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Summer is an uncrowded season for video games, as publishers decline to compete with Hollywood blockbusters and the sun. With the field so open, it's a perfect time to release a triple-A title and sweep up a million sales before the holiday season comes into view. And so Atari has chosen to release "DRIV3R" this month, hoping to capitalize on the drought.
However, the only way this game is going to see a million sales is if desperation becomes a summer epidemic. "DRIV3R," the second sequel in Reflections' successful PlayStation "Driver" series, is a blistering disappointment. The series helped define the mission-based driving/shooting genre that now includes "Grand Theft Auto,"
True Crime" and "The Getaway," and the latest installment shows how far "Driver's" successors have come with the concepts Reflections introduced.
Not that "DRIV3R" was intended to be a "GTA" clone. Rather, Reflections has designed the game as a story-driven chase film in which players assume the role of undercover FBI agent Tanner. Yes, you can carjack, shoot bad guys and run from the law, but the emphasis isn't on indulging bad-boy behavior -- it's about the white-knuckle life of a wheelman.
Too bad the only white-knuckle experience "DRIV3R" will elicit is from gamers grasping the disc in a death grip, wanting their 50 bucks back. Every element of the game either stumbles or is outright botched up. The visuals are maddeningly incomplete, the on-foot controls are ludicrously underdeveloped, and your enemies are downright stupid.
"DRIV3R's" chief emphasis is behind the wheel, as you race down the streets of Miami, Nice, France, and Istanbul, working your way to the heart of a criminal enterprise. Several missions require you to pursue bad guys to their destinations, others ask you to steal cars, and some are designed just to let off steam by unleashing vehicular mayhem on your surroundings.
All three of the cities are bizarrely antiseptic. But this condition is fleeting, as the viewing perspective often reveals other cars and pedestrians (as well as obstacles like trees that you can sometimes drive straight through, sometimes not) at the last minute. Important driving elements, like ramps, pop into view too late for you to use, often resulting in mission failure. During your second third (or 10th) time through the mission, you just give up on visual cues and memorize where that ramp is.
The game fares worse when Tanner gets out of the car. On-foot control is so clunky that when you press the button to roll (avoiding gunfire), Tanner actually comes to a complete stop, then goes into the roll -- it's not even remotely fluid. Aiming is also awful, as moving your crosshairs around the screen is jerky and inaccurate.
Not that you really need to worry about precise shooting when up against these malfunctioning robo-thugs. Stepford criminals stand with arms outstretched, firing in your general direction. ("Must ... be ... easy ... target.") Behind the wheel, their IQs barely register, out-dumbed only by the cities' police forces that drive their cars into guardrails repeatedly -- even after you get out of your car and run on the other side of the rail.
"DRIV3R" features some solid Hollywood talent. Michael Madsen ("Resevoir Dogs," "Kill Bill") voices Tanner with decent conviction. And Mickey Rourke seems to be having as good a time as a video game character as Christopher Walken did in "True Crime." Too bad Ving Rhames and Michelle Rodriguez sound like they'd rather be on a set somewhere else.
Reflections has an excellent track record of producing great games within this genre, making "DRIV3R" totally out of character. Possibly fear of delay in a competitive market or financial pressures pushed a premature release. Whatever the reason, "DRIV3R" is simply not ready for the shelves.