Racing games seem a lot like fighting games to me, in the sense that they’re pretty much exclusively for the multiplayer crowd. Sure, they all have some single-player component, maybe a loose story whose sole purpose is to earn upgrades to kick the backsides of friends & enemies alike. But to its credit, Driver: San Francisco does have a fairly solid single-player game alongside various multiplayer options.
I’ve never played any of the previous Driver games, but I highly doubt I missed anything that would change the story of this version. The protagonist is John Tanner, a plain-clothes police officer (I would say undercover police officer, but I don’t think you can be “undercover” when you drive a distinctive 60’s model orange Dodge Charger) who works with his partner, Tobias Jones. A criminal he was responsible for locking up pulls a daring escape, during which Tanner is put in a coma. I don’t think it’s spoiling it to say this, because the game establishes this point obviously during the prologue. Despite being in the hospital in a coma, Tanner finds himself still out in the world trying to track the criminal down. However, he now has the ability to “shift” into other bodies, thus taking control of other vehicles. The slick thing is, only Tanner is aware when this happens, so everyone else is unaware the person they’re sitting next to in the car isn’t the same person anymore. Using this to his advantage, Tanner goes deep undercover to track down Jericho & stop his plans before it’s too late.
The bulk of the game is the story mode, which is an open-world driving game. A large map displays areas of the city Tanner can go to. This map highlights the main missions (which advance the story), side missions (required to unlock main missions) & hundreds of challenges throughout the city at large. At any point you can shift into any vehicle & just drive around, performing various stunts to earn Willpower Points that can later be used to purchase upgrades or cars. Upgrades include extending your ability bar, which allows you to boost your chosen car or ram other cars, & improving recharge speed. The vehicles you purchase can only be used in the challenges, not in the actual missions. There are many different types of missions; Getaway, Pursuit, Race, Dare & Stunts, just a name a few. The all important Shift function is done with just the push of a button, putting you in an out-of-body experience where you can select any car on the road. And while doing this, your main vehicle will continue doing what it’s supposed to. So, for example, if you’re in a race & want to take over a fire truck to smash into the opposition, the race car will continue the course while you control the fire truck.
Check out the gameplay trailer at the bottom of the post for a better description of all the game has to offer.
Story: I really did like the story, even though I’ve seen some reviews call the story ludicrous. But come on! It’s no more ludicrous than half-organic/half-artificial aliens routinely wiping out all life the galaxy, or space marines fighting demons on Mars, or any story in video games that requires a major suspension of disbelief. I liked it. It’s interesting because although everything seems to be going on in Tanner’s head, we get scenes that suggest his actions are affecting the real world. I do wish they’d been more subtle about Tanner’s condition. Leave out the scenes of him in the hospital, for instance. Another downside is that, aside from two, the side missions don’t relate the ongoing story in any way. But overall I think the shift gimmick of the game helps tie an interesting story together. Score: 4
Gameplay: The diving feels really solid, which is good for a racing game. Although I’ve never been in a real race before, my impression is that the cars handle realistically. They swerve, spinout & each type has its on handling. Some cars start out fast but have lower overall speed, some are more prone to drift, & others can take more damage. Shifting is fast & easy, but I do wish the speed the cursor moves while you’re shifted was a little faster. It can be hard to select the vehicle you want quickly. You can replay the missions if you fail them, & some have checkpoints so you don’t have to restart completely, which is nice because some of the later missions can be tricky. It’s also nice that there’s a wide variety of activity types. However, you can complete the whole game by just playing the main & side missions & never touch the hundreds of others. Willpower isn’t that big a deal. The only useful upgrades are for your abilities. Cars are just a waste of Willpower because you can only use them in the open-world. I was also very frustrated by the AI of the other cars. The other vehicles seem to only have predetermined paths, as they never move out of the way to avoid you. This is especially annoying in the last three missions (which caused much frustration to me) when I kept getting knocked into oncoming traffic & the morons kept running over me. Pedestrians move out of the way of vehicles, but they didn’t program this into the actual cars? And I have to admit that I didn’t play any of the multiplayer options, mainly because you must have an online pass. So I can’t speak of what type of options are available there. However, the game does offer a split screen mode which doesn’t require a pass. So overall I’d say the driving is good but has some frustrations & a lot of the game feels tacked on. Score: 4
Visuals & Audio: I think the best thing about the graphics was the variety of camera options available when driving. I always used the full first-person mode, but there’s an angle for everyone. The graphics are nice, but I found it odd that the in-game graphics are so different from the cutscenes. I know this is normally the case, but it’s more obvious in Driver because there are instances of a split screen with the cutscene graphics on top & the in-game graphics on the bottom. It’s just weird. The sound was okay. I didn’t really care for any of the music. It wasn’t that anything was bad, it just sounded like they were trying to go for a 70’s cop movie feel, & it just didn’t fit with the modern setting. So the music was ignorable. The voiceacting was pretty good, though. Score: 3
Replayability: Overall, I’d say average. I doubt anyone will play through the story more than once, but you can continue in the open world after finishing. There are plenty of extra activities. But ultimately, replayability comes down to how much you like the multiplayer. I’m sending the game back now that I’m done, but I can see how others would keep it longer. Score: 3
Overall Score: 3
Final Word: Driver is a fun game that I’d recommend at least renting if you like driving games. It probably won’t become part of your permanent collection, but the driving is solid enough to give some enjoyment.
Title: Driver: San Francisco Console: 360, PS3, PC & Wii Rating: T Developers: Ubisoft Reflections Publisher: Ubisoft Release Date: September 2011