You know I don’t really have much affinity for the Driver franchise. Even back when it was considered good I don’t have fond recollections. I mostly remember a training mission in the first game that prevented us from making progress for about an hour. The rest of that memory is just full of blind rage and long periods of nothing but black. Beyond that first game, I have played the subsequent titles but only for a small amount of time each, and haven’t walked away impressed from a single one.
Now the franchise is back with Driver: San Francisco and when it was first announced I couldn’t drum up even the slightest bit of excitement for it. Then more and more information started to come out and what consistently surprised me was how batshit fucking insane this game sounded.
And hey guess what? Driver: San Francisco is completely out of its mind fucking crazy. And hey guess what else? It works completely in its favour.
You once again play as John Tanner who starts the game watching as longtime villain Charles Jericho is hauled off to prison. Of course shit gets bad real quick and the ensuing chaos ends with John Tanner in a coma. Your more traditional action game would likely then put you in control of his partner or perhaps tell a story in flashback.Driver: San Francisco isn’t having any of that shit. Instead you spend the majority of the game inside John’s head while he is in the coma. Not crazy enough? You also have the ability to “shift”, which means you can any at time, fly out of the car you are currently driving, and hover around above the city until you find a new car that you would like to jump into. Then once you select it, you essentially possess the driver and take over, Quantum Leap style. It sounds strange, but it is implemented incredibly well.
What impressed me immediately was how seamless the shift process is. The procedure of floating out of the car, maneuvering around the city map and shifting into a new car is quick and lag free. The only time it starts to take a little longer is later in the game when you can zoom out further above the city as it takes a few seconds to zoom back in, but it doesn’t take too long that it becomes a pain. Since shifting is the crux of the experience, it’s a relief that it’s a quick and easy process with basically zero lag.
The creators also found a number of interesting ways to incorporate this mechanic into the missions. One of the more prominent, and I feel one of the best, examples is how they switch up the car chase formula. The ability to jump into any other car on the road gives you a lot more freedom in how to go about taking down your target. Instead of chasing behind him in a faster car, why not jump into a bus that’s in the oncoming lane and smash into him headfirst? They perhaps do fall back on this concept a little too often but it honestly never stopped being fun for me.
The majority of the missions are your standard driving mission fare (for the record, at no point in the entire game are you ever on foot) such as car chases, checkpoint races, time trials, stunt missions, etc. But the shift formula always brings something new and unique to the standard structure. For example, several of the race missions require you to come in both first and second place, meaning you need to switch back and forth between two cars and ensure they both finish in the top two spots. It’s fresh, original and keeps things fun. My only real complaint is that some of the later races go on for far, far too long. Once they start to have 30 checkpoints, you will be determined not to fail because if you’re like me, you won’t be eager to start the 6 minute long race over again from the beginning.
In addition to the shift mechanic, the concept of being in a coma is used effectively as well. Of course this plot allows the developers a great deal of creative freedom, and they thankfully exercise that freedom thoroughly. I don’t want to give too much away since a lot of it happens in the later stages of the game but I will say the following – fans of Bad Boys II are going to be psyched by one of the late game developments.
The story that surrounds all this madness is appropriately silly although still pretty standard fare. If anything I became more interested in some of the side-stories as you find yourself possessing the same characters throughout the game and seeing how their story has progressed since the last time you saw them.
I do think the controls may be a divisive point for people. The cars seem to be designed to always react like you’re in a car chase from the 1970’s. That translates to lots and lots of fishtailing during just about any turn that you make. I managed to get the hang of things eventually but I’ll admit this proved to be frustrating for the first couple of chapters.
If you’re a completionist then there is a ton to do in the single player story. Dozens and dozens of side missions and collectables are available so you could spend a good long while seeing and completing everything. If you only plan on playing through the bare minimum amount of content that you need to complete the story, it is a surprisingly brief experience, taking a bit under six hours for me to clear through it. The base mechanics are such a blast though that I definitely plan to go back and clean up at least a few more achievements.
Those same mechanics hold up equally well when applied to multiplayer. A lot of the modes are what you see in the single player but it takes everything to a whole new level of enjoyment when you are participating in these events against actual human beings. As satisfying as it can be to take down an AI opponent through a head-on collision, it’s doubly satisfying to take down someone who can then yell a slew of expletives at you. As is the norm with multiplayer these days, matches earn you XP which will in turn gain you levels. It’s addictive, fun and so far has a solid community, which left me able to hop into games very quickly. Hopefully people stick with this one, although Gears of War 3 coming out today does not bode well unfortunately.
Driver: San Francisco ranks amongst the year’s most pleasant surprises. It takes a lot of potentially risky paths but ends up a unique and fun experience that stays engaging throughout. If you are looking for a driving game that doesn’t give a shit how silly it is, this is your boy right here.