By Marty Mulrooney
Driver: San Francisco is an open world driving game developed by Ubisoft Reflections and published by Ubisoft. The latest instalment in the Driver franchise once again puts the player behind the steering wheel as hardened detective John Tanner – joined by long-time partner Tobias Jones – as he tries to bring criminal mastermind Charles Jericho to justice.
The first two Driver games on the original PlayStation were genre-defining titles, paving the way for Grand Theft Auto 3 on PlayStation 2 and a slew of knockoffs. Sadly, Driv3r on PlayStation 2 wasn’t up to scratch and every successive title in the series since seems to have been merely chasing the runaway success of the superior Grand Theft Auto franchise. That is, until now.
Driver: San Francisco takes low expectations and raises them through the roof. Everything that made the original game so memorable is back, the focus purely on driving fast and dangerous, Hollywood style. The handling is over-generous yet precise, the traction control will have you drifting round corners like a madman and the suspension can handle jumps that will make your stomach lurch. Tanner is back, and this time he remains in the car at all times – apart from during cinematic cutscenes. Considering how the last few instalments of the franchise tried to copy Grand Theft Auto’s third-person on-foot sections with limited success, this seems a very wise move indeed.
Then they went one step further. The driving in Driver: San Francisco is all about taking risks, and that’s exactly what Ubisoft Reflections have taken with their brand new gameplay mechanic, Shift. At the very beginning of the game, John Tanner is put into a coma after being hit by a huge truck driven by his arch nemesis Charles Jericho, who has just broken out of jail. From this point onwards, the majority of the game takes place entirely inside John’s head. It sounds stupid, crazy even – but soon proves to be an absolutely inspired creative decision.
John can’t get out of his car, but he can shift to another one. Any car. Anywhere. The Shift mechanic is amazing and changes the entire game, perhaps the entire genre. Pressing X causes the views to suddenly shift upwards above your currently driven vehicle, Google Maps style. You can eventually zoom out to almost ridiculous levels, but zooming in is where the fun begins. Time slows down when using Shift, and you can select any car to be transported into it instantly. That’s right, even if it’s on the complete opposite side of the map.
This is how missions are selected. Entering Shift Mode shows a variety of icons on the map. There are garages (where you can purchase upgrades, unlock special challenges and purchase new cars), stunts, races, side-missions, story missions and more. Completing missions gives the player Willpower, the game’s currency, which can also be earned by simply driving in style. Most side-missions are optional but there are usually several that need to be completed before the next story mission will unlock. These missions, once selected, will place you in the necessary vehicle and then you’re off!
However, Shift isn’t just a clever way to choose missions and fast-travel. The gameplay implications are huge. Chasing a suspect but he’s getting away? Shift into an oncoming vehicle and take him out. Your car isn’t proving fast enough? Shift into a passing Lamborghini and put the pedal to the metal. Want to show off big-time? Use Shift to finish 1st AND 2nd in a race. There is also plenty of fun to be had from listening to passengers, who still see John as their nearest and dearest. It feels like being a fly on the wall and often proves to be absolutely hilarious.
As this is a dream world, it seems appropriate that Driver: San Francisco is like a petrol-head’s wet dream. It includes over 120 fully damageable licensed cars from the 1960’s right up to the present day including manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Bentley, Ford, Volkswagen, DeLorean, Lamborghini and Cadillac, which can be driven on more than 200 miles of road network throughout San Francisco. There are also 60 licensed songs – from artists such as 22-20’s, Aretha Franklin, Beck, The Cure and Jamiroquai – as well as an original score and a new version of the Driver theme from Marc Canham.
The controls feel great too, with each car controlling differently. The nice thing about the car selection is that – aside from the occasional large vehicle – they are all fun to drive and you never feel as if a car is a ‘dud’ or just filler. Pushing forward on the left analogue stick gives your car a speed boost and you can also hold L1 and then release it to ram. Although the third-person view is most natural to drive in, the included in-car camera mode is great fun as well, with Tanner’s hands desperately gripping onto the steering wheel as your car weaves through oncoming traffic and drifts round corners. Tanner’s yellow and black 1970 Dodge Challenger is the default car for many of the story missions and drives like a dream. However, when driving around the city I preferred my newly bought DeLorean DMC-12, with Marlena Shaw’s ‘California Soul (Diplo Remix)’ blasting out loud and proud.
The main game lasts roughly 10 hours, although the many side-missions could easily triple your playtime – there are a staggering amount of things to do inside John Tanner’s head. Furthermore, there is a split screen mode and online multiplayer with 19 different game modes, many of which allow the Shift mechanic from the single player game. These are all a blast to play and add a lot of extra value for money – my favourite mode so far is Trail Blazer, where players fight to stay within the trails of an indestructible DeLorean as it charges around San Francisco, using Shift to gain an advantage where possible. Other people shifting into a previously NPC car is signified via a massive bolt of lightening: deliriously fun mayhem ensues. Ubisoft’s Uplay Passport is needed to play online – I assume this was originally put in place to recoup hypothetical losses from second-hand sales – but due to a printing error the code is no longer required and anyone can get a free Uplay Passport from the game’s main menu.
My only real criticism of Driver: San Francisco is that it doesn’t take its silly premise anywhere near seriously enough. British television drama Life On Mars did something very similar plot-wise with great results way back in 2006, but sadly, the dream-premise of the game is only really used to excuse the trippy Shift mechanic and offer some cool (yet tough) eleventh hour missions involving deserted city streets and flipping cars. The FMV cutscenes are spliced beautifully with the eye-catching 60fps in-game graphics and the voice acting is solid. The storyline doesn’t really cut it, but the fun factor almost makes this a necessary evil. Driver: San Francisco is a great game because it remains true to itself and doesn’t try to copy the competition. A return to form that is probably going to be the most underrated mainstream game of 2011.
9 OUT OF 10