How is Reflections reversing its fortunes after the failure of Driver 3? IGN examines Parallel Lines.
When the first version of Driver hit store shelves in July 1999 on PlayStation, Reflections title was a game that filled a giant whole in my game library. Building on its successes with Destruction Derby 1 and 2, Reflections' crafted a game that presented previously unseen physics (at the time) and simple car-chase missions, fueling the whole thing with an easy-to-get-into control scheme. For me, it was nirvana. If not the perfect game, it came damn close. Reflections borrowed some elements from the Grand Theft Auto series too, but it put everything in full 3D with huge cities, totally destructible cars, and crazy AI cops.
But that was 1999. Six years later, the Driver series has, in my humble opinion, taken a nose dive for the worse. Driver 2 was a bug-filled, overly ambitious project that was simply too big for PlayStation's guts to handle. It had rough-cut mission design and was unpolished to a fault. But the momentum from the first game was strong and it helped make that game a success despite its shortcomings. This generation of games issued in a new level of production values, led by the instrumental Grand Theft Auto series. GTA challenged Driver with its own brand of entertaining physics, out-of-car experiences, and a compelling and mature storyline. With all due respect to Reflections, Driver 3 was an unbridled mess, replete with a dull, predictable story, a terrible out-of-car experience, and shoddy mission design. It was neither what we had hoped for nor was it comparable to GTA.
The fourth game in the series is a Driver of a different color. Reflections has listened to its critics, fans, and its publisher, and this new game is an about face in many ways. First and foremost, the long-time English developer is focusing Parallel Lines on driving and driving fast. Eighty-five percent of the game is dedicated to the in-car experience, while 15% features out-of-car gameplay. We're told the out-of-car tidbits mostly involve switching cars, rather than long-dedicated segments of shooting and running. And to that we can say good riddance.
Taking a hint from the recent pop culture trends in revisiting 1970s themes and ideas, Reflections has set its game in Manhattan, New York, circa 1978. The story isn't all that new. You're a young upstart wheelman who intends to work his way up through a crime syndicate, and you experience a flood of drugs, illegal activity, and power battles along the way. Reflections tells us a major twist happens more than half-way through the game, altering the course of events substantially. But of course they won't tell us anything about it.
Parallel Lines won't, however, follow the same game progression as previous titles in the series. Instead of the single-player game standing alone, with director mode and mini-games separated into their own modes, Parallel Lines incorporates the mini-games into the story mode, GTA-style. Also, Reflections has axed the director mode altogether. Aside from the online mode, which I'll talk about in further detail below, the Story mode is the big enchilada. In it, you'll follow cutscenes setting up the thesis of your wheelman career, and then quickly start up in a cop chase. Once established, you'll find some missions progress the narrative while others lead to mini-games and side efforts. What kind of mini-games you ask? If you ever played Destruction Derby, you'll be a happy man. The mini-games comprise stunt races, circuit races, destruction derby circuits, survival mini-games, and hitman contracts, just to name a few.
The game is more open in design than the series has ever been. There are 80 drivable, unlicensed cars. You'll race in sports cars, hot rods, imports, trucks, 18-wheelers, motorcycles, busses, bulldozers, and tanks. You can steal any car at any time, and you won't need to buy any because of this fact. Want a hot rod? Wade into traffic and stop one, throw the driver out, and drive! Using a significantly upgraded engine from Driver 3, players will see as many as 200 characters and 80 vehicles on screen simultaneously, so the pickings are large and varied.
The alpha build we saw and played was early. The wide-open world showed a healthy amount of graphical pop-in and some rough sections with mixed framerates. However, Reflections has time. The game's not due until late winter/early spring and we were told that the final version will not have any load or pop-in at all. Reflections was adamant about this, which should be reassuring -- but with this game, I'd like to see it in the final stages to be reassured.
The classic physics-heavy engine is once again the game's strong point. Cars feel weighty and powerful, and the sound quality for each is improved. The framerate is also supposed to sit at an even 30 FPS, which would make the game impressive, given its size and the amount of objects, vehicles, and people on the streets.
For New Yorkers hoping to play in a virtual home away from home, the large, open re-creation of Manhattan mixes real points of interest with a free-range of fictional city structure. Reflections doesn't intend to re-create the city down to the finest detail, but to use the skeletal structure of Manhattan as the playground in which you'll drive. Major cities include Manhattan, Harlem, the Bronx, New Jersey, Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, and Coney Island to name a few. By pressing a simple button players can access a top-down map (like in previous Driver games) to see where they need to go and where they've been.
Reflections made a point about the game's improved artificial intelligence. The cops and enemies are far more advanced than in Driver 3, and the Felony System built around your actions functions much differently than in previous games in the franchise. When laws are broken, they can either be attached to the character or your car. Therefore, if you've stolen a car, and the felony is attached to your car, getting rid of it is of high priority. But if the felony is pinned on you, ditching the cops is the plan for the day. Like GTA, players can clean their car in a garage, or they can change cars, as long as it's out of the cops' sights.
Customization plays a bigger role than before in Driver Parallel Lines. As a player's garage fills up with stolen cars and trucks, they can upgrade the exterior with different paint colors and enhance the interior of their rides with three levels of performance. Upgrades include ride/handling, engine performance, nitrous, and kick-ass non-visual components such as bullet-proof windshields, bull-proof tires, and more.
As I was saying earlier, the shooting aspects are minimized. When out of car, the camera shows your man from a third-person perspective, zooming in closer when he aims with precision. Using the left analog, players can toggle the reticule from enemy to enemy. Also, in a nice new touch, gamers can drive and shoot simultaneously. The Wheelman leans out of the car to shoot, as a big reticule -- a little bit like the one used in Starsky and Hutch -- appears, making the blasts to enemies, cops, and whomever easier. Finally, if a mission is botched the game will not reload and punish players by making them wait. The mission instantly provides the chance to replay or quit, and the mission restarts in a second.
Reflections didn't go into too much detail about the online mode, but modes include mini-games such as capture the flag, deathmatch, destruction derby and more. Reflections said to start an online game players simply press the start button to pause their mission, and they can then jump online. Gamers can take their customized cars online too. Some online missions involve wide-open sections, while others require closed circuits. Reflections' goal is to have as many as eight players online on both PS2 and Xbox simultaneously. That's the goal.
Finally, Reflections is working on stacking the soundtrack in this game with a huge assortment of perfectly selected tunes from the late 1970s that totally rock the Casbah. While much of the licensed music hasn't been confirmed, we heard early Jimi Hendrix (OK, he's a '60s guy), Blondie, and ELO to name a few. If this soundtrack shapes up the way Reflections plans, it's going to be a knockout.
Driver Parallel Lines is an interesting move for Reflections. The series has been both a profitable and a critically successful one at various times in its six-year history, and this version looks rather humbled in comparison. There are many GTA-style conformities here, and the retraction of the out-of-car gameplay is a disappointment. Couldn't they have worked to make it better? On the other hand, the scaling back of Driver Parallel Lines does have its sunny side. The best part of Driver has always been its car-driving experience so it's good Reflections is primarily focusing just on that. The addition of an online component is exciting, while the improved AI, inclusion of mini-games into the story mode, and the wide variety of cars and vehicles are all promising. Driver Parallel Lines still has the kick-ass physics and gravity the series has always been known for, and it hasn't lost that loveable instant accessibility. If Reflections can turn this one around, we'll be happy and impressed, and glad to leave past experiences in the past, where they belong.