Adam Guetti
14 Sep, 2011

Driver: San Francisco Review

360 Review | We find out if comas make better drivers.
The Driver series has had a bit of a tumultuous history since its original inception back in 1999. While many games and critics cherished the initial outings of John Tanner and his undercover escapades, the franchise's quality quickly began to fade over the following years, thanks primarily to poorly designed sequels and a PSP iteration we’d rather not talk about. This inevitably brings us to Driver: San Francisco; Ubisoft Reflections' attempt at rebooting the frail franchise. But, is it a successful tune up, or is this one driver that has finally run out of gas?

Let's get one thing out of the way nice and early. The premise underlying Driver: San Francisco is completely and absolutely ridiculous. For those unaware of the sci-fi fare, events are once again focused around the plights of detective John Tanner. Acting as a pseudo sequel to Driver 3, San Francisco sees villainous criminal Jericho finally locked up behind bars. But no hardened crook ever stays put for long, so a secretive scheme is hatched within the opening minutes, leading towards a protocol prison transfer that turns horribly awry. Tanner naturally gets himself involved, giving chase to the speedy Jericho; but all doesn't end well for our old friend who wraps up his day with a major car crash and its resulting coma. It's from this point on that you enter Tanner's mind as he discovers the newfound ability to possess everyday citizens as he pleases, which he utilises to begin solving the mystery laden investigation.

While it's all utterly laughable fodder, the presentation is undeniably stellar. Story focused cut scenes possess a fantastic amount of detail; set to rival even the most graphically intensive console competition and the occasional re-cap sequence (much in the style of Alan Wake) helps sum up the main thread lines in case you ever get lost or return after a long absence.

Yep, it can look THIS good.

Yep, it can look THIS good.
What the nonsensical story does allow for however, is the implementation of San Francisco's major hook - 'Shifting'. With the press of a button, Tanner’s consciousness is thrust skyward, providing you with a bird’s eye view of the bustling city beneath you. While you can’t get out of your vehicle, you can instead inhabit the body of any driver you lay your eyes on and begin controlling their car. This mechanic leads to both a gigantic sandbox for you to play with, as well as a large dose of incredibly corny jokes as Tanner makes unnecessary quips at unassuming passengers.

It also creates a wider range of tactics in many of Driver: SF’s missions. Races for example aren't always so much about skillful navigation and pedal to the metal speed as they are about using your surroundings to your competitive advantage. Long trucks can be positioned as blockades across multiple lanes of traffic, while every other vehicle in close proximity can be conveniently transformed into battering rams as you joyfully guide them headfirst into your target. It's a refreshing twist to old mechanics and helps prevent the driving antics from becoming overly repetitive, though you will find yourself using some options more than others.

As a whole though, it's an intriguing concept, and one that thankfully is pulled off without a hitch. Shifting is a dream to use and before long you will be zipping in and out of vehicles to meet your every rev-filled desire.

I'm IN the car?!

I'm IN the car?!
Shifting is also essential to navigate the world's pseudo hub. Shift high up enough and your screen will become littered with a multitude of side missions and stunts ready for the tackling. There's no shortage of content to work your way through, and thankfully it doesn't rely on constant rehashing. Side missions will have you taking part in street races, helping the local police department take down criminals, all the way to scaring the living bejesus out of a mean spirited driving instructor, just because you can. Complete enough of these side missions and you will gradually unlock Tanner specific missions that keep the main plot thread chugging along, while stunts and dares will build points that can be used to buy cars and upgrades of your abilities.

Although the missions can be commended for their variety, they also quite easily lead to major frustrations, due largely in part to sporadic difficulty spikes. While most are kept relatively straightforward, the occasional objective will put all of your skills to the test, providing multiple objectives alongside an inconvenient timer. Couple this at times with the entire San Francisco police force on your tail, and proceedings become increasingly frustrating. Many of your enemies will be utterly relentless slamming you into walls, or forcing you into a tail spin that not only whittles down your car’s damage meter, but also dramatically slows you down. Some of the game's later side missions caused moments of pure aggravation as all the elements worked against us - forcing us to restart single missions over and over again for upwards of thirty minutes - all in an attempt to progress through the main plot. It's disappointing, but ultimately these instances underpin and mar the overall experience Ubisoft Reflections no doubt aimed to provide.

But what about the cars? Well, rest assured that with a healthy range to test drive, ranging from Fords, Dodges and Nissans to elongated busses, most car fanatics should be kept aptly satisfied. Each car also comes with its own predetermined stats, useful for working out which make will be better suited to individual environments or mission objectives. Drifting too will play a major role in successful navigation and aversion so it's a shame that its handling at times feels a little loose and out of control; constantly slamming into traffic or walls and forcing you to play with your finger on the break more often than you would expect with a game of this nature.

Example #345 as to why driving on the sidewalk never ends well.

Example #345 as to why driving on the sidewalk never ends well.
Multiplayer has your usual racing antics but with shifting at the heart of most of it all. Modes consist of competitive tag, where opponent will continuously change cars in order to hit you, as well as co-operative modes where a group of you will be escaping cops or taking down street racers as a team. It all helps build XP which you can spend towards various rewards and upgrades that act as incentives. It definitely helps San Francisco break away from the stock standard racing mould and keep things exciting, but if that’s your thing, standard ‘get to the finish first’ races are accounted for too. Whether the game's fan base will continue to support online is yet to be seen; but with Ubisoft promising a wealth of free content, let's hope so.

At its heart, Driver San Francisco is a fine return for the long running Driver franchise. With its 70s inspired feel, right down to the many guitar heavy musical riffs and buddy cop banter, this is a game that understands its identity. Sure it comes packaged with a ridiculous premise, but by doing so also introduces a mechanic fresh enough to help distinguish itself from the rest of the competition. Shifting is easy to manage and quick to use, helping to keep the overall pace up at a consistently high tempo. While it's not without its flaws, if you're after some good old fashioned driving shenanigans, you should definitely take this one out for a spin.
The Score
Longtime fans of the Driver series should breathe a sigh of relief, as Ubisoft Reflections has managed to produce a largely successful reboot. While the narrative is completely laughable, it does pave the way for the shifting mechanic, which is well-handled. If you can battle through the frustration associated with sporadic difficulty spikes and some of the game’s other minor flaws, you’re bound to have some good old fashioned fun with Driver: San Francisco.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  29/09/2011 (Tentative)
Year Made:

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