Review: Driver: San Francisco

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John Tanner (the good guy) and Charles Jericho (the bad guy) renew their dipstick-measuring, engine-revving rivalry in Driver: San Francisco, out this week for PS3 and Xbox 360 (and Wii, and coming later this month to PC) from Ubisoft’s Reflections studio. But this Driver is a bit different; and by different I mean it’s kinda kooky.

This time out, Tanner has taken a nasty blow to the brain during an opening prison break chase with Jericho. Laying in a coma in the hospital, Tanner lives out his latest vehicular crime drama within his subconscious, which enables him to view the entire city of San Francisco from bird’s eye view and mentally assume control of any other driver in the city he chooses.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, it is. The story is absolutely ludicrous, to the point where it’s so unbelievable and so hokey that, even by video game standards, it becomes too out there for its own good. Fortunately, the high quality presentation and cinematography make you care more about the story than you should, with the plot unfolding like a modern interpretation of old 70s / 80s episodes of Starsky & Hutch and Dukes of Hazzard.

Split-screen sequences — one half CGI cutscene chatter between tanner and his partner inside the car, the other half an in-engine dashboard view — give the game a buddy cop TV show vibe, and the soundtrack carries the effect further as songs like Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady,” Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” and The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now” jam on the radio. At progress intervals and when first loading a save file, you are even treated to “Previously on…” montages recapping the events so far.

Of course, the whole point of this absurd storyline is to introduce the game’s clever Shift mechanic, and in that regard it succeeds. Driver: San Francisco is a sandbox driving game through and through. Players are given over 200 miles of San Francisco cityscape to tool around in, participating in the usual assortment of cop chases, getaways, stunt challenges, checkpoint races and other side activities in between story missions.

Missions get even crazier when you advance the plot. For example, in one mission you have to drive a witness to a safe house, sticking to back roads and alleys to keep his paranoia level from rising; and in another you have to drive an informant around recklessly to scare him into giving up information. There is another mission that’s straight out of Speed, in which you have to keep a truck armed with explosives above 60 MPH or a crazy dude on the phone will blow it up. Not only that, you then have to park it in a safe location and find a small enough car to drive underneath in order to defuse the bomb before it goes off.

The new Shift mechanic takes things a step further. At the push of a button, the camera zooms up to a world map view, at which point you can pan the camera across the entire city, guide the targeting reticule to any other car of your choice, and immediately hop behind the wheel. The transition from car to “God” view to the next car is amazingly fast and smooth as well; it’s not jarring at all, as one could have easily expected it to be.

What’s great about shifting, is that it cuts away all of the travel tedium often associated with open world games, while simultaneously broadening the sandbox driving possibilities. During a chase, for example, you can choose to hunt your target down by pursuing from behind and apprehending them the old fashioned way, or you can repeatedly shift into civilian cars from oncoming traffic and use them like guided missiles to take bad guys down. One mission in particular really sticks out in my memory. You have to deliver a police truck filled with evidence to a station, and then use the shift mechanic to crash into waves of incoming cars attempting to steal the stash back. It’s like a tower defense game on wheels!

As a driving game, Driver: San Francisco is a real treat. The steering controls are on point, the physics are loose without straying from reality, drifting becomes effortless once you get the timing down, and the handling properties vary for different types of cars. The game may not run at Burnout speed, but its cars have more than enough horsepower to get that bladder of yours quaking as you zip around The City by the Bay.

Driving is also incredibly cinematic, especially when played from the first-person dashboard perspective. Chase sequences play out like blockbuster movie scenes, with debris-lined roads giving you plenty of fun stuff to crash through and cars and big rigs flipping over and tumbling down the street as you weave through the carnage without losing sight of your prey. A Film Director mode even allows for user footage to be recorded, edited, and shared online – though unfortunately uploaded clips go to a separate Ubisoft website rather than being accessible from an in-game server.

Over 140 licensed cars are featured in the game, and they all dent and smash in a satisfying way thanks to spectacular damage modeling. Bumpers hang, hoods crumple, and windows shatter into clouds of glass shards, and the impact of every crash and every squealing tire reverberates through your eardrums. Hey Reflections, can we get an updated Destruction Derby with these damage effects? Pretty please?

As a single player game, Driver: San Francisco is massive. Sure, the storyline only takes six to seven hours to complete on its own, and eventually the missions begin to blur together a bit. (There is only so much variety you can have in a driving game, after all.) But when you unlock the full map and pull the Shift view all the way back, you’ll be peering down on a city peppered with hundreds of blue side mission, movie token and cop car markers begging to be clicked on and collected. Completing missions and performing in-game feats rewards you with Willpower points, which you can then use to purchase new vehicles and upgrades, such as turbo boost and a charged ram attack. Upon completing the story, a “New Game Plus” option also unlocks, allowing you to restart the story carrying over all Willpower, cars and upgrades, with the entire map open from the very beginning.

When you’re tired of driving solo, you can also hop online for intense driving battles with upwards of eight players or ride shotgun with an offline friend in split-screen mode. Online multiplayer consists of 11 different modes, ranging from conventional checkpoint battles, relay races and lap street races to more inventive forms of behind-the-wheel competition. In Trailblazer, for example, the objective is to drive in the glowing trails of an AI lead vehicle to score points, and the first player to reach 100 points wins. Then there is Tag, in which one player is “it” and earns points until another player tags him or her and becomes the new “it” driver. Another fun game is Blitz, a team event which has one side defending a base while an opposing crew of drivers attempts to breach the zone with their cars. Talk about a game of collisions.

These multiplayer battles are loads of fun and completely different from anything else I’ve experienced in other driving games. Shifting carries over from the solo mode as well, but in multiplayer it is appropriately capped by an ability meter that slowly regenerates as you drive. Thus, its usage becomes far more strategic. A ranking system is also in place. Like any modern first-person shooter, you earn points based on the outcome of each event and level up to unlock additional mode playlists (Tag and Trailblazer are the only two match types available from the start), cars, upgrades, profile icons and so on. Before each race, players must also complete brief qualifying challenges to determine each driver’s starting position, such as drifting, jumping and overtaking other cares for points.

Frankly, the only thing missing here is seamless integration between the single player and multiplayer, so, like Test Drive Unlimited, players could cruise around on their own and instantly jump into a multiplayer race at any time without first quitting back to the main menu and entering a completely separate online interface. Maybe we’ll get that in the next Driver!

After this, there totally needs to be another Driver, too. As a studio, Reflections has fully redeemed itself from the dreadful Driv3r and the middling Parallel Lines, putting the series back on the right track as a franchise deserving of a strong fan base and continued development.

But for now we should all take the time to appreciate what Ubisoft has accomplished here. Other than sports, I can’t think of a genre that’s tougher to innovate than racing, but somehow Driver: San Francisco has pulled it off. The story may be vapid, but other than that the game plays like a dream and has more than enough content under its hood to keep players gleefully burning rubber until the next game motors along.

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Pros:
+ Cinematic driving action
+ Shift mechanic brings something fresh and exciting to racing genre
+ Huge sandbox environment loaded with driving activities
+ Fantastic multiplayer

Cons:
– Silly storyline
– No open world integration between single player and multiplayer

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Wii, Xbox 360 and coming to PC
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Release Date: 9/6/2011
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8 (2-8 online, 1-2 split-screen)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!