Also available on: PS3, PC, Wii, OnLive
Developer: Ubisot Reflections
Driver: San Francisco has heeded the important lesson that if something is broke, then definitely do fix it. Driver 3, released in 2004, received a poor critical response for its weak on-foot missions and general abundance of flaws. Fast forward to 2011, and the latest game renews the war between hard boiled cop John Tanner and crime boss Jericho.
The opening sequence features Jericho escaping from a prison transport, causing Tanner to chase after him and ultimately end up in a pile of twisted metal. Driver: San Francisco's point of difference to other driving titles is that Tanner is put into a coma in the crash and, in a doff of the cap to TV series Life On Mars, he must solve the case from within a coma-induced dream. It is a quite frankly bizarre set up, but one that also works by giving a fresh take on open-world racing games to successfully reboot the tired Driver franchise.
The headline feature in Driver: San Francisco is Tanner's new ability to 'shift' between any citizen in the West Coast US city, opening up the opportunity to drive any car, discover clues from unwitting criminals and even set up rudimentary traps for escaping perps. The premise underpinning this of a coma-induced dream state is completely ridiculous, but actually is a bit of a masterstroke.
Rather than forcing players to drive tediously around the open world trying to find the next mission, they can glide like birds over the metropolis, picking out challenges as they choose. There is a real fluidity to this gameplay structure, which ensures things are always moving forward and offering plenty of options to the player.
Shift is the glue that brings this game together by allowing the player to take charge of any vehicle by just pressing one button and then hovering a cursor over the chosen target and assuming control. You can also zoom up to a bird's-eye view to see the massive city area (unlocked in chunks) or zoom in to street level to see what is going on.
There is a huge amount of content to take on in Driver: San Francisco, from the core story missions to optional side challenges. Dares require you to do often bizarre things, such as scare the pants of a driving instructor, while the races also have a few different types, including checkpoint challenges and team based racing where you have to shift between two cars to ensure they finish in first and second place.
As San Francisco is no stranger to a bit of crime, there are various missions involving the police or criminals. Chase missions see you take charge of a cop car hunting down fleeing criminals, with the necessity to use a charge-up ram attack to take them down or shift to other vehicles to use them as battering rams. Replays allow you to watch the smashes in indulgent slow motion.
There are also stunt missions tasking you with performing a range of tricks, such as drifts or jumps over other vehicles. The story, or 'city' missions involve helping out some in-distress citizen, although these feel a bit weak as it's hard to feel particularly engaged in helping someone whose son has decided to take up street racing. Occasionally, you will be assisting criminals in the city missions as this is a way of building intelligence and getting closer to the at-large Jericho.
All missions completed earn the player 'will power', which can be spent in garages around the city on new cars. The game features licensed models for the first time, including luxury marques such as the Ford GT and Aston Martin Rapide, and there are an awful lot of cars to choose from. One of the greatest triumphs about Driver: San Francisco is the actual driving itself. Taking control of the vehicles is an absolute joy.
Sure, this is very far from a driving simulator, but what the game gets spot on is the flourishes of driving - drifting round corners, performing jumps and zipping between busy traffic. However repetitive the missions become - and they do indeed become very repetitive towards the end - the sheer thrill of powering a muscle car around the streets of San Francisco chasing after some escaping reprobate just never gets old.
All the cars look fantastic and detailed, but the game's presentation is certainly not without its flaws. The story really is utter bunkum, and while it serves its purpose to give a new slant on the action, it also feels flimsy and full of holes. Thankfully, the sense of humour rather paper over these cracks, meaning that the narrative rumbles along very nicely as long as you don't take it too seriously (because the game itself clearly doesn't).
The graphics are a mixed bag too. The facial animations and cut scenes are strong, with an impressive level of detail in the animation. However, the city itself feels a bit plastic and cheap, somewhat like those videos the council creates to show off a new urban development that will never get made. However, there are plenty of cars on the roads and pedestrians on the streets to at least make the city feel like a busy place to race around.
Alongside the lengthy single player campaign, Driver: San Francisco also offers a suite of up to 19 multiplayer modes for up to eight players online. Notable challenges include Trailblazer, where players have to catch the trails left by a speeding car to earn points, while Tag sees players competing to be 'it'. Unlocking certain modes requires earning experience points to level up, which seems a bit disappointing considering people have paid for the full product and this is not DLC.
But what makes the multiplayer in Driver San Francisco most interesting is the shift mechanic, which basically means any AI-controlled car on the roads could be a competitor. There is a touch of Assassin's Creed multiplayer about this, in that the racing-based challenges are given a different flavour to make them feel fresh.
Aside from the online game, there are also options for local split-screen races with two players, including challenges such as clean the streets where the players must take out marked vehicles. However, there is a very noticeable lag when playing locally and in heavy traffic, which robs much of the fun from the experience. So, Driver San Francisco is one of those rare games which on paper sounds like a complete mess, but actually turns out to be a pretty impressive package.
The story is ridiculous, but it enables a unique take on open-world driving games that really reboots the tired Driver franchise. There are flaws - the graphics are a bit weak in parts, the missions get repetitive after a while and the end boss battle is knuckle-gnawingly frustrating - but overall the game has the charm and the content to make it worth putting the keys in the ignition.
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