Today I drove the getaway vehicle in a bank robbery, repaired a remote antenna tower, ran several criminals off the road, rushed a patient to the hospital, and successfully parked a bus. It wasn’t easy, but duty called — and I wasn’t about to be beaten by a bunch of dastardly traffic cones or inconveniently-placed street light poles.
Duty Driver is like a taster for the vehicle simulation genre of games — a packed field on PC that includes such classics as Euro Truck Simulator and Street Cleaning Simulator — okay, maybe that second one isn’t a classic, but I think you get that it’s a broad field. I never understood their appeal, but now I think I’m starting to get it. And my stint in each of Duty Driver’s five roles is what helped me overcome my distant air of curious bemusement.
You complete missions according to your role — you might be a cop charged with recklessly chasing down criminals and wrecking their car, or perhaps a bus driver doing the regular city route. It’s never easy, unless you elect to play in Easy mode, but Duty Driver packs a fine balance between accuracy and fun.
Not as dull as it sounds. (Shame about that spelling error.)
Vehicles handle realistically for the most part, with a compromise on the implications of crashing — you can do a lot of damage before the game decides you’re totalled, and only steering seems to be affected in the meantime. Some missions quite reasonably hand down a commandment that you may not hit too many things. I doubt there are many places in the world where a bus driver would be allowed to brush against buildings and collide with mailboxes in the line of duty.
It’s extremely rewarding when you pull off the mission task, and Duty Driver keeps its missions short enough that this pay-off comes quickly. Longer missions are broken into discrete parts such as collecting a patient and then driving them to the hospital or stopping at each designated bus stop.
These seldom take more than a minute or two, with anything longer granted a sense of exhilaration by a countdown timer and difficult driving conditions. Climbing to the top of a huge radio tower in an ambulance, via a narrow spiral ramp along the outside, is fraught with peril and a fun challenge in and of itself, for instance.
Actually, it’s going down that’s the scary part.
Similarly, short missions get their fun from being a race against the clock — and against yourself. It turns out that Grand Theft Auto had it wrong; driving a bus at high speed on a highway is not so easy, and taking corners at speed is a sure way to flip large vehicles.
You need to juggle the video-game prerogative of ignoring road rules and speeding with the responsibilities of your duty — which may require simply that the car is still intact, or insist that you don’t hit anything at all — and the physics of your vehicle.
There are no other cars on the road, except for when you’re chasing criminals or running from police, which makes the metropolitan area feel like a veritable ghost town. I found myself idly wondering where the other vehicles went as I cruised through the streets — was the city evacuated? Is this a dystopian future where only bad guys and civil servants are out on the road?
The streets feel painted on, like a movie set. Where is everyone?
You have time to think about such things because, as tough as it is to stay on the road at 100 miles an hour, there’s generally not a lot to avoid. And you’ll probably be repeating many missions several times before you get them right, which leads to a fair amount of muscle memory.
Driving itself can be tuned to your personal preferences. You can customize camera angles, taking an in-car view or traditional behind-the-vehicle angle or a manually-controlled 360 degree “orbit” camera, or even a static shot that hops from location to location. These can be tuned and flicked through during missions, unlike all other controls and settings.
There are separate configurations for steering and braking/acceleration. I favor the virtual steering wheel with “front/back” arrows, but there are three options — essentially: tilt, slide, or touch — for each that can be combined in any way and fine-tuned to your specifications. This is important, because getting the controls to your liking really makes or breaks the game.
These are the default controls. It makes no sense to me that the box is not tied down in that truck.
Unfortunately you can’t switch control schemes while in a mission, however. You have to back out all the way to the first menu. The issue is mitigated somewhat by a test track that you can enter directly from the configuration menu, but that’s not a great indicator of how it feels on the open road.
Little niggling issues like this plague Duty Driver. Individually, they seem petty and inconsequential. But together they harm the experience and stand in the way of your enjoyment — particularly early on, as you get used to things.
Like the checkpointing system. Most missions have checkpoints — they are the sub-goals I discussed earlier. But none of these mean squat if you get a phone call or total your car near the end. You cannot hop back to the last checkpoint and try to redo the rest; you must replay the entire mission. Most missions are short, sure, so it’s not like you lose hours of your time in one go, but it adds up after a while.
Or there’s the fact that your vehicles don’t have side or rear-view mirrors. It’s a driving simulation, yet you have to spend several seconds adjusting the camera angle just so you can see behind you. And this is in a game where some missions require pixel precision, with parallel parking in several cases and one bus driving mission where you must reverse into a parking space without touch any cones.
I had to set up this camera angle manually. And I had a strict time limit to worry about while I did.
Duty Driver is a game of contradictions. It’s incredibly detailed, yet strangely sparse. It plays like a simulator, but lacks a few essential components that go with the term. It’s fun and challenging, and also tedious and frustrating. The goods comfortably outweigh the bads, thankfully, but there’s no reason why these bads should exist at all.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like stepping into the shoes of a civil servant driver or being a chauffeur for gangsters, this is the game for you. If you haven’t, well, maybe it’s time you did. For all its niggling problems, Duty Driver is a delightful breath of fresh air and a fantastic something different in the world of Android gaming.