Like its comatose protagonist in this newest game, the Driver franchise has been on the sidelines for far too long; idly vegetating whilst the world went on and progressed without it with their open world sandboxes and super-serious, po-faced narratives. It is with some sense of relief then, that Driver: San Francisco is a veritable shot in the arm for the series; awakening it from it’s long slumber to reinsert itself triumphantly into today’s racing scene; doing so by returning to its roots whilst embracing a new, off-the-wall innovation that elevates it to it’s own echelon within the genre.
In Driver: San Francisco, you are once again cast in the cooler than cool boots and swagger jacket of series favourite Tanner; this time in pursuit of dangerous career criminal Jericho, whom as you might reasonably infer, isn’t cool at all and instead aims to cause the city a lot of trouble.
Really, the story takes an appropriate back seat here (a good thing considering it’s all kinds of cheddar and has such a vibrant 70′s vibe that it’s impossible to take seriously) as the defining attribute of the game this time around is that our hero can actually shift his spirit out of his car and possess other people and their vehicles.
As the resultant labour of love from what is quite clearly an LSD overdose, the whole idea is like some sort of batshit marriage between Starsky & Hutch and Quantum Leap and yet, despite the conceptual absurdity of it, it works. It really, fucking, works. Better yet, the gameplay possibilities that it opens up are both substantial and significant; all the while the traditional Driver gameplay which made the PSOne titles such a joy to play returns in robust form here – rumbling strongly under the hood of this shiny new, eccentric chassis.
I’m not going to tell you the reason why Tanner can suddenly possess the shit out of other folks and their transport for fear of spoilers, but i’ll just say that the explanation behind it is as far-fetched as the idea itself. Expect narrative cheese.
Lots of it.
After the hand-holding of the initial story mission, you’re introduced to a map of the city and more crucially, the first of your new powers; the ability to ‘shift’ from one vehicle to another. Engaging the shift ability pulls Tanner’s spirit out of the car and from a first person view, you can move as this disembodied soul, surveying the city whilst on the lookout for a new lump of flesh and pair of wheels to dive into.
Every vehicle on the road has acceleration, top-speed and handling stats so you’re eminently aware of whether you’re going to be jumping into a lumbering heap of shit or not before you take the leap. When a vehicle takes your fancy, dive into it, take over and drive away.
Aside from the sensation of driving a totally different vehicle, developer Reflections have also had some fun with the bodies that you shift into and the situations that they find themselves in. One time you shift into a new vehicle, you might find yourself in the body of a driving instructor giving a driving lesson or inside a wife who is driving after her cheating husband. Most of it is pretty entertaining stuff and certainly doesn’t hurt the proceedings, serving instead to highlight the humorous side of having such an ability.
This really is the crux of the shifting mechanic – taking over another vehicle and utilising it in whatever fashion the current situation demands. As you plough through the story missions and become more powerful, your range of abilities increases and the developer is quick to test you as a result. One such entertaining example of how well they do this is when you are forced to compete in a race and ensure that two specific cars within that race finish in first and second place respectively. Doing so requires judicious use of the later acquired ‘quick-shift’ ability which allows you to quickly jump into the car ahead of you and take over; allowing you to catch up with the other car in front as you frantically attempt to keep both cars in their required positions.
Another example of this mechanic working in full effect is a mission which tasks you to stop a band of rogue street racers by possessing oncoming traffic and sending them, Kamikaze style, front-on into the pack to turn them into smoldering wrecks. Its complete lunacy and you’ll love every high-octane moment of it.
The feeling of satisfaction is further compounded by just how smoothly everything moves. Driver: SF might not be the prettiest driving game around, but the frame-rate rarely dips below a liquid smooth sixty frames per second, a hugely impressive feat given the sheer amount of vehicles and real estate on screen at any one time. The silky smooth screen update does more than just serve the player visually; the increased framerate results in a more responsive drive than many racers which hover around the thirty frames per second mark have been able to achieve and you’ll feel it in every vehicle you’ll hop into – from the slow and wide fire truck to the screamingly fast McClaren F1.
Going back to the city map, you’ll see the area dotted with various icons and symbols which point to garages, story missions, side missions, dares and collectibles. The side-missions in Driver: SF are actually worth setting some time aside for since they come up with some creative challenges for utilising the shift mechanic to its fullest; a crazy scenario involving you controlling two cars at once being a particular highlight.
The ‘dares’ on the other hand are much more in tune with the traditional challenges seen in the original Driver games back when, y’know, they used to be good. Jumps, drifts, speed racing, time attack and other challenges await you to test your skill and just like other side and story missions, dares will reward you in ‘Willpower Points’ – the currency of the game, allowing you to buy new vehicles and upgrade your powers at the local garage.
There are also optional police chases and criminal getaway activities that you can do, but outside of offering you extra cash they serve little other purpose than serving up a quick round of old-school, Bullitt-esque bombast. Finally, the collectables which are dotted around the map are worth grabbing since for every ten you collect you unlock a ‘movie challenge’, each of which are an ode to the Driver missions of old with all powers disabled and only the powerful grunt of the trusty 1968 Camaro SS underneath your heel.
It’s just as well that there is a relative wealth of extracurricular activity to do in the game besides the story missions, since the campaign itself is positively diminished; only lasting for between three and four hours if you were to not touch any of the side missions, dares or collectibles.
Really though, at its core, Driver: San Francisco is as good as Driver has ever been. All of the series hallmarks are here; the striped Camaro SS 1968, the cinematic jumps, the superlative vehicle handling, the blazing speed, the chases; it’s all here – present and accounted for with spectacular aplomb.
Driver San Francisco is the best sort of return to form a fan could hope for; not only does it refine the traditional elements of the series that have anchored fans to it for years, but it also represents a shot in the arm for the driving genre at large with the bold shift mechanic – an ace in the hole which ensures that Driver San Francisco stands out and remains unique against its contemporary peers.
Aside from the cheesy plot and anorexic campaign there are no real reasons I can think of for not recommending Driver: San Francisco. If you’re still not convinced and you believe yourself to be a fan of the series or you have a hankering for decent racers in general, perhaps like Tanner himself, you need to do some soul searching of your own.
Developed by Ubi Reflections and published by Ubisoft, Driver: San Francisco is available to buy right now on PC, 360, PS3 & Wii.
An Xbox 360 copy of this game was independently acquired by the reviewer.