehicles, running away from cops or bad guys, or meandering around on-foot mowing down hordes of idiotic thugs. Though you can often cut your own path through the missions using the game's handy map, there is really no free-roaming in Undercover; once you beat the current mission, you'll get a story cut scene after which you're dropped directly into the next mission. It's much more like Mafia than Grand Theft Auto.
The driving bits make up about 70% of the game and play just like the earlier Driver games. The balance of arcade control and real-world physics are still essentially there, made most evident as you careen through traffic and powerslide around corners like the star in a car chase flick. You'll drive all sorts of cars, a few different boats and even motorcycles (which are really fast), but all of them suffer from sluggish control. Swerving in and out of traffic is hard enough, but struggling to keep you car going straight as it bucks like a bronco after hitting the smallest bump isn't so much fun as it is nerve-wracking. The moments of genuine fun are few and far between, almost exclusively occurring when you luck out and get behind the wheel of one of the more maneuverable cars.
Once you get out of the car and try roaming about on foot, you'll long for the feel of that loose wheel. The on-foot action is simply awful due in no small part to the terrible control; Tanner runs around with the mobility of a Mack truck. His move repertoire consists of a duck and roll straight out of the William Shatner School For Actors With Bad Backs Trying To Do Their Own Stunts and an absolutely useless jump that clears about eighteen vertical inches. It's laughable. While our hero wields a ton of different guns, the listless control makes aiming more difficult than it should be.
Not that the A.I. puts up much of a fight, though. The first mission in the game puts you through a training target course where cardboard enemies swing out from behind dumpsters and stuff. It turns out this is the perfect training, as the live enemies show about as much brainpower as a stack of boxes. They'll stand still and fire at you, glued to the ground, or get really weird and run around in circles, failing to take cover unless specifically scripted to do so. No good.
The cop A.I. is equally bad, but mainly because it's inconsistent. Cops show up as little radar cones on the map, and they'll go all Defcon 1 if the little white dot representing you happens to cross their path. The problem is that it doesn't seem to matter where you actually are spatially on the map " you could be hidden in a parking garage, for instance, but if they drive by and the cone catches the dot, they'll freak out and hunt you down even though they shouldn't have seen you in the first place. On the other hand, the pathfinding is moronic once they get out of the car, as they'll constantly try shooting at you through cement walls. Forever.
Unfortunately, the quality of the missions varies greatly, and as go the missions, so goes the fun. The best are pretty simple and involve unscripted high-speed chases through traffic, while others are insanely frustrating scripted sequences that have very little margin for error. The difficulty seems to be pretty random; you'll breeze through a bunch of missions, then get stuck playing the same needlessly difficult mission again and again as there's no way to skip it, a matter made worse if the mission doesn't have a checkpoint. I guarantee you will throw your controller on the ground in frustrated disgust no less than a dozen times within the first five hours of playing.
Really the only way around this issue is to hop into the game's other modes. You can Take a Ride to explore any of the three big cities at your leisure, which is handy for learning the maps but somewhat pointless as there aren't really any goals or anything to act as incentives. A few driving games make a return, most notably the ruthless Survival mode in which you must dodge waves of cops for as long as possible, which proves to still be a fun diversion.
It isn't easy admitting when you're wrong, but I cannot help but point out a quote from my Driver 2 review that has haunted me during my time spent with DRIV3R:
"Had this game been developed for the PS2, I bet they wouldn't have run into the slew of graphical problems inherent to cramming this much stuff onto the PSX."
Thank god no one took me up on that bet, because DRIV3R is a graphical mess on the PS2. The textures are flat and lifeless, aliasing problems (jaggies) are everywhere and the pop-up is pretty glaring. The character animations and models are so archaic they look like they were pulled out of a Playstation game, not built specifically for the next-gen consoles. The loading times are kept to a merciful minimum, but considering the low quality of everything, that doesn't mean much. Though the PS2 version is miraculously more stable than the Xbox version, DRIV3R just looks overwhelmingly sloppy; I cannot believe this is the best they can do.
The only bright spots are found in the well-crafted cut scenes and the cars themselves, which feature full damage modeling and bust up really nicely. It's as if they were built for another game, then imported into this one.
They even found a way to screw up the Replay system. It's still robust and gives you plenty of camera options and effects to toy around with, but in a startling oversight, choosing to watch a replay during a mission will automatically end the mission. Wanna watch a huge wreck from a different angle? Then you better be willing to sacrifice your mission progress. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The sound fares far better thanks to a high-profile assortment of celebrities voices, including Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames and Mickey Rourke. Most of the music is intended to match the feeling of the cut scenes and carries less weight during the action, but generally works well enough.
There will inevitably be comparisons between DRIV3R and Grand Theft Auto, but that's like comparing a Le Car to a Porsche. I cannot stress how dated this game's design feels, from its repetitive, aggravating missions to its 32-bit graphics. Occasional glimpses of fun crop up from time to time, but you have to slog through so much boring, awkward gameplay to get there, it's simply not worth the time.
It's astonishing that a series with such unlimited potential has turned into such a farce, but I guess that's what happens when you drive blindly without taking to the time to ask for directions. As is usually the case, that leads to a dead-end street.