Ever since the 2004 release of Driver 3, the Driver series has made a habit of trying to mimic the unique success of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, achieving marginal success. Last year's Driver: Parallel Lines wasn't terrible and was a big step up from the much-maligned 2004 release of Driver 3. However, it still failed to do anything as well as the series it was aping and came off as the also-ran that it was. Development duties have been passed off to Sumo Digital for Driver '76 on the PlayStation Portable, but once again the series comes up short.
The story in Driver '76 is sort of a prequel to Driver: Parallel Lines, in that it focuses on the exploits of two supporting characters two years before the start of Parallel Lines. You play as Ray, a two-bit wheelman who's voiced by someone that seems to have mixed up their Jack Nicholson with their Ray Liotta. Predictably, you're partnered up with a jive-talkin', afro-wearing cat named Slink. Ray's interest in the daughter of a Triad boss inspires him to do a bunch of dirt to impress the old man, which ends up getting both characters on the bad side of several different gangs, the Triads included. The story itself is all perfunctory crime business with a few unsurprising botched jobs and double-crosses along the way. By presenting them as pages from a '70s-era comic book, the game at least keeps the story sequences interesting to look at.
Though the game plops you down in the middle of an open-world version of New York City circa 1976, the story itself is a straight shot from beginning to end. Occasionally, you can choose to take on one mission before another, but none of this effects how events unfold. The missions themselves are all painfully unimaginative, with loads of rudimentary tasks like driving to a destination within a set amount of time, escorting another car, or evading the cops before taking your passenger to a specified destination. It's rare that the game asks you to do anything on foot, which isn't entirely a bad thing.
Driver '76 isn't bad when you're behind the wheel of an automobile. There are more than 50 different types of vehicles to drive, from dirt bikes to big rigs, each with a different handling profile. The camera is a little loose, which is generally OK, but it can be difficult to see where you're going in some of the race missions. When you're on foot, the game's not nearly as much fun, because there's really nothing to do. Ray can run at a decent clip, though he can't sprint and he can't jump--the latter of which can prove to be a real hassle when you catch a little heat while on foot, since it's real easy to get pinned in a corner. You'll get access to standard weapons like a handgun, a shotgun, an assault rifle, and so on, and lock-on targeting makes it easy to take down your targets, but the weapons don't pack much punch--you can expect to unload nearly a full clip from your assault rifle into your enemies from a couple of yards away before they go down.
On top of all this, the story is real short and can be easily blown through in five or six hours. You can take on side missions at any point, which include closed-course and open-road racing, as well as tow-truck, taxi-driver, and straight-up wheelman missions, among others, but they're no more fresh or original than any of the story missions. You can conceivably use the cash from the side missions to buy car upgrades or weapon ammo, but the game's just not challenging enough to warrant it. You might expect to get some fun from causing as much damage and chaos as possible, but the police in Driver '76 as so ineffective that it doesn't take much to lose them. The lack of in-game consequences makes going on a kill-crazy rampage pretty boring.
The big underlying problem in Driver '76 is that it simply doesn't flesh out the world with the details that can make this type of game so immersive. Its take on New York City isn't quite 1:1, but it's still pretty sizable. There are unique areas that represent Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, and New Jersey, but it all feels like a ghost town. Pedestrians are few and far between, and you rarely see more than four other vehicles on the road at once, though this might be due to the game's already-shoddy performance. The draw distance is great, but everything looks flat and boxy, with blurry, washed-out textures, and it seems like the frame rate is in constant flux. The load times leading up to missions regularly push a full minute, and it's not uncommon to have the game randomly seize up for seconds at a time while simply driving around. The game sounds a good bit better than it looks. Weapon fire is weak, but the engine noises are distinct, though the real highlight is a solid, late-'70s soundtrack that puts a heavy emphasis on funk. Sure, it recycles the soundtrack from Parallel Lines, but it was the best part of that game, too.
So the Driver franchise once again misses its mark, though it's about as close as the series has gotten so far. Driver '76 isn't a bad game, but it's certainly a derivative one, and the details that it fails to capture end up being the ones that really count.