Bill Kunkel, "The Game Doctor" was long a force in the gaming journalism world. While Bill left us many years ago, I came across a number of reviews he sent me with instructions to "post these someday." They make for a nice trip down memory lane for those us that that knew him and an introduction for those who didn't. Read on...
"Having sat behind the virtual wheel of first and semi-first person driving games since the '70s, a game such as Driver 2 really brings home what a long, strange road this category has traveled. From Atari's original coin-op edition of Night Driver (in which only the dotted white lines of the highway were visible) through Pole Position, Test Drive, Sega Rally, and so many more, driving games have comprised one of the strongest genres in the electronic gaming universe.
Unfortunately, most of the energy that has gone into developing these games over the decades has been lavished on graphics-intensive programming. As a result, the cars got cooler and the scenery became sensational, but the sheer tedium of running endless laps around tracks has limited driving games to a fixed percentage of the gaming audience. It reached the point where many mainstream gamers wouldn't even look at a racing game unless the vehicles came equipped with weapons (as in the all-but-forgotten PSX classic, Red Asphalt).
Then, in the late '90s, a new type of game appeared, in which the player-character was cast in shadows rather than sunlight. In titles such as Postal and Kingpin, gamers got to play on the anti-hero side of the fence, cast as criminals and outright psychopaths. This sensibility was quickly absorbed into the gestalt of the driving game, with the most prominent early arrivals including Carmageddon, Road Rash, and a top-down arcade-style driver called Grand Theft Auto, a surprise hit in which the gamer played the part of a car thief.
The developers at Reflections obviously saw the possibilities presented by GTA and added two twists. First, the player-character, Tanner, was a cop posing undercover as a wheelman, thereby eliminating the sort of retailer backlash that crippled Postal's sales. Second, they eschewed GTA's crude, top-down POV in favor of extremely realistic, semi-first person visuals. The result, Driver, was a breakthrough hit, sitting atop the PlayStation best seller list throughout 1999, selling more than four million units in PSX and PC formats.
Now, as they say in the press releases, the Wheelman Is Back. And Reflections and Infogrames have done a laudable job in creating a worthy sequel to the excellent original. First, they eliminating the tiresome "test" portion of the game in which the player had to successfully execute a series of tasks before they could engage in the undercover scenario. There are plenty of embedded mini-games in the sequel, but they're accessible to gamers at any time, and players can go undercover at any time. Better still, unlike standard racing games, the Driver series is set in real world cities, with the player able to get on and off highways, bust through red lights, drive the wrong way down a street, and attract the attention of the police. The vehicle is tracked on-screen for both the intensity of police pursuit and the amount of damage the vehicle has absorbed. The police, meanwhile, will engage in reckless, high speed chases, attempting to force your car off the road. When all else fails, they will even set up roadblocks!
Driver 2 possesses a cinematic intensity unrivalled in other driving contests. The cut scenes are frequently spectacular, and the many locations -- including day/night scenarios in various Chicago, Havana, Las Vegas and Rio neighborhoods -- are delivered with startling verisimilitude. As in the original, the player, as Tanner, must complete a series of missions, each of which brings him closer to crime kingpin Solomon Caine. The sequel also offers curved roads, horizontal split-screen, multiplayer scenarios and offers the player-character the opportunity to get in and out of his car to engage in pedestrian missions.
On the downside, the walking sequences really don't work very well and qualify as "pedestrian" in both senses of the word. While the driving controls are just beautiful, once Tanner leaves his vehicle, players are propelled into PSX controller hell. There are also some serious problems with "pop-up" graphics. Sure, we all understand that some visual elements are being constructed on the fly, but when gigantic buildings materialize out of nowhere, looming directly in your path, that's a problem. As a result, the gamer is forced to rely heavily on the radar window in the lower right hand corner of the screen, rather than simply enjoying the maniacal wheel work while periodically scanning the radar to get your bearings.
The thing that will really bug hard core driving game fans, however, is Driver 2's obvious need for speed. Frankly, the cars generally moved fast enough to keep me satisfied, but better players are sure to be frustrated by their inability to really put the hammer down. In the world of driving games, it's rare indeed when the vehicles have more horsepower in the original than in the sequel.
All in all, however, this is a visually compelling game that fans of the first Driver, and gamers who are tired of being confined to race tracks in general, would do well to take for a test spin."