With so many developers striving for such diversity in their videogames, it’s refreshing to see that the latest title in the Driver series wears its heart loudly and proudly on its sleeve. In Driver: San Francisco, Ubisoft Reflections celebrates the arcade racing heritage of its long-running franchise by delivering a game that is almost exclusively about your time behind the wheel. In fact, apart from the time you spend floating outside your body, you’ll be chasing down the bad guys, careering through the bustling streets as if they were German autobahns at rush hour and drifting around corners like Starsky & Hutch.
If you were paying attention during that opening paragraph, you would have notice we wrote: “apart from the time you spend floating outside your body.” That’s right; the Driver series has gone all weird in this latest iteration – so much so that the major twist to the familiar blueprint is utterly surreal and actually rather silly. After quite a poignant introduction, which gives you the impression that you’re going to be treated to a gritty narrative full of great characters and high drama, the story sadly fizzles out quite quickly. From the moment you discover that the game’s main protagonist, John Tanner, lies in a coma and has the ability to shift into the body of a driver of any car in the game, you won’t take anything else the game throws at you seriously.
Nonetheless, from the second you slam down the brakes and veer in and out of traffic like a teenager who’s just borrowed his dad’s Audi Coupe, it feels much like you’ve taken a step back in time to when the franchise was born. The preposterous narrative concept brings to the forefront the ‘Shift’ mechanic, which comes into play by pressing X, instantly giving you an eagle-eyed view over the city. You can then control the camera and move it above the city, and by zooming in and out you can warp to any vehicle on the street, or pick and choose various missions across the city. It feels like the storyline was penned around the new mechanic rather than the other way around. With some ridiculous scripting – and a story that has no bearing on the majority of objectives you carry out in the game – it all quickly becomes fairly irrelevant and takes a passenger seat to what actually turns out to be the real star of the game.
To begin with the ‘Shift’ mechanic seems just as silly as the story, acting merely as a way to drive any car you like and move around the city very quickly. However, as you progress ‘Shifting’ becomes more and more important, a game-changing mechanic that actually offers something quite innovative and injects some much needed life to the standard driving experience. As the action hots up, ‘Shifting’ frequently to stay ahead of the pack during a race sequence, or chase becomes a necessary requirement to succeed and as a result turns out to be quite an exciting feature. Take this ‘Shift’ mechanic online and it opens up a wealth of possibilities, and carnage – it’s really here that you see how it offers something quite unique and refreshing to the racing genre.
As far as innovation goes though, the ‘Shift’ mechanic is as good as it gets. Driver: San Francisco predictably involves taking part in dozens of driving-based challenges across the city. Checkpoint races, tagging cop cars and performing stunt runs are all part of a day’s work and while major objectives help to push the storyline along, many have absolutely nothing to do with your task of bringing down an organised crime ring and as such feel a little disjointed. Having to warp into a driving instructor’s car and scare him into giving you a discount by driving fast is just one example. However, Driver never does try to take itself too seriously and its tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top missions do slowly become part of its charm as you earn hard cash to spend on better cars.
Inspired by the Starsky & Hutch series, Driver: San Francisco is actually a very cool game to play, with toe-tapping tunes on the in-car radio from the likes of Robert Palmer and the Noisettes, and a very nice looking re-imagining of an iconic San Francisco with landmarks such as Bay Bridge creating a pleasant place to drive around. And with 208 miles of road to explore, there’s a lot of area to cover and plenty of content to get through. We’re certainly not talking Grand Theft Auto quality here, but Driver: SF is a nice looking game made all the more impressive by its bulging roster of cars designed on their real-life counterparts.
The unconvincing storyline is actually in stark contrast to the cars in the game, which are all based on real vehicles. Ubisoft Reflections has managed to bag the official licenses for over 125 authentically modelled cars and it’s a real joy to drive around in vehicles by the likes of Audi, Ford, Lamborghini and Maclaren. It’s testament to the slick design of the cars that we ended up using our ‘Shift’ mechanic outside of the context of the missions to hop in the seat of our favourite vehicle and take it for a test drive. Despite the feel-good factor of driving around on a nice set of wheels though, the actually handling of the cars is, in some ways, a bit of let-down.
Driver: SF isn’t supposed to be a simulation, of course, but an arcade racing experience, complete with boosting, slamming and drifting. Some cars certainly handle better than others – particularly if you move straight from the bottom of the range to the supercars – but with only three attributes to differentiate each vehicle (speed, strength and drift) there’s little to differentiate a lot of the vehicles other than their look. Nonetheless, the streets of San Fran are busy with other cars and weaving in and out traffic is a fun way to spend a few hours. The game rewards you well too by drip-feeding motivation points for every near miss, stunt, or objective you complete. Motivation translates into money and with that you can bag yourself some new rides. It’s a rewarding and addictive mechanic that makes Driver: SF one of those games that’s hard to put down.
However, driving around for hours on end does have its downsides. Drifting, for instance, feels lame. Take a series like Burnout or Need for Speed, where you drift majestically and aggressively around hair-pin bends, and then zip over to Driver: SF and you’ll see that there’s no comparison – drifting in Driver: SF doesn’t quite have the balance that it needs, where you should feel in control but almost out of control at the same time. Drifting simply lacks the aggression and thrill-factor that we would have expected.
While driving, you can also slam vehicles to take them off the road or tag them, but it doesn’t serve its purpose well. Ramming opponents should feel satisfying and keep with the flow of the race, but here the developer has implemented a system that pauses for a second when you press the button to slam and then dashes forward to smash into a vehicle. Slamming is still exciting when you’re in a frantic chase and you get the opportunity to take your opponent out, but it would have felt more impactful if that flow-wrecking pause didn’t exist at all.
Though the driving experience doesn’t always impress, there’s no denying that Driver: SF is action-packed and exciting at times, and there’s never a shortage of objectives to carry out. Through the ‘Shift’ mechanic you can also pick and choose the type of events you like to play, so you can customise the experience in that respect. The highlight of Driver: SF though is undoubtedly the multiplayer experience, which features split screen and six different modes. This is where you really see the ‘Shift’ ability come into play and add a new dynamic to what would otherwise be a standard set of game modes – aside from the excellent co-op events. Trying to follow the trail left by the lightning-quick DeLorean in Trailblazer, for example, is very exciting, while tag races – where you play a ‘cat and mouse’ game of tagging opponents and then speed off to avoid being tagged yourself – can be hectic, but heaps of fun while using ‘Shift’ and slamming opponents out of the way.
An EXP system encourages you along nicely as you level up to unlock new stuff and a ‘Freedrive’ mode allows you to experience the city at your leisure. Indeed, there’s a lot of replay value and to be had outside of the single player missions and if servers populate quickly the online component could really take off. In conclusion, Driver: San Francisco isn’t quite the all-conquering, action-paced arcade racer it could have been, but there’s no denying that its ‘Shift’ mechanic makes it worth investigating for anyone who likes driving games. The narrative and lame script doesn’t in the end really matter that much when you’re racing up and down San Francisco’s undulating roads to get away from the cops. Driver: San Francisco is ultimately a cool game to play, but despite its instant pick-up-and-play appeal it hasn’t quite nailed that winning chequered flag formula.