Take a look at the charts these days and everything is a sequel, a reboot or a compilation, and it's getting harder for fans, let alone retailers, to establish what's important about a series and whether the latest instalment is of interest to consumers – or just another meandering answer to a question gamers stopped asking a generation ago.
Starting this week, GamesIndustry.biz' Franchise Cheat Sheet aims to bring you up to speed on the background to key upcoming releases – whether you're a buyer mulling over what sort of commitment to make, a publisher looking out over the competitive landscape, or just a gamer with a twinkle in your rose-tinted eye.
We start this week with the Driver series. The venerable brand is more than 10 years old and has experienced many peaks and troughs along the way, and the latest instalment, dubbed Driver: San Francisco, is due out later this year, with new publisher Ubisoft keen to restore it to its former glory...
Need To Know
- Current developers: Ubisoft Reflections (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
- Current publisher: Ubisoft (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
- Previous developers: Gameloft (mobile versions), Sumo Digital (PSP)
- Previous publishers: Atari, Infogrames, GT Interactive
The basics: A pioneering openworld car chase series, since overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto and dogged by controversy following a disastrous and heavily hyped third outing.
Coming attractions: A fifth game in the series, Driver: San Francisco, is due in September. An exclusive spin-off for the Nintendo 3DS, Driver: Renegade, will follow.
Driver (PlayStation/PC, 1999)
The game: Newcastle developer Reflections graduated from its early PlayStation hit Destruction Derby with a self-consciously cool car crime caper. Brazenly harking back to such chase classics as Bullitt, Starsky & Hutch and Walter Hill's The Driver, it set players inside a growling muscle car and let them loose in an open-plan 3D city. Gameplay missions soon proved secondary to the lure of creating – and editing – home-made action scenes using the game's innovative Director mode.
Reception: Ecstatic, making it one of the original PlayStation's biggest hits. Critical praise was virtually unanimous, with scores hovering above the magical 80 mark. The game was voted Best Driving Game at the Games Critics Awards at E3 1999. Lifetime sales were predictably strong, topping six million. A 2008 digital release on PlayStation Network revealed a game that has aged remarkably well.
Driver 2 (PlayStation, 2000)
The game: A rushed and technically creaky sequel, clearly developed with the knowledge that Grand Theft Auto was moving to 3D. Lead character Tanner was allowed to leave his car to walk the streets on foot, as well as "borrowing" other cars. South American cities Rio and Havana joined Chicago and Las Vegas as the locations, but the PlayStation struggled to cope. As a result, the game ended up spread across two discs, prompting talk that it was originally meant to be a PS2 launch title.
Reception: Divisive. Though the core driving gameplay remained fun, critics seized on the numerous technical problems as signs of a hurried and over-ambitious development. Sluggish frame-rates, ugly graphical pop-in and clumsy on-foot controls were highlighted, and became recurring issues throughout the series. Scores ranged from 50 to 90, but sales remained strong. Publisher Infogrames singled the game out as a key contributor to its strong financial performance that year.
DRIV3R (PlayStation 2/Xbox, 2004)
The game: Disastrous. In the four years since Driver 2, the GTA series had not only burst into 3D, but launched the critically acclaimed Vice City. By the time DRIV3R finally arrived on the new generation of consoles, following a 12-month delay from its planned spring 2003 release date, the epic GTA: San Andreas was only months away.
The pressure to compete with Rockstar's juggernaut resulted in a game riddled with bugs, glitches and awkward mission design. A cast of famous actors, including Tarantino alumni Michael Madsen and Ving Rhames, and promotional films produced by Ridley Scott's company, helped to deflect some attention away, but the game quickly became notorious.
Reception: Poisonous. Scores ranged from 60 down to the very bottom of the scale, with the same complaints levelled against Driver 2 returning, now joined by new technical problems. Meanwhile, the "Driv3rgate" internet controversy over suspiciously positive exclusive review scores dominated the gaming news cycle.
As the game failed to meet sales targets, Reflections founder Martin Edmondson left the company, suing Atari as he went. Edmondson withdrew the suit in 2006 when Atari settled out of court. Between the poor reviews, disappointing sales and various peripheral controversies, the brand's reputation was severely tarnished.
Driver: Parallel Lines (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Wii, 2006)
The game: Humble. Eager to shake off the stigma of DRIV3R, the series essentially rebooted with a new lead character (TK), a focus on one city (New York) and a time-hopping narrative concept. The story began in a nostalgia-milking 1978, harking back to the simple car-chase thrills of the original game's inspirations, before leaping to 2006 after TK emerged from a 28-year stretch in prison, looking for revenge on the lowlifes that sold him out.
Reception: Muted. Reviews made appreciative noises that the game was an improvement over DRIV3R, but were unable to muster much enthusiasm for something that felt firmly entrenched in Grand Theft Auto's considerable shadow. The game managed a few scores above 80, but most were consigned to the "good but not great" zone beneath 70.
In August 2006, Atari sold the Reflections studio and the Driver IP to Ubisoft for $24m. A PSP prequel, Driver 76, was developed by Sumo Digital and released in 2007. It too received mixed notices.
Driver: San Francisco (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC, September 2011)
The game: Martin Edmondson returns to the studio to oversee the first major series iteration of the current console generation. Tanner returns as the lead character, but now spends the entire game in a coma.
The much-derided on-foot sections have been completely dropped, replaced with "Shift", the rather bizarre ability to hop from one moving vehicle to another as Tanner's free-floating consciousness. The game also introduces a suite of competitive multiplayer modes for the first time in the series.
Prognosis: Previews have been cautiously optimistic, and the fact that there is still considerable interest in a new Driver game is a testament to the enduring appeal of the 1999 original. Clearly, there is a sizeable fanbase willing the series to reclaim its former glory.
Edmondson's return, the curious gameplay concept and the introduction of multiplayer will guarantee plenty of specialist press attention. Whether the fanbase will respond to a game that seems more influenced by offbeat TV sci-fi like Quantum Leap and Life On Mars than by the retro cop shows of old remains to be seen.
Driver: San Francisco is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this September from Ubisoft.