Driving games aren’t usually my speed, so when I agreed to review Driver: San Francisco, I began psyching myself up for one long road trip. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised when I hit the gas and found an action game that, while sporting a few potholes, quickly raced into my subconscious and didn’t let go for the entire ride.
Essentially, you control the series’ policeman mainstay, John Tanner, as he drives around the city in pursuit of a fugitive named Charles Jericho.
Well... sort of, anyway.
In a car chase early on, Tanner and his partner get into an accident, and our hero is sent into a coma. Subconsciously, Tanner pursues Jericho through a dream-world version of San Francisco, tracking down leads and tailing persons of interest in an attempt to find out the man’s plans so he can thwart them upon waking up. Ah, but it’s more interesting than that - being that this is Tanner’s dream, he has a degree of control over the environment. At any point, he can ‘Shift’ to any other car in the city and take control of its driver.
See this hot face? It's about to get a great big bump.
The missions on offer make creative use of the Shift mechanic. During chase scenes when you’re having trouble catching the enemy, you can just Shift to an oncoming vehicle and smash into him. In one particularly harrowing mission, there are ten bombs placed on trucks throughout the city, and they will detonate in three minutes. You have to quickly Shift to vehicles that are not only nearby, but small enough to drive underneath the trucks so you can disarm the bombs. Along the way, you’ll also do ridiculous stunts like rushing a dying man to the hospital while keeping his heart rate above 20 by weaving through traffic and doing other dangerous actions.
While the game does have a fair bit of variety in mission types, the idea truck starts running on fumes about halfway through. In order to unlock the next story mission, you usually need to complete a few City missions, which typically involve one of several recurring side characters. There are these two Asian illegal street-racers in particular who keep promising to stop after winning ‘just one more’, but, lo and behold, in the next chapter you’re forced to bail them out again. Most of it is fun, but you can tell a lot of these missions were added just to artificially extend the game’s length.
Car chases like these quickly become commonplace in this game.
My other main gripe is that the Shift functionality has some contrived limitations. While it is fun to switch to another car to ram the enemy you’re chasing, why can’t you just take control of that enemy and pull his car over? Yes that would make the game too easy, but a little explanation would have been appreciated. Rule of Cool, I guess.
The game also offers an entertaining multiplayer mode, playable locally and online. There are several gametypes to unlock, like Tag and various races. My favourite is a literal game of cops-n-robbers, in which one player controls a getaway vehicle that has to reach drop-off points and escape while the others, as cops, try to smash him to pieces. The cops can Shift to any vehicle at any time, so this makes for a very fast-paced game, the balance of which can pull a u-turn at any moment.
Switch to first-person view for even more intensity.
Rounding out the feature list is a comprehensive video editor, which allows you to record and then recut your gameplay to make your own short movies. I didn’t tinker with this too much, but there are more than enough options for budding film makers to make the next car-chase action blockbuster. Smaller clips can even be uploaded online for the world to see.
The presentation is fairly well-done here, with the city itself being the standout. Right out of the gate, you’re presented with a fully-realized San Francisco, brimming with colour and teeming with life. The cars all animate realistically with a fair physics engine, making the action seem like something you’d see in a Hollywood action movie. The characters all have real personality, too. Tanner seems like an intentionally-cheesy Schwarzenegger riff, with plenty of one-liners and attitude to spare. Whenever you shift into another car, there’s a mini-conversation with the other passengers, hinting that there’s more going on in the city than what Tanner is doing. The dialogue is quite funny during missions, such as when you control a man who is helping his thieving wife escape the cops. At the end of the mission, after revealing that she’s leaving you, she off-handedly says “Actually, as far as the cops know, you took the money. Thanks for everything — bye!”
Not from the game--this was my drive to work this morning.
The game took me around 15 hours to beat, though I only took on a modicum of the hundreds of side missions. There are plenty of extra races, car chases, and other events you can participate in to unlock cars and earn Willpower (basically money). Essentially, if I decide to 100% this thing, I’ll be playing for quite a while.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Driver: San Francisco. True, it sometimes goes off the pavement with repetitive missions and questionable application of its main gameplay hook, but it was quite a fun way to spend my spare time the last few days. The plot throws a few curveballs at you late in the game, and I always wanted to see what happened next. The city and play style were clearly designed as a homage to action flicks of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which I don’t mind one bit. At the end of the day, this latest entry in the Driver franchise is one smooth ride.