Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #4: “The Italian Job” (2001)

$4,000,000 through a traffic jam
-Troy Kennedy Martin, The Italian Job (1969)

 

FF3-NES-WhiteMage1.png “The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”

The Italian Job (published by SCi) was released in Europe for the PlayStation on 5th October 2001. The UK No. 1 single was “Mambo No. 5” by Bob the Builder. Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day opened at the top of the Northern American box office.

With a remake in the works and a DVD release coming up, 1969’s The Italian Job was coming back into the cultural conversation. Figuring that it had potential, Paramount licensed a tie-in video game.

What stands out to obsessive note-takers such as myself is that The Italian Job uses the same game engine as Driver (1999). This is immediately apparent from the main menu having the same design but also the police pursuit system with red triangles showing their position behind you, their size and opacity representing their proximity. So, if you have the PC versions of both, you can put cars from one inside the other! They even have the same composer – Allister Brimble, who rearranges a lot of Quincy Jones’ original score.

This was inevitably going to come up, so I figured I may as well open with it.

The story is adapted as a linear series of missions, each one unlocking the next until the end is reached. But this particular version of the story is different. It has to be. And what’s included in it from the original film is just as interesting as what’s excluded or even completely invented. For example, the iconic opening credits sequence in which a Lamborghini Miura drives through the Alps is covered briefly not as a tutorial level but a full-motion video, narrated by famed Michael Caine impersonator Phil Cornwell, who provides the voice of main character Charlie Croker throughout.

The missions in Turin and beyond being so challenging, you, the player, are prepared by what are essentially glorified tutorial levels taking inspiration from the London-based first act of the film. Note that they only “take inspiration”. Almost all the plot points before departing for Turin are invented based on the developers’ ideas of what could’ve happened between scenes that would’ve required driving, such as acquiring certain vehicles and other moments that a film can explain away with single lines of dialogue.
This might seem like grasping at straws, but it does answer a lot of questions that weren’t addressed originally, such as how particular team members came to be recruited. What else were they supposed to do, make a whole mission from that one brief scene where Croker’s riding a milk float (because apparently that was a normal way of travelling in ’60s London)?

Inevitably, though, some questions still won’t be answered. The Prison Pals mission is about freeing Dominic, who drives the red Mini during The Getaway. But we’re never told where Tony – who drives the blue Mini during The Getaway – comes from, he just pops up during Special Delivery.

That’s not a knock against Special Delivery, however; its one of the most interesting missions in that the time limit doesn’t have to be beaten – if you don’t, a Plan B is revealed and a new objective set. That said, in the next mission, Skillfull Bill, we’re told that Bill’s being released from prison as if he hadn’t been already. Could it be that these missions are in the wrong order?

Traffic Tape Caper is another great mission. It’s one of the longer ones, but it happens at the same time as another series of events elsewhere that tie into each other.
There’s never a sense of missions being included for the sake of it. Yes, some of them are forced in order to make the story work for a video game, but they do at least try to make them worthwhile.

What these adaptational differences definitely aren’t are dismissals of the original film. The attention to design on its own shows just how much care had been taken. Some of it’s more obvious, like the accuracy of real world vehicles such as the iconic Minis featured on the cover, but there are also perfect recreations of filming locations that weren’t themselves landmarks and only remain recognisable to fans of the film. The Apex Corner building that was used as the Turin traffic control centre has since been demolished, and there’s only one image I can find of it anywhere. It wasn’t important to anyone else, but they still made sure they accurately recreated it. That’s how dedicated they were to the source material. Even the livery on the Turin airport plane is taken directly from the film. The loading screen is another example, by referencing the computer room inside the traffic control centre. The missions are introduced in a screening room resembling the one used in the film by Bridger when being debriefed. When a mission is completed, “Rule, Britannia!” by Thomas Arne is played – the same piece that plays when Bridger comes on screen in the film. While a lot of necessary changes were made story-wise, the effort taken when it comes to details like this shows that they weren’t forgetting where they were coming from.

Outside the story, there are other modes, like Challenge for training yourself before a big mission, and Free Ride, for exploring the cities and learning all the fastest ways around. Some challenges even let you drive civilian cars, which is a pretty cool gimmick.
Another rather cool thing is in Free Ride. When it comes to the Minis, the colour is determined by the city – blue for London and red for Turin. Why all three weren’t available is never explained. Maybe they needed to save space. But I like it, it brings something unique to each city, like a watermark. Free Ride also has some hidden games to find – the best of which will unlock a whole chain of mini-games that, when completed, unlocks a new vehicle: on console, this is a Fiat 500 shrunken down (just like one of the cheats from the game that used this engine originally) and on PC, an indestructible gold Mini (which, 12 years later, would appear in the Bollywood remake film Players).
Each city is designed to be challenging, like obstacle courses. There are tight alleyways, blind turns and lots of slow and oblivious drivers everywhere.

Yet, in the same way that the creative liberties are justified, a lot of the game is very confusing.

For instance, in Free Ride, some cars featured in the story aren’t available at the car select screen, whereas others weren’t featured in the story or even the film. How come the white Mini isn’t an option, but there is a generic open top sports car? I never understood it before and I still don’t understand it now. The rubber-banding is complete anathema to the concept of a racing game and the reused dialogue soundbites become irritating when noticed.

However, there is a very particular irk I have. Dave and Dominic have not only the same voice but the same character model, which is even stranger given that Dave’s role has been reduced to a single mission – Keeping it Up, a training mission for Lorna that was irrelevant from the start because we know that she’s going to be palmed off as soon as they arrive in Turin for being unnecessary. Look, I understand that they probably wanted the Dave character to be included, but even in the original film, he barely did anything. The driver training scene would’ve made a great mission, but instead becomes a brief cutscene. Then how come it’s included as a challenge? Surely Keeping it Up could’ve been removed and replaced with that? And to make matters even worse, that challenge was included on the demo in a way that never implied it wasn’t a mission. It’s disappointing to say the least.

But The Italian Job is still a game that I’ll always love, despite its illogicality in a lot of places. The aforementioned demo featured a preview of The Getaway mission, which is when I knew how much I wanted to play it. It’s one of the most iconic car chases of all time, and the fact that such a video game level recreating it even exists is reason alone to be interested. It’s not an easy mission, in fact it’s the hardest. But then why shouldn’t it be? Every mission that’s come before has been training for it. The Turin spawn point in Free Ride is where it begins, allowing you to trace the route and go on practice runs. Three of the checkpoint challenges together form a version of it, which is yet more practice. The whole game is structured around it. And why not? It may as well have been the single reason for making it. It takes time and commitment, but it can be mastered. There was a time long ago when I could go straight into it and get it perfect, with no damage and in record time. It became like choreography, I knew every beat, exactly the right moment to brake and the perfect way to take each turn. Sure, the roads aren’t nearly as blocked up as they should be and the police only seem to be chasing me, not the other drivers in front of me, but it remains the most immersive recreation of that sequence. One day, I ought to do a side-by-side comparison with the game version and the film version.

It might make a lot of changes from the original film, but they were necessary and turned out to be great in their own right. A lot of love was clearly applied in the process from the design. Some choices were completely nonsensical but what matters most is that it still evokes the spirit of its source material while remaining a mostly great game for fans and gamers unfamiliar with it. The Italian Job solves the inevitable problems that come about from adapting a film into a game while also highlighting what they are. It’s an odd little thing, just like the cars at the heart of it, but retains the British eccentricity that defined its inspiration and still makes you smile, even now.


 

 

The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.

 

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