FGC #296 Driver: You Are the Wheelman

DRIVE!And now for the other side of those awkward Playstation years: that time when no one knew what a videogame was supposed to be.

In the beginning, there was Pong, and it was good. And Pong begat a number of arcade experiences, like Asteroids, Space Invaders, and everyone’s beloved Pac-Man. And, while we were all happy with one screen of action, action, action, eventually gaming’s collective attention span required more. Mario became super the very moment his stages became long, horizontal affairs that could take whole minutes to complete. Sometimes there was a dinosaur at the end of the world! And a princess! And, while it was the teeniest of plots, there technically was a plot, and no more were we forced to use our imaginations to envisage why this puck-shaped fellow was being chased by four monsters.

But, for better or worse, there was always a divide. There were games where brave heroes ventured forth to conquer bad guys and maybe get a new weapon along the way to stab and/or shoot said bad guys, and there were also games that provided those classical “arcade experiences”. Pong was basically tennis, which I’m told is one of those sports things, and, in a way, many sports games were narratively no more complicated than Pong. Play game, win game. It’s the same in football as it is in Donkey Kong. Maybe there’s a story attached, but the only story that matters is that you “beat the game”. This is, at its core, the essence of the arcade experience, as if you’re not fighting toward an achievable goal, then why the hell are you wasting all those quarters? If I leave this arcade without ASS being at the top of the score table, then what am I fighting for?(!?!?!!)

SWERVE!But sometime around the Playstation era, that kind of thinking fell by the wayside. Maybe it was because the arcades started to follow the path of the dodo, or maybe everybody just desperately wanted to be Final Fantasy 7, but, whatever the reason, by the time we made it to the Playstation 2, every game had to have a complete story and incremental goals and a “40 hour, RPG-like experience”. Maybe it was a ploy to sell memory cards? All I know is that a “quick” experience like Mischief Makers, a game that would have been perfectly content to be an enjoyable 16-bit rental, was now derided for not stretching its content to fit some arbitrary length restriction. And Mischief Makers wasn’t alone: if a game was released, and it could be completed in an afternoon, it was panned from here to the hallowed halls of EGM.

And this led to some… awkward moments.

Driver: You Are the Wheelman won the 1999 E3 award for “best racing game”. Racing games have always been firmly planted in the “arcade experience” section, as, come on, is there anything more pure than “gotta go fast(er than everybody else)”? However, Driver is much more than a racing game: Driver is basically a proto-Grand Theft Auto (3). We’ve got some big (for Playstation 1) cities, cops to outrun at all times, and an emphasis on a bunch of random “challenges” you can perform with a car. Drive to hit checkpoints, drive to ram designated cars, drive to be a courier… I’m pretty sure I have a good idea where the title “Driver” title came from. When you get right down to it, “racing” seems like a poor description of this experience, as I don’t recall any time the stars of Crusin’ USA or Mario Kart had to worry about an arrest warrant. Well, maybe Bowser has a few priors, but the Mushroom Kingdom justice system is naively lax.

But anyone returning to Driver from the sandbox-dominated future of right now is in for a rude awakening. Yes, there are all the GTA-esque activities available to you in Driver, but they’re all selectable from the title screen, not unlike choosing cups in a racing game. And, with the exception of a few unlockable cities, they’re all available from the first moment you start up the game. Think of it! A world where you can just replay your favorite missions at your leisure, and you don’t have to randomly drive all over the city looking for some capricious marker (and then never playing the mission again after it’s completed once). And what happens to those big, wide open cities if they’re not attached to mission markers? Well you can just choose “free mode”, and putter around town without a care in the world. Well… assuming you don’t piss off the local constabulary by merely existing.

VroomSpeaking of the po-po, there is a plot here. There’s a “story mode”, and it similarly showcases the times. Rather than going full criminal like every GTA descendant, you’re a police officer that just happens to be undercover as a nefarious wheelman. Eventually the FBI or CIA or FDA or somebody screws up, and you’re stuck on the wrong side of the law, and…. You know what? It doesn’t matter. No one is going to play through the story mode, because it’s attached to an opening “qualifying” stage that is completely impossible. But there is a trick to it! You have to exit the game, completely lose your progress (which, admittedly, was just watching one cinema scene… but still!), hop over to the “Training” menu, then learn all the super cool moves (like, uh, holding down the gas pedal really long), remember all the super cool moves, and then completely restart your game. It’s that easy!

And, for the record, if you’re playing this in 2017, you will curse every messageboard post about the scourge of “on screen tutorials” for the rest of your days.

But that’s Driver: You Are the Wheelman in a nutshell: it’s a videogame that has no idea how to be a videogame. It wants to straddle the line between arcade experience and story-based adventure, but it has no clue how to marry the two experiences, and we’re left with something very… confused. Driver isn’t a bad game, but it’s one of many Playstation games that simultaneously embraced the long-form narrative and overtly shied away from offending anyone that might not want to play for longer than five minutes.

So every time you complain about another Skyrim-alike or GTA-alike or even your bog standard generic platformer, be glad you live in a world where most videogames know how to be videogames and not… whatever happened here.

FGC #296 Driver: You Are the Wheelman

  • I'm a poor night driverSystem: Playstation 1, but then it eventually pulled into the Windows and Mac parking lots. It also had a Gameboy Color and iphone port, and those must be peachy.
  • Number of players: And it’s also a single player game. Another sign of the inevitable story mode domination.
  • Favorite City: New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town… that I don’t really like in reality, but it makes for a good series of levels.
  • Did you really not make it past the tutorial? Not for a good long while. I mean, it’s not like you can’t play most of the rest of the game without beating that damn stage. Also, there’s the matter of…
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I got this game for free. For some bizarre reason, I found this game (complete with case and manual) in the back of the ol’ band storage area in high school. I asked around, put it in the lost and found, and no one claimed the game, so, after a month, I took home my prize. I have always pathologically over-valued videogames, so I literally could not understand someone “losing” an entire Playstation game. … Then again, now that I’ve played Driver, I can maybe understand that impulse a little better.
  • Did you know? The final unlockable city is Newcastle upon Tyne, the hometown of Reflections Interactive. On one hand, that’s kind of neat, on the other hand, it’s vaguely masturbatory. Do you know what’s special about Newcastle upon Tyne? Yeah, me neither.
  • Would I play again: Grand Theft Auto 3 is, like, right there.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Uniracers! See, now there’s a game that knows its genre! Please look forward to it!

Ugh

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