Driver 3 had some fairly hefty expectations, but the game didn't do as well as Atari hoped, for some pretty obvious reasons. It was buggy, slow and often impossibly hard, feeling rushed and incomplete; it left a bitter taste in the mouth of reviewers and gamers alike. Happily, Parallel Lines goes a long way, but not all the way, to righting many of the wrongs done in Driver 3.
It begins in New York, 1979, with one of the better introductions into a game you will find. Having created a profile and gone through the usual game save settings, the game goes straight into the opening cinematic introduction, bypassing the usual menu screen and 'create new game' routine. It's a pretty canny move on the part of developers since it sets up the cinematic approach of the game very nicely. From here you are flung headlong into your first job: lose the cops and drop your petty robber to his desired location. It's a bit of a steep entry point, but if you fail you can start at the beginning again without being penalised - a welcome feature throughout the game.
You play as TK - think Johnny Depp in Blow - an eighteen-year-old trying to make it as a wheel man in New York. He has the trademark seventies swagger, flares, aviator shades and generally looks the business. But he's not; he's just another young punk who thinks he knows it all, but has yet to prove anything. Proving his credentials makes up much of the early part of the story as he gets further involved in the local crime scene. But as we all know but are seldom told, in games at least, a life of crime doesn't pay, and eventually TK finds himself sent away for a considerable amount of time. When he gets out it's present day, present time; and its pay-back time too.
The story, although fun enough, isn't about to win any awards for originality. Importantly though, the presentation is from the top draw, with cinematic cut-scenes produced to an extremely high standard. The scripting is good, as is the acting, and there's plenty of artistic flair inspired by the best the gangster film genre has to offer. There's also a nice balance to the number and length of these cinematic scenes. Important plot points are told through cutscenes, but you won't find yourself stopping every ten minutes to watch something. There's a clear effort on the part of the developers to create a cinematic quality to the storytelling, and they achieve this with ease. Music selections are also superb, with such seventies classics as David Bowie's 'Suffragette City' doing the rounds. Although the modern era's selection never quite reaches the same level of excellence, the music is nonetheless very good throughout.
The map of New York, where the whole game is based, is huge, which proves something of a problem in the game. Travelling between jobs can become a chore and the options to switch between garages don't really fix the problem. Since the city is so big it's not surprising that the visuals fail to astound. The frame rate, however, is rarely a problem and is a big improvement over Driver 3. Any problems that do occur can be solved by switching to the bonnet-mounted camera view; the best position for driving anyway.
One area which also sees a great improvement in Parallel Lines is the driving physics. Unlike Driver 3 it's no longer a challenge to merely keep things on the straight and narrow. Parallel Lines certainly isn't any driving simulator, which is just as well, but cars handle in a way that is varied, challenging and fun. Different cars do feel and drive differently, with muscle cars having twitchy rear ends and sports cars being balanced with good brakes and handling. The controls are also supremely responsive, making weaving between traffic easy and great fun too. Since the game is supposed to be about driving it's pleasing to see that the Driver team got this part right.
On foot things aren't nearly as confident. The game utilises a lock-on system which, on paper, is a pretty sensible way to control things. You can lock-on to a target and shoot, also allowing you to strafe, or aim more precisely if required. The lock-on is fine with only a few targets around, but when you find yourself out in the open there are loads of possible targets, and the game will lock onto any of them making it difficult to get the target you want. This system is also utilised for shooting whilst driving, and often causes even more problems. Trying to drive and cycle through targets at the same time will test your multi-tasking skills to the limit. Thankfully these on-foot sections are far less frequent in Parallel Lines than they were in Driver 3, serving mostly as a slightly awkward diversion from driving.
A lot of Parallel Lines is set out as you might expect. Once you've got past the preliminaries you are free to do what you want, taking on side jobs for money, entering races or continuing the central missions that drive the plot. Money earned in races or side jobs can be spent on upgrading and personalising your cars. You can tune the engine, add a nitro kit, adjust the brakes, alter suspension, add bullet proof glass and tyres and a whole variety of other things; in short, there's plenty to play with. At first this may seem pointless, particularly as there are plenty of free cars knocking around, but once you start entering the harder street and track races the usefulness of a well-tuned car becomes clear. You won't be using your tuned cars all the time, but when you do you'll be glad you made the effort.
If Parallel Lines falls down anywhere it's in the variety of missions you'll have to complete. A lot of them are the fairly typical fare: pick up this car up, take it here, and don't get killed doing it. If you enjoy these types of games then this won't come as much of a grind, but it might annoy less hardened gamers. It's not a problem unique to Driver either, even GTA is guilty of such banality at times, but it's one area that the game fails to try and innovate in.
The AI also has a fair share of quirks and weaknesses which undermine gameplay. The game employs quite a neat 'heat' system when dealing with the police, meaning that if you commit an offence whilst driving, it will be attributed to the car, not your character. However, if you get out of the car this heat will be attributed to TK, at which point you may as well give up. This part of the system works quite well, but there are some oddities that occur along the way. Sometimes traffic comes to a halt for no apparent reason, a particularly annoying problem when a police car is about, since attracting their attention is a nuisance. Once a chase begins it soon becomes apparent that the police AI hasn't developed all that much since the first Driver. Their basic tactic is to ram you as much as possible, preferably into walls, until your car blows up or you are forced to bail. Occasionally they will set up a road block or send out the helicopters, but there seems to have been very little advancement in this area.
Parallel Lines arrives as a breath of fresh air after Driver 3, righting the multitude of problems found in that game. The good driving mechanic and excellent presentation found in Parallel Lines are only let down by some rather mundane missions. Were it not for this it would certainly be held in much higher acclaim, but the developers are certainly back on the right track. Hopefully the next-generation of consoles will provide further opportunity to deliver on the potential of the series.