Review: Driver: San Francisco

Driver: San Francisco takes a brave step in the world of modern, big budget video games. As gamers, we’re well used to limitations in our games. The bridges are closed, the roads are blocked, we can’t swim until the sequel, you have these weapons and this is how they work. We’re fed a series of limitations, some plausible and some requiring a certain degree of blind acceptance on our part, that make the game work. Why not take that extra leap and ask the player to accept one, very alien, new experience to make the game work?

And that’s the key thing to remember about Driver: San Francisco and its peculiar Shift mechanic: it really does work.

Driver: San Francisco puts you in the role of John Tanner who, after a brief and not too successful pursuit of your arch nemesis, is in a coma. These opening ten minutes provide not only a reason for the game’s ensuing detachment from reality but an indication of the soul that permeates all areas of the gameplay experience. From here on, the game is played through a kind of foggy coma dream, removing the need for one of the most naturally entrenched video game limitations of all: you are this character.

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[drop2]The Shift ability, then, is the marquee feature for Ubisoft’s latest instalment in the Driver franchise. It does require that kind of unwavering acceptance that we, as seasoned games players, should be used to. If you leave your questions and reasoning at the start screen then you’ll be rewarded with an imaginative and well implemented quirk of gameplay that makes things much more interesting while also negating the need for the out-of-the-car sections that some have criticised in previous Driver games.

Why doesn’t the Tanner in the orange 1970 Dodge Challenger crash when you’re off inhabiting a female cop’s body for a car chase? What happens to the consciousness of the person you Shift into? Does the Shiftee remember anything after Tanner returns to his own body? Why is Tanner’s partner, Jones, so quick to accept this and not question the very fabric of reality? It’s all very simple really: it’s just a dream.

San Francisco doesn’t make any effort to hide this fantasy. Within the opening ten minutes, you’re in a coma and the frequent hospital-based voice overs and hazy dreamlike shifting process serve as a constant reminder. Somehow, it all works to make you accept this odd collage of San Francisco. In Driver’s funky, soulful world, up-to-the-minute modernity drives on the same roads as classic American cars from the 1960s and ‘70s. The McLaren MP4-12C drives alongside Oldsmobiles and Cadillac Eldorados. It’s like an episode of some new cop drama TV series set in San Francisco in 2011 got interspersed with clips from Starsky and Hutch.

The Shifting mechanic is introduced in basic steps so it doesn’t overwhelm the player. Tanner is not entirely in control of it, at least initially. The importance, and the possibilities it opens up, become more apparent as you complete your first few story missions. Soon it feels completely natural to continuously switch between two chasing cop cars to get a better position on a fleeing criminal. It seems natural to switch into oncoming traffic and ram an offender head on before shifting out and doing it again. Shifting stops being something you have to try to understand and just becomes a natural element of gameplay within the first half an hour of it being introduced.

In the game’s hectic multiplayer modes, the shifting mechanic is even more of a cognitive disconnect for the gamer and yet, it makes the game modes exponentially more entertaining. Street races play a big part in the multiplayer side of things but it’s the less traditional Tag and Follow-the-leader game modes that bring out the madness – and carnage – allowed by swift use of the shift mechanic.

[drop]Another area where Driver: San Francisco excels is in the vibrancy of its setting. The city is bustling with life, whether it’s the crowded rush-hour intersections or the sidewalks filled with nimble pedestrians. Not only is it busy, the city has character. Each person you shift into seems to be in the middle of an argument with their passenger, talking about their current need to win a road race or engaged in a discussion with a driving instructor. There seems to be an almost inexhaustible stock of these incidental interactions and a plentiful abundance of side missions.

The side missions are of particular interest since they serve to furnish you with the game’s version of XP: Willpower. You earn willpower for completing certain tasks during the course of missions that improve the city or show off your driving skills. With your earned willpower points, you can buy new cars and upgrades, with which to complete missions, at the game’s garages.

You also earn small amounts of willpower for every overtake, near miss, drift, etc. that you perform whilst driving around the city. This gradual drip of upgrade points acts as incentive to stay in a car to travel, rather than just shift to your location for a mission every time.

This focus on staying in the car means that the handling has got to be robust enough to make the driving experience a constant pleasure. For the most part, it is. Cars feel weighty enough and have sufficiently heavy rear ends so that kicking it out and drifting around corners is simple enough. The new arcade-style add-ons are the most clumsy element of the driving. A refilling power up meter which allows a short speed boost or charged ram manoeuvre adds a little excitement to the multiplayer modes but in the story missions it feels a little unnecessary and clumsy in its implementation.

For the most part, the story is paced well and keeps things interesting throughout. There is one point which might induce some fits of rage brought on by the sheer repetition required to pass the trial and error mission but it is very much an isolated incident. Besides this one notable exception, San Francisco avoids the issues present in some of its predecessors and provides a varied and cleverly directed progression towards the final crescendo.

[videoyoutube]It’s worth making special note for the technical achievement in Driver: San Francisco too. With the framerate locked at an impressive 60 frames per second and cutscene models and textures some of the best multiplatform graphics to date, it is worth forgiving the less than perfect facial animation. It’s also worth noting that the hazy fog covering up the draw distance limitations, if characteristic of San Francisco itself, is there to keep that framerate up and the cars looking impressive.

The movie director mode makes full use of those impressive in game visuals. It allows players to record segments of gameplay and cut them together, using different camera angles, into sequences that they can then show off to friends. The game has to be connected via Ubisoft’s UPlay system to use this function but it all works quite quickly and has some potential for fans to make interesting little movies. You could switch between multiple cars and cause a huge pile up with each vehicle’s approach recorded, for example. It feels like quite a basic tool set with only camera angles and timeline editing included.

Pros:

  • Looks great, plays well and sounds like Aretha Franklin’s iPod set to shuffle.
  • San Francisco is an excellent playground for vehicular mayhem.
  • That surprising Shift mechanic opens up a lot of opportunities for fun.
  • There are loads of side missions and extra things to do.

Cons:

  • The Director mode could have a little more substance.
  • The boost and ram features feel unnecessary, outside of the multiplayer.

Driver: San Francisco could have been a bit of a damp squib. It all hinged on the usefulness and implementation of that shift mechanic. Balancing so much of the game’s prospects on that one innovation was a huge gamble for Reflections. Thankfully, it has paid off and the game’s most risky change from previous titles has become its most useful and endearing quirk. San Francisco isn’t perfect by any means. There will be those that don’t enjoy the distinctive handling of the cars, those that won’t appreciate the humour or the semi-period feel of the environment.

This is a game that is bursting with character and, for those that appreciate a ‘70s soul-and-funk-fuelled power slide through metaphysical pondering, it is a delight.

Score: 8/10

Reviewed from the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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33 Comments

  1. Wow, I’m shocked to see this do so well.
    I’ll have to give the demo a go now…

  2. Was not expecting the demos to be so addictive! Definitely one to get for later

  3. Nice review thank you. Will be picking this up at some point in between all the great releases coming up.

  4. Lovely stuff, Peter. That’s me sold. Not now but over Christmas, I reckon. It’s lower down my list but it’s on there and that makes it something good already. The demo had me smiling as it was just the right amount of entertainment for me – not too serious but the handling felt solid enough for me to tool around the city in.

  5. Cracking review, gonna get this.

  6. Top of my rental list, ahead of Deus Ex!

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