Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Reflections / ESRB: Teen [Drug Reference, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence] / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360
It’s been five years since the last Driver game (Parallel Lines) and seven since the last adventure of John Tanner (Driv3r). Both the game and the series’ original protagonist are back, and both are packing new twists. Driver: San Francisco offers the series’ expected visceral vehicular thrills and adds a unique “body hopping” element that impacts both gameplay and the story. Does Driver going all Quantim Leap work? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. While the game’s new gimmick is uneven, Driver: San Francisco is still one helluva ride.
When last we left our hero–undercover detective John Tanner–he was in a hospital bed fresh off a climactic encounter with his arch nemesis Charles Jericho. The two were in critical condition and Driv3r ended with one of the characters flat-lining. It turns out that both of them are alive and well in 2011, and their dance begins again. This time around, their battlefield is the glorious City by the Bay–San Francisco.
Early on in the game, Jericho escapes from a prison truck using the tried-and-true combination of a rocket launcher and a sexy woman. Naturally, Tanner pursues him. It doesn’t turn out so well for the hero and he suffers injuries that leave him in a coma. The bulk of the game takes place in Tanner’s head, where his coma-induced dreams are free from the shackles of reality.
While in Coma Land (TM), Tanner has the ability to “Shift,” allowing him to jump into other people’s bodies and control their cars. From a narrative standpoint, the ability is a little goofy. While it lets Tanner witness various events from different perspectives, gather clues from inhabiting bodies of bad guys, and uncover key events in San Francisco, it’s a little too convenient (at best) and outright silly (at worst). When taken literally, the bulk of Driver: San Francisco is a coma-induced hallucination that’s influenced by a television set. Like I said, silly. The game’s writers meander all over the place with the gimmick and it doesn’t always work. The supernatural and metaphysical aspects of the story sometimes get in the way of what’s ultimately a straightforward cop caper.
Thankfully, Tanner wakes from his coma near the end of the game and resumes his pursuit of Jericho in the real world. And really, this is when the narrative catches fire–when it’s about a cool good guy in pursuit of a despicable villain.
Driver: San Francisco bucks the trend of vehicular-action games that incorporate on-foot sequences. After all, the game is not called Walker, Jogger, or Sprinter. This game is all about driving–high-speed driving full of chases, crashes, and collateral damage. Thanks to the “Shift” feature, there’s an open-world element that provides a lot of variety and choice . Players can choose to tackle loads of side missions and procure dozens of real-world cars or they can just barrel through the story-driven portions of the game. Either way, the experience is full of exhilarating driving.
The game unfolds with a few straightforward driving sequences interspersed with cutscenes.. When shifting is introduced, it’s a whole new ballgame. While shifting doesn’t always make sense in terms of storytelling, it opens things up for gameplay and allows Tanner to engage in a wide variety of driving action. Being able to change perspectives, hopping between different parts of San Francisco in the same action sequence, and switching between drivers during a chase offers driving action that’s not found in other games.
In addition to tackling action that advances the story, you can hop into bodies of numerous San Francisco drivers for random missions . Beating certain missions unlocks cars or earns currency that can be used to purchase cars. These driving activities include timed sequences, checkpoint races, passing a certain number of cars, and more. At first, the amount of open-world variety feels pleasantly overwhelming. By the end of the game, some players might find it repetitive or old-hat. Having the attention span of a gnat, I loved that there were always ancillary activities to enjoy.
Whether it’s tackling random activities or furthering the game’s narrative, the driving in Driver: San Francisco is flat-out fun. The handbrake-heavy driving is over-the-top and entertainingly exaggerated. The sense of speed is lovely. Jumping over the hills of San Francisco will cause you to take a deep breath. The metal-on-metal crashes will leave you with a satisfying feeling of “crunch!” While the plot is all over the place, the driving is consistently good throughout. My only complaint is that the difficulty gets brutal towards the end of the game.
This is the best Driver has ever looked. Compared to games like Split/Second and Need for Speed, the cars look great. More importantly, the action flows at a smooth 60 frames per second.
I was actually surprised by the faces in Driver: San Francisco. The characters are detailed and well animated. The facial animations are particularly impressive, adding a “wow” factor that I wasn’t expecting.
The real visual star of the game is the beautifully rendered San Francisco. It’s not just landmarks like the Ferry Building or the Transamerica building; the streets are so detailed that, as a former San Francisco resident, I recognized areas that made me say, “Hey, this is a block away from Sam’s office!” and, “Oh sweet. Tony’s apartment is up the hill!” The sharp graphics and great attention to detail made randomly driving around San Francisco a lot of fun.
Crashes, tire screeching, and voice acting are solid in Driver: San Francisco. What really caught my attention was the game’s soundtrack. I recognized tracks from The Beastie Boys, Queens of the Stone Age, Aretha Franklin, and The Cure. I loved that there were great tracks from a wide variety of artists and eras. I also loved composer Marc Canham’s (Driver: Parallel Lines, Driv3r, Far Cry 2, Split/Second) updated Driver theme. It reminded me a lot of watching Starsky & Hutch as a kid.
The multiplayer element of Driver: San Francisco was a most pleasant surprise. Like the single-player portion of the game, the multiplayer component contains a lot of variety. There are cooperative and competitive modes. There are chase sequences, tag games, damage games, and straight-up racing. I wasn’t expecting much from this game’s multiplayer component and was surprised to find diverse and solid options.
I was particularly addicted to tag. It’s a simple game that we’ve all enjoyed in the playground. It’s taken to another level when it’s played with high-speed cars. The shift ability ups the ante by letting you switch out of cars after you’ve crashed or lost control of them. It can make for some incredibly enjoyable chases that are full of momentum shifts.
Similar to several of the best missions in its single-player mode, some of the game’s most enjoyable multiplayer modes use the shift ability in creative ways that aren’t found in any other game. The developers just did a great job of implementing a feature that could have turned out gimmicky and used it for some truly inventive multiplayer racing.
Aside from a story that is sometimes too silly and a difficulty too unforgiving, there’s not a lot to complain about in Driver: San Francisco. There are certainly a lot of things to love. The gorgeous graphics and entertaining gameplay definitely make the game a thrill ride. The strong multiplayer options will make you take the game for a spin well after the story is done. Driver and John Tanner are back, and they’re better than ever!