It’s a little ironic that, for a franchise that’s been on life support since its first sequel, Ubisoft Reflections would decide to put its lead character in a coma for the fifth entry in the Driver series (after ditching him entirely for 2006’s Driver: Parallel Lines). But that’s just the tip of the crazy iceberg as far as Driver: San Francisco is concerned. Detective John Tanner is back, and he’s out of his freakin’ mind!
The game kicks of with Tanner, and partner Tobias Jones, chasing down arch nemesis Jericho (From Driver 2 and Driv3r) after he breaks out of a prison truck on what should be a routine transfer. During the brief tutorial, in which you learn how to handle Tanner’s Dodge Challenger, Jericho manages to turn the tables and, after a spectacular crash, puts Tanner in a coma. From this point on the game takes place entirely in Tanner’s coma dream. Yes, that’s right, it’s all in his head. You, the player, are fully aware of what exactly is going on but Tanner has no clue as he continues in his relentless pursuit of Jericho within the confines of his own brain. As far as a driving game premise goes it’s a tough sell and this might go some way to explaining why Ubisoft have made little to no reference to it in any of their marketing. Watch a trailer or pick up the retail box and you’d be hard pressed to see what separates this from any other open world car game.
Yet it’s this coma based gameplay that makes Driver: San Francisco a title to sit up and take notice of and it’s all down to one game-changing mechanic, ‘Shifting’. To Tanner’s understandable surprise he suddenly finds he has the ability to jump – or ‘shift’- into the body of any other person driving a vehicle. It’s this ability that the entire game hangs on and, with this one ridiculous idea, Ubisoft have managed to turn what’s expected of a driving game on its head.
It’s pretty difficult to explain how brilliantly this works unless you actually sit down to play it. As an example, imagine you’re in a high speed chase but your target is slipping away and catching up seems nigh-on impossible. In any other game this would be a case of hitting the start button and trying again, but in Driver: SF this is the perfect time to hit the appropriate button and float out of your current vehicle. Time slows to a crawl as you soar over traffic and ahead of your target and you pick out a car in the oncoming lane. Hit the button again and BAM!, you’re immediately in the driving seat and you steer into the path of your target, severely damaging him and slowing him down. Another button press and you’re back in your original car, this time with the upper hand. It all sounds a little complex, but after you’ve toyed with it for just a couple of minutes you’ll find it incredibly intuitive. If you want a blank-meets-blank description, try Midnight Club-meets-Quantum Leap.
All this shifting, coupled with the coma-induced story, allows Ubisoft to come up with some mind-blowing missions that you just won’t find in any other game. Being tasked with diffusing bombs located under moving trucks, scattered across 200 square miles of open world San Francisco, in under 3 minutes would, in any other game, seem like the developers are having bit of a laugh at your expense. In Driver: SF this is just par for the course and you’ll relish each new event thrown at you as the story gets deeper and weirder. In fact, it would be poor reviewing on my part to reveal anything else about the campaign as it will surprise you in ways you never imagined. Just go with the flow and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as you jump from car to car. There’s even a ‘’Previously, on Driver: San Francisco…’’ catch-up sequence each time you load up the game.
The story is relatively short, around 10 to 12 hours in length, but that isn’t all the single player has to offer. Outside of missions are a plethora of races, stunts, side missions, cop chases (both cop and racer), challenges and collectibles to name but a few. All standard fare you may be thinking, but since they almost always utilise the shift mechanic they become fresh and genuinely exciting and you will be eager to earn and complete every one of them. The collectibles are clapperboard tokens spread out across the map and for every ten you collect you earn one of the ‘movie challenges’, races or chases based on classic movie or television programmes (Think Bullitt, Blues Brothers or Starsky & Hutch). Even though they are one of the rare moments that shifting is off limits, they are quite authentic recreations and feel like a special gift from the developers each time you unlock one.
Yet all of this would count for nothing if the handling of the cars was even slightly off. It has been a worry since the demo was released, with many people bemoaning the difficulty of handbrake turns, drifting and steering. Upon release of the full game however, all of these fears suddenly dissipate as you realise Ubisoft has given the utmost care to each and every one of the 140 licensed vehicles available in the game. They all feel and handle differently and are as accurate to their real life counterparts as the over exaggerated nature of the game will allow. You won’t be pulling off any exciting handbrake drifts into tight alleyways in an AMC Pacer and navigating a bumpy dirt track in a low-slung Murciélago won’t win you any prizes. It’s all about picking the right car for the job and this is part of the fun as you frantically try to find a decent ride whilst in shift, the clock ticking relentlessly down in the top left corner of the screen.
Visually the game is a marvel. From the recreation of San Francisco, with its world famous steep, hilly roads that are just perfect for car chases, to the attention to detail on the car models, with the environment around you reflected in the paintwork and chrome. Even the dashboards in cockpit view are painstakingly accurate. All this runs at a silky smooth 60fps that never lets up, even when things get really busy on screen.
I’ve come this far and I haven’t even begun to talk about the multiplayer. Yes, on top of all this vehicular goodness in the single player portion, Ubisoft have seen fit to include some online action. This isn’t an afterthought either as the shifting makes its way to 9 of the 11 modes available. It makes for some tense action during a race if you’re able to immediately jump into any car you want to get ahead of the pack, but be careful about when you do this as there are still checkpoints to worry about and it requires some quick reflexes to shift at the right moment to gain the lead. Another standout mode is ‘Tag’, with one player trying to remain 'it' as long as possible and other players trying to tag him/her. The crack here is that whoever is ‘it’ loses the ability to shift so it becomes a paranoid race around the city as any one of the AI controlled cars around you could potentially be another player at a moments notice. There are also standard race modes for those who may find shifting in their online play a little too much to handle.
If you want to nitpick to find a downside then you’ll find that in the AI of anyone who’s on your tail in a chase. The cops in particular are absolutely relentless and if you start lagging they will just pile up around you like a pack of rabid dogs. It’s in scenarios like this that you have to utilise the traffic ahead of you and the exquisite handling the game offers.
Also, in the visual department, the city itself looks a little bland if you stop to admire it up close and the citizens that populate the sidewalks look like they’re made from particularly floppy cardboard. But, since you’ll be travelling past all this at breakneck speed ninety percent of the time, it won’t really concern you and you can forgive these visual hiccups when you do decide to stop and stare.
Multiplayer may be the biggest stumbling block in the game. It’s not immediately apparent how shifting can be utilised to your advantage in online play and there’s a steep learning curve if you’re not managing to get your head around it. This is a shame as it’s the sort of innovative online play that a lot of gamers crave, yet I fear the servers will be empty within a few months as so many people will just turn their backs on it.
The whole game gives off that classic 70’s vibe whilst being rooted in present day. The music and cars span both decades and you’ll be tapping your foot and nodding your head as you cruise across the Golden Gate bridge in your Maserati with The Chi-Lites ‘Are You My Woman’ booming on the stereo.
It looks great, plays better and gives you a wealth of content without resorting to dlc. Ubisoft have confounded expectations with this release and the future of other driving games is looking a little grim right about now. Besides, any game that rewards you for driving a DeLorean at 88mph has gotta have something going for it, don’t you think?
Driver: San Francisco is out now on PS3 and XBOX 360. PC release September 30.