As a concept/plot, Driver: San Francisco is ridiculous. Set after the events of Driver 3, John Tanner, the series’ long-term protagonist, is in a coma following a car accident sparked by the pursuing of jail-breaking super-criminal Charles Jericho. Laying in a coma on his hospital bed, Tanner realises he can ‘Shift’ into the body of anyone driving a car in the game’s vision of San Francisco. Tanner must use this new ability to track down Jericho, bring down his crime ring and put him back behind bars.
Yes, you read that correctly, Tanner can mind-warp into any car in town.
It’s a far cry from the series’ nitty-gritty roots as a comparatively serious cops and robbers drama depicted through the eyes of a petrol head, whose allegiance to the police force is largely based on the fact that they let him drive cars over the speed limit.
The thing about ridiculous concepts is that they can work when the rest of the game is equally as bizarre (Suda51, take a bow). However, in Driver’s case, you get the feeling that its writers actually believe that the plot is halfway believable and that halfway realistic characters, an authentic location and real-life vehicles were the best things to bundle it with.
It’s this refusal to crank the bizarre-meter up to eleven that prevents Driver from truly impressing or engaging with its audience. The result is a game lacking in much charm or identity.
To an extent, it’s the same problem as was faced by last year’s Blur; the bulk of the games-buying public do not want the lines between realism and ‘crazy’ blurred. They didn’t want BMW’s that shoot pink fireballs in Blur and I will be very surprised if they want BMW’s that can be ‘Shifted’ into in Driver.
As a gameplay mechanic, Shift is wonderfully liberating, well executed and presents fantastic potential. Shifting into a car coming towards a fleeing criminal and slamming into it head first is immensely rewarding, as is using it as a means to traverse the city in record breaking speed (any car in any unlocked part of the city can commandeered). It’s just so dissapointing that the rest of the game is largely dull by comparison.
When you’re given complete freedom to do as you please, Driver: San Francisco is genuinely enjoyable. However, the bulk of the mandatory campaign missions are repetitive, tiresome and almost completely lacking in originality. More often than not your task is to catch a criminal, flee from the cops, tail a suspect without being seen or get to a specific location in a set time. Deja vu very quickly sets in.
The true killer though is that you’re forced to undertake a set number of these quests in order to unlock ‘Tanner Missions’ (read: Story Missions). Tanner Missions progress the plot by, usually, providing some clue as the location of Jericho or the identity of his associates. Disappointingly, these show the same level of creativity as the rest of the missions; offering no respite in a sea of monotony.
In one example of particularly lazy writing and design, a Tanner Mission early on has you tailing a suspected member of Jericho’s gang. As you approach a red, misty (very ‘gamey’) barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, the AI Tanner takes over and screeches the car a halt:
Tanner: “I can’t go through there.”
Tanner’s partner: “Can’t go through where?”
Tanner: “I just can’t go through there, trust me okay!”
Tanner’s partner: “Are you okay, man?”
Tanner: “Something bad will happen if I go through there. I’m turning around.”
(That is not the exact script, but you get the idea.)
What was the red, misty thing? It’s the barrier indicating that you haven’t unlocked that part of the city yet. Of all the ways to explain such things to the player…
It’s a shame that the mission design, plot and characters are so lacklustre because the technical elements of the game work rather well. San Francisco looks lovely; cars pack the streets and pedestrians pack the pavements, the draw distance is stunning, the environment offers great diversity in terms of building types and road surfaces and the lighting is beautiful (especially when in in-car view and the world is reflecting off of your hood).
Furthermore, the whole thing runs at a constant 60fps giving the game a fluidness of motion that you just don’t normally see in open world games. The cars have a satisfying bite to their handling model, too. Rather than go for real-world realism, Reflections have gone for ‘movie realism’ – the result is dramatic drifts, smoky wheel spins and sudden jolts of acceleration, especially when behind the wheel of one of the many American muscle cars.
When Driver opens up and lets you simply play with its toolset, it capable of some magical moments. The multiplayer modes are designed to make best use of Shift and, by concentrating on the game’s best element, offer a great deal of originality and replay value; Trailblazer, in which payers fight to earn points by staying to the trail of a speeding AI car, and Capture the Flag are two of the most enjoyable modes I’ve played in an arcade racer for a while.
The same enjoyment can be found in the ‘Challenges’; the best of which task you with recreating classic moments from classic car-chase movies. While these are not officially licensed, anyone that has seen the movie in question will recognise it instantly. One particular Challenge is clearly based on The Dukes of Hazard, complete with sepia tones, screen flicker, retro cop cars and banjo centric chase music.
Driver: San Francisco would be an easy game to recommend if the mission design of the single player campaign were on a par with the quality of its technical elements. As things stands though, it seems that some good gameplay ideas have been wasted on level designers that simply didn’t know how to make best use of them.
It’s still probably worth a rental to experience the Challenge and multiplayer modes for a weekend… just don’t go in expecting to feel that same sense of danger and originality that made so many people fall in love with the original game.