Driver 3 Preview

We take a look at the third entry in the popular racing franchise from Atari and Reflections.

The Driver series has been one of Atari's powerhouse franchises ever since the original game debuted in 1999. UK-based developer Reflections Interactive, whose work on the Destruction Derby franchise had shown its knack for realistic car physics, offered up a unique blend of cinematic visuals and white-knuckled racing gameplay that was quite unique in its day. The only speed bump for the franchise involved the limitations of the hardware that it ran on. Although a powerful little system, the original PlayStation wasn't quite up to the task of providing visuals that matched the quality of the ambitious gameplay Reflections was creating. With the upcoming release of the third entry in the series, Driver 3, it appears that Reflections may have finally found a generation of consoles that can do justice to its game concept. Last night at an Atari press event, we had the opportunity to try out work-in-progress versions of the game for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox (a PC version is also planned), and both gave us a feel for what to expect from the ambitious title.

The game's story follows the adventures of Tanner, the undercover police officer who starred in the previous entries in the series. Although it's been some time since we checked in on him, he hasn't mellowed any. Driver 3 finds the ruthless cop attempting to infiltrate a global car-theft-ring. Tanner is intent on discovering the identity of a mysterious buyer who has ordered the theft of 40 high performance cars, and he desperately wants to stop the deal. But, as usual, his cover is always perilously close to being blown, and time is of the essence. (You'd think the old boy would actually get better at working undercover by now.) While this means tough times for Tanner, it all translates into a meaty game.

Driver 3 features three modes of play: undercover, take a ride, and driving games. Undercover is the game's story mode and features roughly 30 missions that are set in the three cities of Miami, Florida; Nice, France; and Istanbul, Turkey. Take a ride is a free-ride mode that lets you tool around the cities and lets you absorb the work the development team has put into creating the vast virtual environments as well as into the realistic vehicles. Finally, the driving game mode lets you play minigames in the city of your choice.

The demo versions on hand last night offered a smattering of the game's various play modes, and the PlayStation 2 demo actually featured a sampling of all three modes. The mission mode featured one task that was set in each city; take a ride let us roam through each of the cities at one of three different times of day; and the driving game let us try three of the minigames. The Xbox version of the game only offered the take a ride option.

The mission mode's three offerings presented three distinctly different multipart experiences. The Miami mission, called Police HQ, is an introductory level that lets you get a feel for the basic game mechanics. You start out on foot in a house, and you make your way to police headquarters by car. This level showed off one of the most interesting aspects of the game's presentation for when you're on foot, which is the use of an indoors first-person view that changes to a third-person view when you're outdoors. The transition is fairly sudden but seems to work well in gameplay terms; the result is you don't run into any of the annoying camera issues that affect other, similar games when the player is running around indoors. We would have liked to see weapon models from the first-person view, though.

The Nice mission, Rescue Dubois, is a two-part arrangement that starts you out on foot in a timed shooting sequence that requires you to reach a location indicated by an on onscreen arrow before your health runs out. Once you reach the checkpoint, you have to make your way through a building by shooting people as you go. You eventually reach an automobile, which triggers a cinematic that kicks off the car portion of the level. Once the cinematic is over, you have to hop into the nearest car, and you must tear off after your quarry, whose position is displayed via a minimap in the lower right-hand portion of the screen. It seemed to us that the pursued opponent actually took different paths through the city on subsequent replays of this mission.

Finally, the Istanbul level, Bomb Truck, is the shortest of the three missions. You start out on foot, and you engage in a brief firefight before hopping into a car and chasing a truck that's loaded with explosives. The goal is to reach the truck while dodging both traffic and exploding barrels that are thrown at you. This level really showcases the hectic nature of Driver 3's car chases, which are integral to the gameplay of the series.

The take a ride mode let us explore the three cities, at our leisure, during one of three selectable times of day, including day, dusk, and dawn. As you'd expect, each time period affects the look and lighting in the cities. The driving games mode offers three further games--survival, quick chase, and quick getaway--that you can play in any of the three cities. As mentioned, the Xbox demo only offered the take a ride mode, which was identical in content to the PlayStation 2 game. Obviously, the final game will contain all of the content from its PlayStation 2 counterpart. At present, there doesn't appear to be any content that will be exclusive to either version.

The game's graphics for both platforms are still a little rough around the edges currently, but Driver 3 definitely looks promising. The city environments are impressively large and detailed, and the game features a strikingly realistic and impressive lighting model that creates believable shadows and reflections based on the level of sunlight available. The environments feature some nice touches, including walls that reflect bullet holes and breakable bottles. Driver 3's cars are one of its biggest highlights, thanks to a generous polygon budget and a high level of detail. The cars can actually be banged up in all sorts of ways, depending on how well you drive them, and the damage looks pretty darn realistic. (In fact, we watched as one player filled a car's hood full of bullet holes with a machine gun.) The in-car controls feel pretty good already and are thankfully forgiving for the novice video game driver. Additionally, Driver 3 will feature an immense number of vehicles to control--around 70 in all--which range from muscle cars to mopeds to even boats (though we didn't get to see any motorcycles or boats in action), so the "Driver" name is clearly well represented here. The game should have plenty of on-foot action, as well. Tanner can run about, carjack any vehicle on the street (much like in the recent Grand Theft Auto games), and wield a wide assortment of firearms. We didn't see any close-range weapons, but we did get to see (and try out) various pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, and even a grenade launcher. There's a health meter onscreen to indicate how much damage Tanner has sustained, as well as a health meter for whatever vehicle he happens to be commandeering at the time. A third meter represents how close Tanner is to getting the cops on his tail--best to try to keep a low profile.

Though it's still visibly got a lot of work left to be done to it, Driver 3 is coalescing into a gritty action game with a great amount of depth and style. The game even features a generous helping of Hollywood production values and includes such Tinseltown talent as Michael Madsen and Michelle Rodriguez, who were both on hand to talk about their voice roles in the game (as Tanner and Calita, respectively). Additionally, a short film called "Run the Gauntlet" has also been produced by Ridley Scott Associates to promote the game, and it will be available in episodic format on the Driver 3 Web site beginning on January 23. Atari is pulling out all the stops to make Driver 3 a compelling and cinematic action experience. Will the investment pay off? Look for more on this ambitious game in the coming weeks.

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