I’m a sucker for a good car game. I’m especially a sucker for a good car game featuring old cars. Dodge Chargers and Challengers, Ford Mustangs, Pontiac GTOs, Cadillac Eldorados – give me any of those over a new BMW, Mercedes or Porsche any day of the week. Their aesthetics, their sound, their aggression, their poorly conceived power distribution, American Muscle Cars of the 60s and 70s represent the pinnacle of man’s relationship with personal transport.
So, imagine my delight when I pick up Driver: San Francisco for the first time and realise that the ‘lead’ car is a beautifully painted, yellow and black Dodge Challenger of the variety that takes centre stage in Tarantino’s Death Proof and Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. The Challenger alone is enough to grab me and make me want to speed around the game’s imagining of San Francisco, burning rubber, scaring other road users and generally make a menace of myself.
And so, this being a videogame and not real life, that’s exactly what I do. The first thing that you realise when throwing the car around corners in outrageously long drifts is that the handling model is not at all concerned with grounding itself in absolute reality. It’s more concerned with providing an accurate representation of the impression you get of the car’s performance when watching car chase movies like Bullet, The Getaway, Gone in 60 Seconds and even The Fast and the Furious, i.e. stylised realism as opposed to all out simulation or all out arcade.
The narrative framework is equally stylised. Once again, you take the role of race car driver turned cop John Tanner. This time, things are a little out of the ordinary however. The game’s opening sequence shows big-time criminal kingpin Charles Jericho escaping from a high-security prison, the ensuing chase between Jericho and Tanner resulting in our hero being sent into a coma. This is when things start to get a little Outer Limits.
While in his comatose state, Tanner can possess the bodies of anybody driving a car throughout San Francisco; giving him the ability to drive any car, at any time, at any location. This mechanic is known as ‘Shift’ and it provides the basis for much of the game’s mission structure.
For example, while driving around the city you’ll come across cars marked with a red orb – pressing ‘X’ (on a PS3 pad) allows you to leave the body you were in and Shift to a new car by highlighting it with your cursor and hitting ‘X’ again.
By entering these ‘red orb’ cars you can attempt City Missions. One such example involved us taking control of a man behind the wheel of a Ford GT that he was taking on a test drive from the showroom. Our mission was to essentially scare the crap out of the showroom employee that was riding along with him; we had to overtake ten cars by passing within inches of them and then drive back to the dealership within a very strict time limit (resulting in some predictably risky and haphazard driving techniques).
Another City Mission required us to take control of a TV camera van and film some examples of reckless driving. Of course, it meant that we had to also provide the reckless driving. Camera van parked up in a good spot, we Shifted from car to car to perform the required stunts within the required zone – drive at over 100mph, drift over 20 metres and cause a head-on collision. The mission ended with us baiting a police car to chase us through a tight alleyway so the TV crew could get their ‘money shot’.
Just what happens to the likes of the person being chased by the cops after you’ve Shifted out of them is anyone’s guess… I suppose they wake up and find themselves at the wrong end of a baton being wielded by an angry officer of the 5-0. Complete enough City Missions and you unlock new Tanner Missions, which push the narrative along and, presumably, end in the demise of Jericho.
The Shift mechanic is implemented stylishly with the camera zooming out and above the city in a zoom-able bird’s eye view perspective, although it’s debatable whether or not it’ll remain so appealing during longer play sessions; a lack of text menus to access missions and what-not always sounds like a good idea but they rarely work out perfectly in practise.
What was perhaps most fun about the system was Shifting into cars which held a passenger. Most memorably, we possessed a woman driving with her teenage son who quickly became incredibly distressed and bewildered at the sudden change in his mother’s driving style – going from calm and sensible to using a moving car transport truck as a jump ramp at over 100mph.
As you’d expect with an open-world game there’s a variety of tasks to get involved in aside from the standard missions. ‘Dares’ give you an objective and leave it up to you to select the best car and location for which to complete it (i.e. drive 1000 metres in 40 seconds without hitting anything). Everything you do earns ‘Willpower’ which can be used to buy car and garages (which earn you a steady stream of cash) as well as unlock upgrades and challenges.
Upgrades are available across a variety of areas: how much damage your current car can withstand, how much money your garage makes and, among other things, a ‘thrill cam’ viewpoint that uses camera angles more suited to the movies and less suited to actually driving a car.
Visually, the cars look nice. They’re shiny, they kick up bellows of smoke when drifting or burning out and the damage modelling does a good enough job of letting you know you’ve probably not been adhering to the laws of the road. The world itself looks a bit drab though, buildings often look as though they’re sporting decidedly low-res textures and there’s not much variation between one structure and the next – although, some compromise is likely necessary when a game runs at a constant 60 frames per second.
As I said before, I’m a sucker for a muscle car so, even though Driver: San Francisco is looking a little less-than-perfect, I had a great time with the demo sections we were shown. Like the car chase, cops and robbers movies it’s based on, it doesn’t take itself too seriously; everything is done with a sense of fun and a nod and wink to those movies and TV shows it’s based on.
Let’s hope it rips off, err, I mean, references that section in the original Fast and the Furious in which Vin Diesel and company drive under the trailers of the trucks they’re trying to hijack.
And, before you ask, no, you can’t run down the pedestrians. It’s impossible.