Driver: San Francisco review
- Ubisoft Reflections
- Driver: San Francisco
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Wii (Wii version very different to others)
Format reviewed: PS3
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Made2Game Driver: San Francisco review score: 8/10
Memories of Drivers past come flooding back the moment you start the opening mission of Driver: San Francisco. Undercover cop John Tanner and partner Tobias Jones are in a chase with arch nemesis Charles Jericho after a dramatic prison breakout. Tortured tyres squeal, paint is traded, and the banter between Tanner and Jones evokes a typical ‘70s buddy-cop TV show.
But as you begin to settle in, Driver: San Francisco takes a dramatic u-turn and heads down a completely different road altogether when Tanner is left fighting for his life in a coma following an almighty smash-up caused by Jericho. It’s here that Driver: San Francisco’s secret weapon is deployed in a unique twist that’s designed to change your perception of driving games: Reflections call it Shift.
Driver: San Francisco takes place almost entirely in Tanner’s mind as he gains a supernatural ability to soar through the air and 'Shift' into the bodies of San Francisco’s unsuspecting inhabitants. Yes that’s right, it’s all only a dream.
When forced to digest Shift in a narrative context, it’s a concept that’s both bewildering and bizarre, but as a pivotal gameplay mechanic it’s ingenious, innovative and soon becomes intuitive. Worried fans can rest easy because Shift works very well indeed.
In what can only be described as a technical marvel, a quick tap of X zooms out to reveal a Google Earth-style overhead view of San Francisco (an impressively expansive environment running at a glorious 60 frames per second), which you can navigate freely while the engine renders the world in real time.
From here, you can instantaneously Shift into any moving vehicle you please, presenting a convenient and effective substitute for traversing the world on-foot. It’s a genuine innovation for the genre that Reflections should be commended for, yet it’s still in keeping with the series' roots as the action remains firmly behind the wheel – a wise move considering the series stumbled whenever Tanner ventured on-foot.
Shift opens up a realm of gameplay possibilities, giving a whole new meaning to playing with the traffic. Need to quickly apprehend a fleeing felon? Why not shift into an oncoming bus before veering into their path and slamming into them head-on, instantly trashing their vehicle? It has a more practical use too, once you unlock Rapid Shift. A flick of the shoulder button will instantly switch between pursuing police cars for example, particularly useful if you fall behind in a chase.
Driver: San Francisco’s plot revolves around Tanner following leads and piecing together evidence to thwart Jericho’s supposed plans to create a ‘cyanide bomb’. The story is related through a series of impeccably animated FMV cut scenes that render the characters in superb detail, but the voice acting is comparatively questionable at times – if the dialogue was aiming to mimic a corny ‘70s flick then it certainly succeeded.
Even Tanner can’t quite comprehend his new-found Shift ability as he slips in and out of consciousness but he soon learns to use Shift to his advantage, which leads to some novel scenarios – everyone else still sees the same person that Tanner has possessed, Quantum Leap-style.
Some missions feature Tanner cleverly posing as one of Jericho’s accomplices to learn more about his whereabouts, but the majority of missions tread familiar ground with an array of chases, tedious tails where you have to follow a car without being spotted and scare-tactics where you must deliberately drive recklessly to extract information from your terrified passenger. Some do break the mould however, such as one enthralling scenario that has you weaving under trucks to disarm bombs.
In conjunction with the main Story arc, additional side missions - City Missions - are mandatory in order to progress and loosely linked to the central storyline. These are quite entertaining but the fact you have to complete two City Missions to unlock the next Story Mission every time creates a slightly samey structure, particularly when the same characters begin to crop up with similar objectives.
There’s no denying that Driver: San Francisco’s plot is bonkers but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s sharply paced as well, but at only eight chapters lasting around 7 hours, it’s disappointingly short-lived, although there's a vast array of side challenges outside of the main Story.
This brevity is compounded by the fact that, aside from a predictable final showdown with Jericho which took a few tries, you will often have no trouble completing missions first time round, which is in stark contrast to the impossibly difficult missions of past games. Shift can also be attributed to the easier ride. You're generally given free rein on how much you utilise Shift, but some missions actively enforce it, taking driving skill out of the equation. Overly generous time limits also soften the adrenaline-factor.
Pedal of honor
It’s fortunate, then, that, despite the tedium of a few missions, Driver: Francisco excels at what the series has always set out to do: burn copious amounts of rubber. Driver’s trademark Hollywood handling is back and it wholeheartedly drives like a dream (no pun intended). Burnouts leave thick trails of lingering smoke to create maximum spectacle and the cars eagerly flick their tail out, begging you to dab the handbrake on every corner. Once again, no game lets you execute perfect handbrake turns with the sublime cinematic aplomb of Driver and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The smaller details deserve equal praise. Suspension jolts violently as you land a perilous hill jump and the new dashboard view is pleasingly authentic with painstaking attention to detail. Tanner even fully turns the wheel and physically changes gear and deploys the handbrake: it sounds minor but not even the detail-obsessed GT5 did that.
If there’s one criticism I have it’s that, like the Story missions, the handling has been made to be a little more accessible, most noticeably when the heavier physics seem intent on preventing you from rolling your car over, no matter how hard you deliberately try. The same applies to the new boost and ram abilities which have been shoehorned in. No matter how much Reflections try use Tanner’s strange situation to justify their inclusion, they feel terribly out of place in a Driver game. Moving the analogue stick up to initiate boost simply feels clunky: this is Driver, not Need for Speed.
Then there’s the car list. Licensed cars make their belated Driver debut, with a diverse range of over 120 vehicles roaming the streets of Tanner’s imaginary world, where contemporary Camaros are just as common as classic Cadillacs. Each car also handles distinctively: muscle cars feel appropriately heavy whereas European hatchbacks are nippy and less prone to oversteering.
Having licensed cars has also allowed the developers to pay direct tributes to the movie car chases that originally inspired Driver, from the iconic Bullitt Mustang to Eleanor from Gone in 60 Seconds. Let’s also not forget a certain car lifted from Back to the Future, which delivers a pleasant surprise if you take it over 88 mph.
They all star in the unlockable Movie Challenges, which attempt to fulfil Driver: San Francisco’s primary objective of making you feel like you are part of a Hollywood car chase flick by re-enacting famous movie scenes. Over a dozen have been lovingly recreated, casting the recognisable movie cars with an added grain filter to capture that vintage vibe.
Chases can be edited in Driver: San Francisco’s reprise of the renowned Film Director to make your own movies, a fan-favourite feature that was curiously absent from Parallel Lines. Editing has been made easier and small chunks can be uploaded to Ubisoft’s servers for sharing, but it’s disappointingly thin and restrictive overall. Head here for a more detailed overview to find out why.
Driver: San Francisco features online multiplayer. That shouldn’t come as a shock in this era of gaming, but you have to remember this is uncharted territory for Driver. It should come as a shock, then, that Driver’s multiplayer is actually rather special, utterly pulsating and downright addictive. And it’s principally thanks to Shift.
Tag is the undisputed highlight, where players fight to be ‘it’ by ramming into each other, but the ability to Shift adds a whole new dimension of strategy and unpredictability – it’s incredibly exhilarating trying to anticipate where players might Shift next to strategically swipe you and is easily some of the most fun I’ve had in an online driving game to date.
Trailblazer seems to be popular too: you have to stay within the light trails of a moving DeLorean which is chaotic when everyone tries to squeeze in at the same time, but I find its slower pace to be detrimental. Team Capture the Flag and base defence missions represent the remaining modes, along with Takedown, Driver’s own rendition of cops and robbers, but with the ability for the cops to teleport via Shift. Think Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit meets The Matrix.
All this can also be enjoyed in local split screen, which we haven’t seen since Driver 2. The frame rate dips to 30 frames per second, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s terrifically good fun. Along with similar competitive modes to online multiplayer, split screen places an emphasis on cooperative modes, such as Survival.
Occasionally samey mission design and an anaemic Film Director aside, Driver: San Francisco is a spectacular return to form that caters to its long-time fans whilst bringing it bang up to date with a torrent of innovation. The Wheelman is well and truly back, and frankly it’s about time.
Words: Martin Bigg (Twitter: @drivinggamespro)
This an abridged version of Martin's longer and even more detailed Driver: San Francisco review that appears on DrivingGamesPro.com. For Driver fantatics, this a director's cut review, if you will, and hence you'll want to check it out. Right?
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