One of the most interesting phenomenons within all disciplines is the "one-hit wonder". Someone comes out of the blue to deliver a product that people gobble up quickly and enthusiastically, before parasitically moving on to their next chunk of entertainment. It happens with books (The Da Vinci Code), movies (Ask anyone if they liked any of M. Night Shayamalan's movies after the Sixth Sense), music (does anyone remember the Bloodhound Gang from the late nineties), and it happens in video games.
The Driver franchise is the epitome of the one-hit wonder as it applies to video games. When the first title was released on the PlayStation nearly a decade ago, it was a revelation. Grand Theft Auto had not yet evolved into the 3D powerhouse/political whipping boy that it has become today. The original GTA was a stagnant, top down mess of a game with poor controls and lousy graphics. Driver on the other hand, featured fully three-dimensional renditions of well known American cities, spot on controls, and fantastic physics and damage models. Driver was a runaway success, and many thought that developer Reflections had caught lightning in a bottle. A sequel was released that was too ambitious for the PlayStation hardware, and the decline of the Driver franchise began steeply and sharply. A third title that was filled with glitches and poor game mechanics was dropped after Grand Theft Auto III was released, but by then, no one except the developers and their families seemed to care.
So Driver never really evolved into the fully fledged classic franchise many envisioned when the first title was released. Driver '76 on the PSP is not the shot of adrenaline the series needed; quite the opposite in fact. Considering how beat down this franchise is at this point, I can't even call it a nail in the coffin. Driver '76 is just another shovel-full of dirt thrown on top of the coffin already sitting in the grave.
Where to begin? Driver '76 is a complete mess. You know you're in for trouble when the game has to load a loading screen. The ironic thing is, is that the nicer, stylized loading screen comes up first. After about 45 seconds, the screen disappears and you're treated to a black screen with a spinning disc logo in the left side for another 30 seconds or so. This happens before every level, side mission, and even between menus. But hey, excessive load times are tolerable if the game is fun to play.
Unfortunately, Reflections' vision of 1976 New York is where fun goes to die a slow and painful death. You play as Ray, a low level crook who sounds like Ray Liotta's unsuccessful brother. Your sidekick is the afro'ed walking 70's stereotype Slink who makes Snoop Dogg look like Al Sharpton. As the game begins, you are trying to hook up with a Chinese crime boss' daughter. For that to happen, you must do menial jobs driving back and forth committing felonies. Only once you do enough jobs will her father like you enough to allow you into her pants. Will Ray get laid? The suspense is palpable!
In technical terms, Driver 76 is an unabated disaster. While the rendition of New York is large and spacious, it's completely deserted. There are rarely more than four cars on the road at any given time, and pedestrians are rarer than a virtual boy owner. Even with the total lack of activity in the streets, the frame rate can't stay smooth. The game constantly seems to hover around 15-20 frames per seconds on average, but will also jump, chop, and stutter on a consistent basis. Sometimes the game will fully lock up for a few seconds before suddenly springing back to life again. What is it about the game that makes it do this? Are the three pedestrians in the city too much for the PSP to handle? Maybe it's the horribly muddy textures and choppy animation that brings the engine to its knees? Buildings pop in and out of existence on a block by block basis as well. At least the cars are nicely rendered, with lots of visible damage.
The AI in the game is simply pathetic. In an early mission I was instructed to follow a car from point A to point B. Somewhere along the way, they decided to drive up on the sidewalk and manage to get themselves caught in between a tree and a telephone pole. I stopped my car and left it idling as I watched this retard go back and forth between the two poles Austin Powers style for a full minute and a half before I decided to restart the mission. The cops are even worse. When all else fails in an open-world sandbox game, it should always at least be fun to go on a rampage, but the idiotic cops suck all the fun out of that too. I blew up four cars and shot the one pedestrian I came across, only to find that all that's necessary to escape the cops at any point is to drive straight for two blocks. Even Chief Wiggum would chew these morons out for their incompetence.
The cars themselves aren't any fun to drive either due to the excessively touchy analog controls. Try going in a straight line for more than a mile, it's not possible. A slight flick of the joystick sends your car careening across two lanes, usually resulting in a damaged car, which can make you fail certain missions. Driver '76 also features those incredibly annoying trees and telephone poles that stop your car dead no matter how fast you're driving.
The game also allows you to fire from the driver's side window, but the auto-aim in this game hates you. The auto-aim will always seem to target innocent cars a mile ahead, instead of the psychotic vehicle that is right next to you, ramming your side panel and riddling your car with bullets. On foot, the auto-aim gets even worse. It takes nearly a full clip to kill anybody, even if they're five feet away from you. Ray can't seem to hit the ocean with his gun if he fell out of a boat with it. Luckily, the stupid AI misses just as much as you do.
The on-foot sections are also ludicrously limited. The only time I was actually caught by the cops in this game was while running on foot and encountering a small fence no taller than my hip. Since there's no jump button, my master criminal was foiled by the fence of doom. There's also no run button, dodge functionality, or essentially anything else other than walking, shooting like a blind chimp, and jacking cars.
Despite all these problems, the game is ridiculously easy. Both Ray and the cars he drives can absorb super-human levels of punishment which offsets the terrible game design, and makes the game beatable. The game offers you a bunch of side missions and jobs in order to make more cash. Cash allows you to purchase new weapons and upgrade your car. However, since the game is so easy, these side quests become completely moot. The game can be blown through in five or six hours without ever completing a single side mission.
You can also simply drive around in the city in "Take a Ride" mode to find collectibles and do whatever else you like. However, the only thing more boring than driving this city with an objective is driving around in it without one.
At this point, does it make a difference that the sound design is actually fairly decent? The voice acting is a lot of fun in that cheesy '70's cop movie sort of way. The in-between level cut scenes that are stylized like a comic book are pretty to look at and rather entertaining too. The car engines all have distinct noises, as a muscle car will sound a lot different than a big rig, but that's to be expected these days. The real treat is the 70's funk heavy soundtrack that suits the atmosphere of the game perfectly. However, you could just as easily listen to War's "Low Rider" on your iPod while counting the hairs on your forearm and probably have a better time that you would playing this game.
Driver is in need of a serious tune-up. Actually, this franchise just needs to be buried once and for all. There simply isn't a place in the world for a game like Driver '76 when there are so many better open-world options than this. Why would you buy this game when you could buy both of the Grand Theft Auto PSP titles for the same price? The brilliance of the original Driver on the PS1 is a very distant memory indeed.