It is unavoidable. Driver 76 will face continual comparison to the most famous of headline-grabbing crim-sims, Grand Theft Auto. But before you turn it down as another hopeful joining the long list of games that have attempted to ape Rockstar's premium brand, remember this: it was Driver that was the first 3D, free roaming, high octane adventure that followed the rise of a small time crook as he climbed the underworld ladder.
The two-dimensional GTA games may have sketched the blueprints for the genre, but Driver built the mould. Eight years on, and still trailing someway behind GTA in the popularity stakes, Driver returns, and for the first time it is being released by French publisher Ubisoft.
Driver 76 is set in New York during the year of the game's title, so it is no surprise that it is filled with flares, afros and a soundtrack by the likes of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and funk legends Maceo and the Macks. The selection of tunes that bring some historical accuracy to the game is a slight list compared to those on offer in your average GTA game, and while this lack of scope and size compared to Rockstar's series is recurrent throughout the game, there are two things to consider.
Firstly, style can often equal substance in a genre of gaming so obsessed with popular culture and cinematic cool. By now GTA's lingering obsession with brutal gang violence, the brash trademarks of youth subculture, and sensationalist treatment of prostitutes has grown a little tired. Meanwhile, Driver 76 strives to replicate the kind of cool so successfully fostered by muscle car movies like Bullitt, Vanishing Point and the original version of Gone in 60 Seconds, and on the whole it does a fantastic job. Just like in its celluloid cousins, the car is the star of Driver 76, and though gunplay does have its place, almost every mission is based around burning rubber and guzzling lead.
Secondly, Driver 76 takes a very different approach to game design from GTA, and is in many ways a very different type of game. It may not match the magnitude of the handheld versions of GTA, but it does have an advancement mechanic that totally negates the need for hours spent driving between missions, or trawling the streets for the right vehicle for a job. It might be possible to complete Driver 76's main 27 missions in under a week, but take away all of the painful roaming, hidden items and muscle building in GTA, and you might be surprised by what's left.
The way Driver 76 speeds up the process of progress is by combining the map screen with the functionality of a level-select menu screen. From the map you can select any of the many missions and 50 side-quests as they become available, by simply highlighting an icon and tapping a button. The option to take to the streets for some more traditional free roaming is still available, but here it is not at the core of the game.
The other distinct difference between Driver 76 and its rival is its garage system. Completing any mission rewards you not only with side missions, and various customisation items such as era-themed clothing, but also with entire cars, that are placed in your garage. Between missions you can visit this lock-up to get your hands greasy upgrading engines, laying out paint jobs and developing your suspension and bullet-proof capabilities. While there have been various different garage modes in Grand Theft Auto, there has always been one problem. Despite all your efforts, you invariably destroy your car reasonably quickly.
Not so in Driver 76, where you keep every car you unlock for the entire game, even if it is destroyed or lost in a mission. This may veer violently away from realism, but these types of games have never truly been too concerned with simulation.
Which brings us to the handling of the cars. When Atari and Reflections managed the series, the cars were lumbering beasts that were incredibly hard to keep on the road. This worked well while the games were effectively variations on 'chase' and 'be chased', but now there is a little more depth, the driving has been toned down. It still falls into the 'Hollywood stunt driving' bracket, but now the wild skids are far easier to reign in.
The city itself is less willing to help out, and residents do not give over their cars easily. The police, however, are a little less confident in themselves, and slipping through their dragnets is rather easy, They don't give up their pursuit so readily though, which does give Driver 76 an inseparable bond with its forefathers, that featured long pursuits by huge numbers of the old 'blue and white'.
Driver 76 isn't a game without failings though. It may have justified its understated scale through design, but it falls way behind GTA when it comes to the most important thing in any game that tries to recreate a living, breathing city: detail. While the map of New York is vast, sometimes the streets feel so empty it is comparable to a desert filled with all the landmarks of a city. Unlike GTA, backstreets are barren, buildings are typically sparse cuboids, and the cars and people that fill the street are few and far between.
Each area of the city feels and looks samey, and though there is a style and flair to the game's menus and comic book cut scenes, technically the gameplay is clunky, glitch riddled and spluttering. This is at its most annoying when trying to get in a car, which seems to require you to stand facing the car door with pixel perfect precision. Not an easy task when on the receiving end of the entire NYPD. The Burnout-style cutaways triggered by even the slightest crash are an ill-advised inclusion as well, as they break the flow of the driving without offering any real benefits.
The multiplayer, too, feels rather cursory, with ad-hoc only point-to-point, street, circuit racing, and a destruction derby mode. It's bolstered by the opportunity to swap and trade the various collectables and unlockable items you gather, but this too has limited appeal.
Compared to GTA, Driver 76 is something that seems a little shallow and ordinary, but judging it as a game in its own right, and only drawing parallels with the best of the Driver series, it is a fairly decent chunk of big-screen cool, crow-barred nicely into the sleek internal organs of the PSP.