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How Reflections progressed from GTA rival to Ubisoft’s in-house car collision specialists

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DNA Tracing

PC Gamer magazine

(Image credit: Future)

This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 258 in July 2021, as part of our ‘DNA Tracing’ series, where every month we delve into the lineages behind iconic games and studios. 

During the ’90s, most driving games were straightforward circuit racers, and the Newcastle studio’s Destruction Derby series appeared no different—sending stock cars around figure-of-eight loops ad infinitum. Only when an inevitable pile-up happened did Reflections’ specialty emerge: realistic physics and crunchy collisions.

Those traits were finally set free by Driver in 1999, another driving game, but crucially, not a racing game. Studio founder Martin Edmondson embraced his first love of car chases, setting getaway missions against the urban grids of Miami, San Francisco, LA, and New York (as well as a chunk of Newcastle upon Tyne’s city centre, as a secret unlock). Reflections infused these streets with the same world-class physics play as simulators like Gran Turismo, but with a different goal in mind—capturing the sway of the 1968 Ford Mustang in Bullitt as Steve McQueen executed a right-angle handbrake turn. This was no longer sport but cinema, a stylish and dangerous dive into a criminal underworld.

It was a breakthrough in 3D city exploration, and Reflections was the first. But up in Edinburgh, another developer influenced by a similar set of films was catching up. By the time Driver came back to the PC, Rockstar North had put out GTA III and Vice City, yoinking the soft suspension and mission formats Reflections had pioneered and taking the formula three steps further. One of GTA III’s missions even tasked you with bumping off a yakuza wheelman named Tanner, after Driver’s protagonist—a taunt Reflections seemed unable to resist in the years that followed.

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

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