With over 300km of sandbox roads, free-roaming mission-oriented gameplay and a recognisable interpretation of a US city, you could confuse Driver: San Francisco with a Grand Theft Auto title. However, just like back in 1998 when Reflections Interactive first gave birth to the Driver franchise, this game takes place entirely behind the steering wheel. At first, not being able to leave your car at will sounds like a limiting feature, but Driver: San Francisco still lets you hijack any vehicle in the bustling city through a very unusual plot device.
In fact, it would be safe to say that Driver: San Francisco has one of the weirdest intro sequences and consequent story-lines I’ve seen in a very long time. It involves an horrific crash, our lead character Tanner going into a coma, billboards that talk to you, a sassy black guy, and then an on-going out-of-body experience that lets you float around the city and basically ‘possess’ drivers of other cars.
Tanner’s new-found, and slightly spooky, ability to ‘Shift’ into other cars is what opens up a huge variety to the gameplay. When you Shift into a fellow person behind the wheel of a car, you take their identity so passengers sitting next to you won’t realise. For example, when you switch into an ambulance, you’ll be caught in the middle of an emergency with a patient in the back and your passenger yelling at you to ‘floor it!’ like nothing has happened. Shifting into another car might involve you in a random conversation, with all others involved unaware that their friend is now possessed. What happens to the person whom Tanner switches into is never really made clear, but it appears they just fall into an astral abyss and have no recollection of the switcharoo.
It’s all quite strange, but it’s definitely convenient for detective John Tanner - who is trying to take down his nemesis and one-man crime wave, Charles Jericho. With Tanner’s creepy ability he can literally go under-cover and search for him on the streets, Switching into henchmen’s bodies to hunt down Jericho from the inside. All of this is made even more impressive considering Tanner is lying motionless on a hospital bed in a coma. Someone should give that man a raise.
More importantly though, this Shifting dynamic gives Driver: San Francisco completely unique gameplay. It transforms what would have potentially have been a repetitive, mundane racing game into a fun and creative experience. For example you might need to pursue and intercept a felon who is trying to leave the city.
Traditionally you would ram their bumpers and attempt to nudge them into obstacles until their car eventually dies. But with a quick Switch, now you can opt to take control of a truck coming down the street in the opposite direction for a quick takedown. Maybe you’re competing in a race and the odds are against you? You could Shift into a faster car or even find a bus further up the road and use it as a roadblock to slow down the race leader. While you’re in control of a different car, your existing one still carries on driving (because there is still a driver, you’re just not the puppet-master). Of course, traditionalists can chose to ignore Tanner’s astral projection capabilities and win without the use of Shifting if they want to.
Graphically, the first thing you’ll notice is how insanely bright the city of San Francisco is. The opening sequences have enough contrast to strip paint from your walls (although to be fair I had just finished playing the bleak and relatively bland Resistance 3). The visuals in Driver: San Francisco however, give the game a very arcade feel, with an almost comic-book nature to the character renders. Even the script and storyline feel like they have been ripped straight from a cheesy comic. But all of this adds to the fun, vibrant feel of a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Where the game does pay attention though is in the vehicle models and animations. Driver: San Francisco has around 120 licensed cars to try out and add to your collection. They include makes from Ford, Dodge, Bentley, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo, Shelby, Volkswagen, Pagini, Lamborghini, Cadillac, and even DeLorean. While driving you have three view-points, including a well presented interior camera angle complete with hand animations for changing gear, hand-brake turns and even realistic releasing of the wheel for heavy landings and collisions.
Every car handles well, with excellent controls that the Driver franchise demands. Although most of the vehicles handle in a relatively similar manner, you’ll definitely notice changes of speed, acceleration and a better ability to take corners as you pick and chose your ride. Quite often you’ll drive past a sweet looking car, like a Nissan GT-R and simply warp into it just to try it out. Unfortunately though, despite vehicles showing signs of damage like scrapes and broken wing mirrors, the game lacks any real sense of destruction in big car pile-ups. Even a devastating head-on collision between a truck and a sports car only results in some broken glass and crumpled bonnets. It would’ve have been great to have some Burnout-esque carnage where impacts are slowed down and cars are totalled. On top of this, all of the pedestrians in San Francisco are unrealistically quick and have the reflexes of a ninja on speed. Just like in the classic arcade game Crazy Taxi, it’s impossible to hit any pedestrians on the sidewalks as they are programmed to zip out of the way. Even old grannies can side-step a bus coming in at a seventy-degree handbrake turn at the blink of an eye. The overall effect isn’t as bad as it sounds though and the game would’ve been seriously hindered if pedestrian casualties were possible or even worse, if they had no one on the streets at all.
Considering the entire scope of the game is driving non-stop for hours on end, I never once got sick of it. This is mainly thanks to Driver: San Francisco’s variety with the type of missions and over-arching storyline that helps move it along. One minute you’ll be scaring the living bejesus out of a driving instructor, next you’ll be taking down an armoured truck or attempting a stunt through San Fran’s iconic hilly streets. Switching into a police car lets you track down and stop felons who appear on your radar and clocking up 88 miles per hour in a DeLorean even unlocks a clever ‘Blast from the Past’ challenge as an homage to the Back to the Future movies. All in all there are over 200 missions to explore and you’ll often find yourself repeating a few to improve your score or just for fun.
Finally, even the multiplayer offers a bucket load of high-octane madness with an impressive 19 different modes to unlock, both online and via spit-screen. Although a lot of the modes are fairly standard with races and score competitions, there are some that include the Shift ability to create brilliant online matches. Take-down, for example, has two sides; the cops and the getaway driver. As the getaway driver, you must navigate the city and reach certain checkpoints before eventually escaping. The cops, obviously are out to prevent you from doing so, bu they also have the ability to Shift, essentially turning any car on the map into a cop car that can impede the getaway driver.
Don’t write Driver: San Francisco off as ‘just another driving’ game (despite the fact that you’ll behind the wheel of various cars for 99% of the time). There is a lot more on offer here and this game will certainly be a pleasant surprise for players of the previous Driver games.