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Take the 3D open-world gameplay of Grand Theft Auto III, put the player in the role of the police, set it in a '70s-esque Retro Universe, and beat Rockstar Games to the punch by two years, and you have Driver: You Are the Wheelman. In Driver, you play as Tanner, an NYPD detective who, due to his driving skills, is sent undercover to investigate a criminal syndicate, taking him on a journey to Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and back to New York. The game was styled after '60s and '70s car chase films like Bullitt, The French Connection and The Driver, to the point of including a "Director's Mode" that allows you to place cameras during replays to follow your action.
Developed by Reflections Interactive and released in 1999, Driver pushed the Play Station to its limits technologically, and proved to be a smash hit, earning rave reviews and selling over six million copies, and anticipating the boom of Wide Open Sandbox games that would emerge in the next console generation. So naturally, there was pressure for sequels. Driver 2 went out the door the following year and was also very popular, selling in excess of four million, though there was a general sense (at least among critics) that it didn't live up to the first game's pedigree. While the addition of curved roads and foreign cities (Havana and Rio de Janeiro, in addition to Chicago and Las Vegas) was welcomed, the new on-foot controls were heavily criticized for their clunkiness, and were famously lampooned in Grand Theft Auto III. A Game Boy Advance version was released in 2002.
In 2004, Driv3r, the series' debut on the Play Station 2 and X Box, attempted to play catch-up with the Grand Theft Auto series by introducing gunplay and recruiting such voice talent as Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames and Michelle Rodriguez. It wasn't very well-liked, the on-foot controls weren't much better then the last game (which made the shooting segments rather akward). While sales were still solid (chiefly thanks to the previous games' reputation), reviewers weren't nearly so forgiving, with most giving the game mediocre scores. The game is also notable for having whipped up a minor controversy, dubbed "Driv3rGate", in which two Future Publications magazines (PSM2 and Xbox World) gave the game suspiciously high "9/10" reviews, leading many who played the game to question the magazines' integrity.
For most series, a game as poorly-received as Driv3r would've been a Franchise Killer, but instead, Reflections released Driver: Parallel Lines in 2006. Set entirely in New York City and its New Jersey suburbs rather than multiple cities like the other games, it instead took place over a period of time — the first half was set in 1978, while the second half took place in The Present Day. It also took place in a new continuity-focusing on a young man known only as TK who rises through NYC's criminal underworld only to be betrayed and thrown into jail, and is out for revenge upon release. Parallel Lines was considered an improvement overall, most critics felt that it was nothing more than a GTA clone, but a decent one that learned from the previous game's mistakes and returned the series to its driving-focused roots while retaining the gunplay. Unfortunately, Driv3r, which came out just two years prior, left many gamers too burned to give it a try. A prequel, Driver 76, was released the following year for the Play Station Portable.
In 2011, Reflections (now Ubisoft Reflections) took another shot at the series with Driver San Francisco, the first game in the series for the Play Station 3 and Xbox360. Returning to the first three games' continuity and, like Parallel Lines, taking place entirely in one city (guess which one it is), San Francisco goes the supernatural/Mind Screw route by taking place while Tanner is in a coma... and giving him "shifting" powers that allow him to possess other drivers on the road. According to critics, it's better than it sounds, with the game getting a Metacritic score in the high 70s and with most reviews praising the shifting mechanic. Even Yahtzee is a fan. It remains to be seen whether it will be able to overcome Driv3r's noxious legacy.
Coinciding with San Franciso's release is Driver: Renegade for the Nintendo 3DS. Set between the first two games, the story begins with Tanner quitting the NYPD and striking out on his own as a Vigilante Man. Tanner is soon recruited by Andrew Ballard to take down five of New York City's most notorious crime lords.
- Badass Beard: Tanner sports one in Renegade.
- Badass Driver
- Bottomless Magazines: Driv3r, Parallel Lines, and 76 give you handguns with infinite magazines as your starting weapon.
- Car Chase: The series' bread and butter.
- Car Fu: Half the time in SF will be spent driving semis into oncoming traffic to stop a street race.
- Cliff Hanger: Driv3r ended on one, which wasn't answered for seven years.
- Cool Car: Tanner's Dodge Challenger in San Francisco. This also applies to some of the 139 other vehicles
- Such as The De Lorean DMC-12, a 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 Fastback, Pontiac Trans Am, etc. Pretty much every Cool Car used in a chase scene shows up.
- Cool Shades: TK wears these in the first half of Parallel Lines.
- Cowboy Cop: Tanner, to the hilt. He's perfectly willing to go head to head with other cops if it helps him reach his goal.
- The Dev Team Thinks of Everything: Jolting and bouncing your car hard enough will cause the hubcaps to fly off, and sitting stopped while turning the steering wheel will turn on the blinkers.
- Difficulty Spike: The final level of the first game. Even using an invincibility cheat, it's easy to lose the level by having your car flipped over.
- Donut Mess with a Cop: In Parallel Lines, one side mission involves outlasting a police chase. Initiating this requires ramming a doughnut stand.
- Dramatic Irony: Throughout San Francisco, the player is aware of Tanner's coma, but Tanner himself isn't.
- The Driver: Of course.
- Dueling Games: With Grand Theft Auto starting in 2001, a feud that the GTA series mostly started (as detailed above).
- Dying Dream: San Francisco takes place mostly within Tanner's coma dream.
- Gatling Good: Parallel Lines has the Blaine minigun, which is unlocked towards the end of the second half of the game.
- Interface Screw: One mission in the second half of Parallel Lines has TK get injected with a hallucinogenic drug. During the ensuing chase,the screen becomes increasingly blurred, and stays that way until you get to a garage.
- Last Breath Bullet: Jericho seems to do this at the end of Driv3r. Subverted, as the beginning of San Francisco shows both Tanner and Jericho still alive.
- Mind Control: Tanner's "shifting" powers in San Francisco basically amount to this.
- Minus World: The city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the first game, which is shown during the credits and can only be accessed in-game by hacking. It is also the hometown of Reflections.
- Falling into the skybox in the sequel normally registers as a Bottomless Pit death, but with a certain glitch, you can survive the fall and drive around in the void.
- New York City Cops: Tanner is an NYPD detective.
- Nintendo Hard: The final level of the first game, "The President's Run," is a Luck-Based Mission... meaning that if you get really, really lucky, you might be able to do it.
- Nitro Express: In one mission of the first game, you must deliver a crate of unstable explosives in a pickup truck across the hills of San Francisco. In another level in the second game, you must take down an explosives-laden truck by ramming it.
- Railroad Tracks of Doom: Las Vegas in the second game has a level where you must run for a car parked on a train bridge and get it off the tracks before the train arrives.
- Retro Universe: Despite being set in the present day (except for the first half of Parallel Lines), the games all feel very '70s. Incidentally, the first half of Parallel Lines actually takes place in the '70s.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: TK, after being betrayed by his employers and getting incarcerated for 28 years, spends the second half of Parallel Lines getting back at the people responsible for his imprisonment.
- Rubber Band AI: If a cop falls far enough behind you, it goes into what fans call "doublespeed", gaining double the normal top speed in order to catch up. Especially noticeable in Driv3r.
- Shout-Out: The tutorial in the first game is lifted directly from a similar scene in The Driver, where the main character proves his skills to some gangsters in a parking garage.
- Several missions in the first game also mirror or homage famous car chase sequences in movies such as The French Connection and Bullitt.
- Same goes for the "Movie Challenges" in San Francisco , special missions that closely resemble famous movie chase scenes.
- In one mission in SF, Tanner has to catch two low lifes who stole a church collection box. His Reaction? He's always wanted to say that he's on a mission from God
- Time Skip: Parallel Lines fast-forwards 28 years after TK is betrayed and sent to prison.
- Time Travel: Beating Parallel Lines allows you to switch between 1978 and 2006.
- Tutorial Failure: The Forced Tutorial is legendary for being complete garbage.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In San Francisco, Tanner keeps seeing black billboards with strange messages. When Tanner points them out to Jones, he doesn't seem too fazed by it, at one point telling Tanner the billboards have "been up for years."
- Wide Open Sandbox: From Parallel Lines onward.
- X Meets Y : San Francisco is probably the illegitimate Child of Life On Mars and Bullitt
- In the first game, every corner was at a 90-degree angle due to the limitations of the technology. While this was acceptable at intersections, this made turns on, say, bridges rather awkward.