Driver: San Francisco Review
The Driver series first made an appearance in 1999, but has steadily been with us along the way, now it’s time for number 4. Inspired by cop chases and television series like Starsky and Hutch, Driver puts you in the position of cop Tanner in his pursued to capture villain Jericho. But is this a chase worth pursuing?
Unlike most sequels Driver actually starts where the previous one left off, luckily the story is told in a way that newcomers can immediately jump in and enjoy the action. Cops John Tanner and Tobias Jones are supervising in San Francisco when Jericho hijacks the prison car and escapes. In their first encounter tanner gets wounded and ends up in a coma fighting death. Higher forces come into play however when Tanner learns to shift into bodies and take their identity without anyone knowing. It’s an interesting concept and helps elevate the game without losing a sense of immersion.
By smartly helping the law, and breaking it, Tanner hopes to get closer to Jericho in his web of gang members and crooks. The story is extremely compelling and one of the main attractions to the game. Thankfully Ubisoft Reflections bypassed the obvious handicap of being a racing game, by using voice acting and cut scenes to help the story prolong.
Driver San Francisco is a sandbox arcade racing game that promotes absolute freedom. Main difference here however is that you can shift into any car, which refreshes the familiar gameplay mechanics. This is especially apparent in later missions where the game encourages you to use other vehicles in pursuits.
Completing objectives earns you willpower, an in-game currency that buys you cars or upgrades. The missions are very diverse and differ from doing stunts, chasing bad guys or managing a long drift. Key missions meanwhile help the story progress, unlocking new territory and abilities along the way. Most of the missions are fun to do and offer a fair amount of challenge.
You can probably imagine that shifting into other people (without them changing appearance) can lead to some funny scenarios. Driver captures these moments brilliantly with convincing voice acting and impressive visuals all-round. At some point I jumped into a dad’s body driving his 18-year-old daughter to the shops for her very first vehicle, complete with a complimentary flower on the dashboard of the VW beetle.
This other time I jumped into the body of a nervous college student racing for his tuition money. I almost felt the fear of my fellow passenger as I raced towards a demanding win, and my passenger’s disbelief after. Later I caught up with the two and learned that the scary passenger had entered in another race for even more money. The developers clearly have a good sense of humor and it’s exciting to see all the different scenarios pan out.
The key however is to win all the key missions and reach to the end of the game. With all the side objectives it’s easy to get distracted, as Ubisoft managed to create an interesting and fun experience surrounding the San Francisco scene. Impatient petrol heads can complete the game in about 10 hours, but all the extras double that amount for a healthy 20 hours of offline gameplay.
All the games that pass the RaceDepartment test are assessed on driving mechanic. Some games do well in this area, while others do not. Driver San Francisco does not claim to be a simulator or in-between, for that reason Ubisoft has not added support for steering wheels. Is this a deal breaker? No. I can’t imagine driving this game with a wheel to be honest. In Driver cars turn fastest when pulling the handbrake and donuts are incredibly easy to do. These mechanics make it easier to recreate any Hollywood chase, and that’s fine by me. The problem this creates though is that it’s sometimes too easy to drift, which makes proper driving harder as a result.
To help spice up the action, Driver contains 125 cars from all automotive branches including the Mclaren mp4-12c (exotic), Fiat 500 (eco) and needless to be said: old muscle cars like the Ford grand Torino. Unfortunately the difference between cars feels highly artificial because apart from speed, there’s not much to it. Therefore the fastest vehicle is almost always your best bet.
Despite the arcade sticker, Driver San Francisco offers cockpit view in all the cars and a turbo boost that could actually exist in real life (just a subtle increase in revs and speed if you stay away from the upgrades). Finally Tanner turns the wheel 900 degrees just like in real life with an incredible attention to detail, as visual in the “cool” hand palm reverse driving technique. All these mechanics ensure a fun driving experience despite being an arcade.
Driver can be played in split screen mode or online. The former adds the missions found in the singleplayer such as: race, chase and tag. The visuals suffer a penalty in split screen mode but it’s fun nonetheless. Unfortunately you can’t drive with four people or add AI cars, so the experience draws thin to say the least.
Online has a bit more meat to it. Ubisoft Reflections ships each copy of the game with an uPlay pass for online functionality, but after a printing error they decided to offer the code for free in the Playstation Store and Xbox Marketplace.
Racing online is easy and within seconds I was connected to 8 other people playing tag and guide. My online sessions finished without any slowdowns and the shifting ability transfers nicely to the online world for added tactical depth. Doing well online earns you rankings and unlocks new content, making it a mode well worth playing.
Driver San Francisco has one of the best overall packages I’ve seen. The main menu is effective and completely styled towards the old 70s cop movies. The graphics continue this trend by adding a minor sepia and noise effect to the picture, which does wonders in setting the wary mood.
Meanwhile the scenery is modelled convincingly and, apart from the buildings, most objects are destroyable. It looks mighty impressive and adds to the impressive overall presentation of the game. Something gamers looking to record famous cop chases will especially enjoy.
As I was cruising the coastline city I did notice a few problems. Sometimes the world suggests there’s an alley, while it’s actually blocked by an invisible wall. Citizens of San Francisco will also tell you that the city isn’t recreated accurately, despite adding most iconic landmarks. More hurtful to me however is the lack of weather effects and a full 24 hours cycle. That alone would’ve made the world much more convincing.
Meanwhile the cars are inline with the buildings. They look nice and it’s easy to distinguish each specific model from a distance, but it’s nowhere near GT5/Forza level of detail. Still it deserves praise that all the cars have internal views, and working animations for the horn and steering.
Sound wise the game delivers an impressive soundtrack that’s diverse enough to keep it from getting repetitive. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the cars’ sound, differing from lawn mower to mediocre at best. Remarkably the engine noise from the chase cam is similar to that of the cockpit view, which isn’t right. Positive remarks are reserved for the ambience and the subtle increase of revs when applying the turbo.
Finally, the cut scenes are both impressive in content and design. The facial expressions are among the best I’ve seen and definitely blow away other games in the genre. The story is beautifully written paired with convincing voice acting from start to finish. I should note that some of the characters are stereotyped a bit. The typical cranky exam instructor is in there, together with the silky smooth salesman, but most won’t mind.
Sometimes a game can genuinely surprise me, Driver San Francisco is one of those games. The story is well told and the game manages to keep itself fresh by periodically opening new territory and offering new missions. This is backed up by a punchy presentation from start to finish, with graphics up there in the awe scale. The game could’ve been better with a more dynamic world and more accurate recreation of the beautiful city of San Francisco and the various cars. If you’re going for a fun game without any kind of simulation, Driver won’t disappoint. In fact it might even surprise you in a good way. After two disappointing predecessors, Driver San Fransisco returns the series to an all time high. Welcome back.
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