Driver: San Francisco Review
Written : Thursday, September 01, 2011
By: Richard Walker
Here's a slightly boring story for you... We fell out with the Driver series in a big way during a late night session with Driver 2, in which a lengthy and arduous chase sequence ended when we clipped a minuscule piece of scenery. After hours of cursing following what was a protracted test of endurance through hair-tearingly tough sequences, we decided that nothing is worth this kind of sadistic torture, so we flipped the lid of our PSone, tore the disc from the drive and hurled it across the room like a frisbee. We've never played a Driver game since, feeling betrayed after the brilliance that was the first title, but Driver: San Francisco's premise is simply too intriguing to pass up, even if it does take major suspension of disbelief to swallow. Turns out it was the TV who did it.
But here's the kicker: Driver: SF's 'Shift' mechanic while utterly dumb in theory, in practice makes the game what it is. Conventional wisdom tells you that it really shouldn't work, but the fact that it does is one of the finest tricks Reflections has pulled off since the original Driver brought '70s car chase movies to life in a video game. 'Shift' proves to not only be a welcome method for covering vast areas of San Fran's 200-odd miles of road, but it's also a great MacGuffin that's delivered in a tongue-in-cheek, likeable way. Even Tanner and his long-suffering partner Jones frequently remark that it's unbelievable and a bit daft in a Quantum Leap kind of way.
"We get donuts after this, right?"
Running at an ultra-smooth 60-frames per second, Driver: San Francisco looks fantastic too, enveloping you in its expansive rendition of the eponymous city streets and buildings, filled with dozens of licensed vehicles to Shift in and out of at will. During Tanner's coma-induced travels around the city, from driver's seat to driver's seat, you'll catch witty snippets of dialogue, as the passenger questions the change in mood as you inhabit the body of the person at the wheel. As a result, Driver: SF's tone is light and humorous, seemingly shooting a knowing wink at the player who's along for the ride with Tanner and Jones, and are just as bewildered as you might be.
There's a variety of story-driven missions to tackle, unlocked by playing City Missions denoted by yellow icons on the map, which you're able to hover over while Shifting. The higher your Shift level – automatically upgraded as you progress – the more of the city you can see, which is invaluable for getting around given the sheer size of San Fran, which expands as you make your way through the story, closing the net on Jericho, Tanner's nemesis. There are loads of additional activities too, marked as light blue symbols around the city, and it's these that provide the real replay value in Driver: San Fran once you've finished the central story aspect of the game. These activities are instrumental in helping Tanner to accumulate willpower (WP), Driver's currency used to purchase new garages, which in turn unlock more cars to acquire and new Shift upgrades for your ramming and boost abilities.
Willpower can also be acquired through skilful or brave driving, so near misses, drifts, speeding and so on all grants WP. As you progress, you'll also get even more activities to play, including Movie Challenges that offer some great tributes to classic car chase movies, like Vanishing Point and Bullitt or TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, all presented with authentic film grain, to complete the effect. Mandatory City Missions also offer some funny moments while mixing up the gameplay, so one minute you'll be helping Japanese street racers raise money for a college fund, while the next you'll be taking a showroom car for a test drive or scaring the living daylights out of your passenger by pushing their heart rate to the limit. If there's one thing Driver manages to convey, it's a playful sense of fun that pervades almost every aspect of the game.
"I can jump higher than you, copper!"
There are patches of the game that confound and frustrate, like an interminable and repetitive final boss battle that almost succeeds in reaching old-school Driver levels of irritation. Overall though, Driver: SF is a far more accessible game with knockabout handling designed to enable any player to pull off tyre-squealing powerslides or generate smoke from your burning rubber. The use of Shift is also inventive and well-implemented, adding a welcome twist to what might have otherwise been run-of-the-mill mission objectives. For instance, there's escort missions and pursuits that require you Shift into oncoming traffic, to tackle opposing drivers head-on, whether they're trucks carrying valuable shipments of platinum, ammonia or whatever (this is all explained in the somewhat convoluted narrative), and they're given a breathe of fresh air thanks to Shift. We shouldn't have to explain why ramming into oncoming vehicles is a laugh; strictly in the game that is.
Leaving your vehicle to Shift during these missions can be risky though, as the AI that assumes control is simply stupid. There are other flaws too, like the cinematic camera cutting in to show you a cool crash in slow-motion, only to occasionally spit you back into the game and into a wall. None of these blemishes are all that game-breaking however, and although the story is somewhat brief, the wealth of additional challenges will keep you playing. Then there's multiplayer of course, which offers a split-screen mode, as well as a bevy of online match types to indulge in.
Driver's multiplayer actually offers some pretty raucous fun too, with Shift really coming into its own in modes like Blitz, Tag and Capture the Flag. Free-For-All modes like Trailblazer - in which you have to stay within the path of a fleeing DeLorean – and Takedown, which is a game of cops versus criminals, are also immensely enjoyable, and should ensure that Driver: San Fran lives on beyond its single-player mode. Levelling up in multiplayer, you'll gain unlocks galore as you go too, making the obligatory grinding rank attaining achievements less of a chore.
"Read all about it, bitches!"
As far as achievements are concerned, Driver's list is pretty strong, with a good blend of straightforward story-progression ones, and a few rewarding players prepared to explore and pull off some crazy stunts. The number of online multiplayer achievements will annoy some people though, as there's not only a number of them attached to levelling up, but also several that will require sinking countless hours into certain modes, like Checkpoint and Rush, where you'll need to pass through 1000 gates for the 'Stay With The Pack' cheevo. Achievements like the 'Lombard Streak' one are more inventive and fun though.
Driver: San Francisco is an assured return to form for the franchise that manages to eke out some refreshing gameplay from its core conceit, despite ultimately failing to do it justice from a story perspective. Having Shift as a device makes for some great moments though, and in multiplayer, it shakes up certain game modes, making them tense and exciting. As a result, Driver: San Francisco feels inviting and fresh, offering a great package for fans and newcomers alike.
Funky slap bass and '70s grooves on the soundtrack are complemented by a great contemporary soundtrack, as well as throaty engine sounds and lovely squealing tyres. Nice.
Driver: San Fran is huge, so how Reflections managed to get the thing looking this good while running at 60fps, we'll never know. The seamlessly intercut CG and in-game engine cutscenes are clever too.
There isn't a great deal of disparity in handling between cars, but Driver is still effortlessly entertaining to play. It's nice to see that the frustration and difficulty of previous Driver's has been nixed too, although the less said about the final boss chase, the better.
There's absolutely tons to do in Driver: SF, from roaming the expansive city completing single-player challenges, to jumping into multiplayer for some guaranteed laughs. You can also still create your own movies with the Film Editor, which makes a welcome return.
A fine list marred only by the presence of grinding multiplayer achievements. There's a good mix of tasks to complete overall, including one or two inventive ones, but for the most part, there's a little too much grind in here.
Jump behind the wheel and put the pedal to the metal in Driver: San Francisco, and you won't regret it. If you can forget trying to find method behind the Shift madness, you'll have a blast in both single and multiplayer, coming back for more when you want to burn rubber in style.