Behind the wheel, there's a sense of freedom. There's a feeling of endless opportunity, with only your imagination and the fuel gauge rendering a limit. That very same euphoric shiver of excitement and opportunity is a staple of open-world video games. Driver 3 - or Driv3r as it was stylized by developer Reflections Interactive - was one of the most highly-anticipated releases of 2004. I still remember entering a local EB Games in Cobourg, Ontario and arriving at a literal wall of Xbox and PS2 copies - and that was just for pre-order. Everybody in line had a copy in their hand. It was a hellish wait for the game to come out, and I joined several dozen others in lining up for the launch in June 2004. The game, akin in concept to a Grand Theft Auto title, was insanely hyped and advertised. Banners, web and print ads were everywhere that appealed to gamers. Driver 3 released to mixed criticism, but honestly in this case I must stress the importance of picking up a copy if you can still find one. It's one of those titles that few critics gave enough time to truly appreciate. It's not perfect, but it's far from unworthy of your time.
It's fun. It's moody. It's expansive. It's not your grandmother's Sunday drive, that's for damn sure.
Driver 3 hasn't aged quite as well as other titles, but it's far from being downright ugly or unplayable. At the time, it was a revolutionary head-turner of a game that boasted one of the greatest soundtracks in gaming history, an engaging and evocative story, a moody, sombre yet enticing art style and, naturally, an endless vein of open-ended delights just waiting to be discovered. People absolutely hungered for this thing - I hadn't seen such excitement over a game release since Grand Theft Auto III, Super Mario 64 or Pokémon Gold/Silver.
That moodiness and ever-so-sheer atmosphere is unique to this game. Reflections sweated, bled and injected all of their collective existence into this one product. It shows in the eerie yet oh-so-appropriate music accompanying you whilst exploring the meticulously detailed streets of the three cities in the game - which themselves were painstakingly researched by artists and modelled in-game. Driver 3 ended up being the swan song of Reflections in a sense, but they went out with one hell of a bang, and here's hoping they can rest comfortably at night knowing they didn't settle for the same rehashed garbage released every year that has become the unfortunate norm today. They made a game with attitude, character and a lived-in feeling despite adhering to a structure and theme found in countless other titles. The detail is what sets it apart.
The detail extends right down to the tracking of a player's line of fire, representing bullet holes appearing precisely where they aim their weapons - and yes, the game is akin to the Grand Theft Auto series in its existence as a carnage-riddled driving and shooting title. But don't knock it yet; there's good fun to be had in Driver 3. The story works hard to serve as a justification for the themes and actions present in the game. Escapism exists as a way of discovering experiences normally not permitted by reality. Obviously, people normally don't hijack cars, shoot people and drive on rooftops unless if they fully intend to - and even then, it's doubtful that they'd have never done such things if they hadn't picked up a video game containing such content. The same thing goes for films or books. Media is but a form of expressionism and escapism if used innocently and without agendas. Ranting aside, Driver 3 isn't just another "shoot-em-up" title.
Case in point? The story, atmosphere and sheer energy of this game. It isn't there as background noise or mindless fluff (here's looking at you, Call of Duty series) - it's there for effect and justification of the activities the player partakes in as an FBI agent doing some very deep undercover work to take down an international criminal. Taking players from Miami to Nice and even Istanbul (rarely featured in gaming), the story unfurls and takes you deeper into the investigation. It's an energetic and explosive experience not in any way unlike the countless action films of yesteryear. Nowadays, an endless stream of violent thrillers involving police officers, drugs, shootings and explosions flood the market. They're a dime a dozen, but people barely bat an eyelash at them... usually. On top of this, the game doesn't hold your hand; it beckons you into the unknown, in the form of the three featured cities fully explorable in "Take a Ride" mode. Players select a car, city, time of day and other details before being placed square in the middle of a living metropolis with no instructions. It's brilliant. Traffic whirs along every street, civilians go about their usual business and the moody background music greets you. There are even secrets that lay in waiting for discovery - or ambush. You're free to go wherever you want and do whatever you wish - with no time limits or restrictions.
The soundtrack of Driver 3 is one of the finest, most meticulously curated collections of previously recorded music in gaming history. Each track featured in the game or created for it required a very precise flavour or character, and this was masterfully executed when hearing the end result. There were no limits in the selection process. Bands that were about to break were featured, and this resulted in the fantastic "Destiny" by Syntax being added to Driver 3 and heavily featured in advertising. In fact, I acquaint this one song in particular with the overall atmosphere of the title, and it acts as a fitting unofficial theme song for it. On top of a killer soundtrack, several high-ranking voice actors were hired including Iggy Pop, Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames, Mickey Rourke and Michelle Rodriguez (a fantastic addition). They gave their respective characters an added sense of depth that only served to enhance the immersion and mood of the game
In conclusion, Driver 3 is a must-play. Ignore the whiny reviews nitpicking on glitches, graphics and other niggling issues - yes, they're present, but the overall experience and fun of the game itself greatly outshines them. In a sense, those who focus on negatives will be drawn away from positives (hence my particular style of reviewing). In fact, the glitches, campy humour and slapstick animations offer a completely different version of Driver 3 if played simply to have a blast and perform the craziest and most inherently unrealistic stunts. It's great fun when not taking it seriously. This was the very last title in the Driver series that really had a special charm and flavour that called me back to it even a decade after release. This timeless attraction to such a rich, rewarding experience - even if just to play with the game's crazy physics and animations - is what Driver 3 does best. Seriously, just try finding all the hidden cars or "Timmies" - and yes, I doubt many will even know what I'm referencing but don't let that stop you from finding out. I've hardly scratched the surface of all the goodies and experiences awaiting those who pick this title up, but the next time that you find it at a local Goodwill or Value Village in playable condition, you'll do well to plop a few dollars down and bring a hallmark title in open-world gaming history home.
Take the wheel.
Photo Credit: Gamershell.com
Video Credit (in order): Zero2029 (Youtube), MattJ155 (Youtube)