A Blast from the Past review

FBT revs up the XP machine and makes like Steve McQueen

The Past

Before 3D GTA there was Driver. I loved the cool 70s muscle cars and channelling Steve McQueen. But what was really cool about Driver was I could drive where I liked. I can’t remember anything about the missions, maybe one where I had to drive a pickup full of explosives and another where I followed a L Train; I’m guessing those two were particularly difficult.

Our hero was probably an uncover cop looking to bring down a crime family or something. I don’t know, I did persevere long enough to unlock a new city to wheelspin around in, but really I was all about the free-roam mayhem of piling through the streets of ‘cisco, wheel caps flying while I tried to evade the cops. Or as I described them at the time, tanks with jet engines.

Once you’d pissed them off it was all about seeing how long you lasted, and that’s pretty much all me and my mate did. Hit start, hit a cop then hit the streets. I remember a film director mode, where we could replay our carnage and add camera angles, marvelling at the mayhem. Our home movies never lasted long, but we had so much fun trying.

What I remember most about Driver was watching a mate’s car get destroyed, hear him let out an expletive then say ‘just one more go’. That's the mark of a good game. Time to give it one more go.

Still a Blast?

Once past the loading screen all I get is the rage-inducing MFC error. Why must Windows 10 suck so much as a gaming platform? We have DOSbox, I can play Spectrum games thanks to an emulator, but why do so many games from the XP – Vista era crap out? Thankfully, a while back I lost my shit at W10 treating the period as beneath it and bought an old XP rig off eBay. Driver purrs like a kitten on that.

Unfortunately, I also drive like a kitten. The Audition level ... Here, we show off the skills needed to be the mobs’ wheelman, but for some reason those tests are insanely hard - you’ve got no idea how to do them; for once you need a tutorial. And there is one. But it’s more confusing than the Audition. Instead of showing you how to do it, flagging keystrokes or providing an explanation, you’re expected to just follow a ghost car as it effortlessly does wheelspins, reverse 180s and zig-zags like a drift king. How is it even doing that? The tutorial needs a tutorial. Quitting out of storymode, I load up free-driving. You have two cities to begin with, Miami and San Francisco. Channelling McQueen again, I pick ‘frisco, but I don’t last long as the King of Cool.

The cops will lose their shit if you do obvious stuff like speed, run a red or collide with others but they’re jobsworths about wheel spins or handbrake turns too, and even if an NPC hits you -and they will- it’s your fault. Yet the black and whites ignore you driving on the wrong side or pavements so long as you don’t hit anything. But you’re always hitting something.

You go from zero to sixty in a second and break just as fast. This does help with cornering and chases, but you’re always either under or over steering, endlessly trying to correct yourself, bouncing around or being bounced by the cops. Naturally they don’t have this problem, or a problem with t-boning you into another car or the meridian.

The only thing you have going for you is their classic-era AI. They doggedly stick to your route which you can use to your advantage; once they see you they fire towards you like a missile, no matter what’s between you and them, so dodging between cars or across embankments, steering close to immovable objects can make short work of them; even just swaying side to side causes them to get thrown off balance; but there’s so many, and if they get a chance they’ll slam into you at 80 miles an hour. We’re basically playing an automotive You’re It.

I also realise my memories lied to me. The car we drive has a nice Charger look and sound but there’s nothing really 70s about it. In fact, there’s nothing to the world at all. Sparse and bare, it’s an angular world you barrel through; San-Fran has some nice hills to fly over but there’s nothing here except a few boxes and cones to knock over, which pisses off the cops too.

Still, I keep going. I spot a cop, rear-end him and take off giggling. For all my disappointment with the look and feel (and controls), I’ve been doing this for hours and it’s fun. I go back to the audition, figuring I ought to actually play the game at some stage ... and get nowhere. I give up and try Miami this time.

After a while though, I lose the will to free-roam. There’s only so many times I can get chased, and while the Film Director mode is great, really all it’s doing is showing me how dated the game’s become. I can see why this got dropped for GTA VC, then GTA SA and so on, all the way to Saints Row 3 (the pinnacle of Free-Roam mucking about) and beyond. I also think doing it with a pal, watching them get ruined was part of the fun. Without someone whinging for their turn, laughing at your pitiful attempts, it becomes a slog.

Back in the audition, I finally, by the skin of my teeth get past it. It was luck, but I realised I’d learnt most of the tricks while free-roaming. It would have been so much more painless to just have those requirements ticked off as you roamed about, get your reputation about, then you get a call to go see the capo. It would have given you more focus in the free-roam too. Anyway, I’m in the family.

It wasn’t worth it. You rent an apartment with an answerphone where you pick up jobs and the first, naturally, is getaway driver for a bank job. It quickly becomes a huge chore. Partly because the missions have aged too, they’re not very interesting and often have contrived elements to make driving even more frustrating. Plus, the cops become major pains, ruining plans over and over simply because they respawn within two blocks of you, which means they always have the mission success spot covered, even when cop interest wasn’t part of the mission’s narrative. It drains the excitement when you reach the end then have to go touring in a battered, barely held together car hoping they’ll leave – they never do. After a few skin-of-my-teeth successes, I find myself back in free-roam again. No, I do not want to retry the mission. I’m not rage-quitting, but it’s time to drive this game back to the past. I’m age-quitting.

A game’s age is not a reason to give up on it, it comes down to how it plays; and unfortunately, Driver has become obsolete. I did have some fun for a bit, but there’s nothing here that’s not been done better since – except in its own sequels which sank into sub-GTA attempts. We didn’t need another GTA, we needed more vicarious 1970s anti-hero stuff. I should be Peckinpah in the Film Director mode and McQueen behind the wheel, and the Driver series shouldn’t have wasted all those sequels trying to overtake GTA - it should have taken a off-ramp to its own niche, been Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds, Badlands. Death-Proof the game. Cool, genre car-driven pulp escapism. I still have great memories of Driver and those jet-propelled tanks, but this Blast is best left in the past.

1999 | Developer; Reflections Interactive | Publisher GT Interactive / Infogrammes

Platforms; Win (XP), PSOne