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Driver: San Francisco review – Coma Chameleon 
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Geoffrey Tim
September 1, 2011 at 8:30 am

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Back in the late 90’s, before there was Grand Theft Auto 3, Reflections Interactive (Now Ubisoft Reflections) gave us an open-world  multi-city-based driving game, ahead of its time and its competition, that practically pushed the PlayStation to its limits. That game was Driver. Unfortunately for Reflections and gamers alike, it was downhill from there.

Looking to renew the franchise, Reflections took what was arguably the most fun city in the first game, San Francisco, and built an entire game around it. Would it be possible to catapult such a once-loved, now mostly disregarded series back in to the limelight?

Tannertobia

Driver: San Francisco continues the story of the series stalwart, police veteran John Tanner, continuing right where Driver 3 left off. Jericho, San Francisco’s evil criminal godfather has been apprehended and is set to be incarcerated for a very, very long time. During transit, however, Jericho escapes. Tanner – aided by his partner Tobias Jones give chase. It all goes to hell when Jericho, piloting 18 wheels and 10 tons of truck, rams in to Tanner’s car, leaving him in the confines of a coma. Instead of having this terminate the game as the world’s shortest interactive digital narrative – because there’s not an awful lot of driving to be done from within a hospital bed – it instead introduces the “shift”mechanic, allowing Tanner’s psyche to hop out of his body, and from a birds-eye view, jump in to any of the hundreds of vehicles on San Francisco’s streets, gaining control of it’s primary occupant,and experiencing their lives.

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Unaware he’s the flick of a life-support machine’s switch away from being a particularly grizzly vegetable, continues the chase – in his mind. He’s instructed, by a mysterious billboard (swarming with crows, no less) to help the people of the city of San Francisco, help himself, and find and capture Jericho. It all sounds rather silly, absurd and ridiculous – and frankly it is. It does seem that the fellows from Reflections realise that, because the game never takes itself or its nonsensical narrative too seriously.

It almost seems as if they’d come up with the “shift” idea first, and then wrote a ludicrous story around it. That’s okay though, because it actually works. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the most interesting and inventive things to happen to the racing game genre in years. If you tire of or are struggling with the flat-out racing, it gives you an alternative. Instead of trying to legitimately beat a vehicle that’s obviously faster than yours, why not take control of a truck and ram it right in to your opposition? Can’t shake the cops? Annihilate them with a barrage of town cars. Falling behind a criminal on the run? Set up a blockade! Don’t worry – the car you were in will behave pretty sensibly while you’re astral projecting all over the pace.

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Eventually, as the story progresses and more of the city is unlocked, Tanner’s shifting prowess grows – and is eventually able to zoom out to show a Google Maps-like view of the entire Bay area. Some missions even require you to zoom out this far, making them almost feel like like a real-time strategy game. Missions range from standard races through checkpoints to stunt-driving, escort and protection, collect-a-thons  and more. It’s all made concrete by the games renewed focus on actual driving and car handling. Each of the game’s 128 beautifully recreated and eminently destroyable licenced cars (including Back to the Future’s DeLorean amongst other surprises) handles uniquely, and sublimely. For a game of this sort, filled with heart-pounding thrill rides and chases, Reflections has managed to strike the perfect balance between arcade and simulation racing (that is to say, mostly arcade) that’s precise enough to allow you to accurately slalom through traffic, and has just enough leeway to prevent you from perpetually rolling your vehicle while careening around corners at breakneck speeds.

Purchasable garages grant you access to cars, upgrades and challenges which you can buy with an in-game currency you earn from completing missions and driving around the city. In addition to the main missions you have to complete to progress the story – some of which are as disjointed and nonsensical as the plot, I might add – there are dares, stunts and movie challenges littered all over the ma to complete. Though these can become quite repetitive as the game goes on, the movie challenges in particular are a highlight, allowing you to re-enact some of the most iconic vintage car chases from the big and silver screens; movies like The Italian Job, The Driver, Bullit, the French Connection and TV’s Starsky and Hutch.

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It’s the first game in the series to feature multiplayer – and it’s thankfully not the tacked-on sort. It features both split screen (for 2 players) and online modes (for 8 players), and its here that the shift mechanic comes in to its own, adding life and a new dynamic to game modes that would otherwise seem like your standard fare. There are fantastic co-op events, reminiscent of Burnout Paradise’s excellent multiplayer, “cat and mouse” styled tag races and the white-knuckle, thrilling Trailblazer that has you following the trail left by the rather fast, aforementioned Trailblazer. Of course, the multiplayer will only remain fun if enough people are playing – and it would be a shame if gamers gave it a miss in favour of the next generic shooter. To keep players interested, there’s an experience-based system that rewards with upgrades and new cars, encouraging competition.

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Driver’s intricately crafted San Francisco, though not entirely accurate, is tweaked and compressed to provide a city filled with steep hills and swooping bends that’s massively fun to drive around. It’s Hollywood inspiration carries right through to its engaging, exceptionally well-rendered cut-scenes. The game’s main story  can be ploughed through in about 9 hours, so none of its mission types feel particularly overused – and nothing about it really overstayed its welcome. In fact it left me wanting more, which is more than I can say for most racing games.

Driver: San Francisco takes its zany shifting idea and runs with it, giving gamers a ridiculous yet entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top arcade racer brimming with variety, personality, and above all – fun.

Scoring

Gameplay: 8/10

Fun, varied driving – with a new dynamic in shift that makes it more engaging than it has any right to be.

Design and Presentation: 8/10

A beautiful if inaccurate San Francisco, over a hundred realised licenced vehicles all tied up in a 70’s Hollywood atmosphere that permeates everything.

Value: 8/10

9 hours for a play through, with many more hours of gaming for the completionist, coupled with a rather extensive list of multiplayer features make this worth purchasing.

Overall: 8.0/10

It doesn’t quite get back to its roots, but it’s a fine return to form for a once iconic franchise.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360]
I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.