When Ubisoft first announced a new Driver game, I admit that I rolled my eyes. I wondered “why bother” and proceeded to ignore it until very recently. While I did not play the last Driver game, Parallel Lines, the second and third games were enough to turn me off to the series. The first game was a stellar car chase game, with a surprisingly intricate crime plot and excellent mechanics. Driver 2 and 3 lost me because of the broken engine and the awful on foot missions. So I was not terribly excited to hear that Ubisoft and Reflections were going to try to revive the franchise with what appeared to be a silly gimmick.
Well, I will state it right here: Driver San Francisco is a fun game. I was wrong to not be excited. While it is not the best racing game I have ever played, it never tries to be. Driver San Francisco feels like it just wants to be a good game and an attempt to reboot the franchise. It manages to do both successfully. It is a solid game with some great mechanics and a gimmick that feels more like a gameplay addition than something thrown in to make it different. Further, and here is what appears to be the key to a successful Driver game, you never get out of the car. It is all about the driving in Driver San Francisco.
Once again, you play as John Tanner, a police officer with a grudge against series criminal Charles Jericho. The game starts off with Tanner attempting to prevent Jericho from escaping jail in a prison truck. In the course of the chase, there is a bad accident and the next thing Tanner knows, he has grown strange, psychic abilities. The game’s story is actually surprisingly well done, and the core mechanic is written into it well. When I say well done, realize I do not mean Driver will make you contemplate what it means to be human a la Deus Ex, but rather it is silly fun in an enjoyable B-movie sort of way. This is especially true in the voice acting, where Tanner’s character plays it so straight it is funny.
After waking up from the accident, Tanner discovers that he can “Shift” into the driver’s seat of almost any other car in the city, and he begins to do so to help people. He is initially led by mysterious billboards scattered around the city, but this tapers off quickly. A great opportunity is missed here for a deeper story, but at the same time, with the way the story actually plays out, it doesn’t matter. The billboards just add a bit of Lost-esq mystery to the early story. After the initial tutorials, the player is then given free rein to explore San Francisco and take on the story.
The Shift mechanic really shines in Driver, as now you dont have to worry if you fall behind a car in a chase or make a wrong move . Just hop into another one that is closer and continue the chase. Or better yet, shift into opposing traffic and end the chase quickly with a head on collision. There are tons opportunities to use the shift mechanic and you are really only limited by your own creativity and lack of self preservation. It is mildly amusing that Tanner is supposed to help people in San Francisco, but at the same time ends up causing a lot of property damage in the process. This just adds more charm to the Shift mechanic.
Between story missions, the player can also compete in various activities, such as extra races, mini-games, stunt activities called “Dares”, car chase events and takedown events. These extra missions add a lot of extra gameplay to the core game, and while they don’t exactly add depth, they are all varied and interesting ways to break up (but never slow down) the gameplay. The highlight of these extra activities are the missions where you aren’t just racing, you’re racing to come in first and second place. While I do call this a highlight, sometimes, the AI that takes over the car does a fine job, and sometimes, well, it sucks and slows the car you just drove into the lead, requiring a bit more strategy than you might expect to keep both cars in front. Still, even that never makes the game frustrating, as the races are certainly beatable.
Another great addition are the unlockable movie style challenges that pay tribute to great car chase films over the years. There is a mission inspired by Gone in 60 Seconds, a mission based on Blues Brothers, and of course, since this is San Francisco after all, a tribute to Bullitt. The single player team races are a highlight that provides a really nice challenge, especially as you begin facing more powerful cars. Through these extra activities and dares, Tanner gains the in-game currency known as Will Power Points, which can be used to buy new cars and garages. The cars you buy, while not usable in the core story, become your main vehicles as you compete in the various mini-games scattered over the city.
Overall, the game doesn’t look amazing, but it nails the most important part; the cars look great, and each seems lovingly crafted by the developers. The city of San Francisco reflects perfectly off the hoods of your various cars until you smash your car into something and see the damage modeling. The damage modeling is particularly enjoyable, and while it is nowhere near realistic, the in-car view shines as your hood begins to obscure your vision and your windshield splinters and eventually breaks as the cars take damage. The biggest issue I have with the graphics are with the pedestrians. I understand their inclusion, as they do make the city appear lived in, but at the same time, they are generally supernaturally aware and will dive out of the way even if their back is to you. There are times when they aren’t quick enough though, and it is very jarring when they clip through your hood. There was also a weird film grain a lot of the time, and I did not see an option to toggle this.
One of my favorite touches is that whenever you shift into a car, the make and model of that car is displayed on your HUD. It is a small touch, but a great one. The cars are also all licensed from various manufacturers, so the city actually feels alive and real as you weave in and out of traffic in cars ranging from a Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon to a McLaren F1. It might seem like there is a disproportionate amount of “nice” cars in San Francisco, but it all makes sense, especially when you consider that Shifting into a classic Mustang Mach 1 or a DeLorean DMC-12 is far more satisfying than shifting into a Lincoln Town Car.
My biggest complaint from the demo was that the controls felt too loose. For the most part, Reflections fixed those issues, though there were still times when they did not respond quite as expected. The hand break seems to be especially oversensitive, and everything seems to have a bit too much over steer. It isn’t game breaking, but it does take some getting used to. Another complaint is that the controls are not remappable. The hand break button is somewhat uncomfortably mapped to the B button on the Xbox 360, when every other racing game I have played it is mapped to the X button, a more natural layout. Even late in the game I found my thumb hitting the X button to try to drift and ended up hitting a wall. It was a minor issue, but still one that was incredibly annoying.
While the single player surprised me by telling a good, if silly, story filled with enough variety to keep the whole game interesting, the multiplayer is an even bigger surprise. The Shift mechanic adds a lot of depth to the multiplayer, so even the most mundane matches can get very chaotic. There are 11 multplayer modes, including the standard race and team race modes, but the true stars of the multiplayer are the hectic Tag and Trailblazer modes. In Tag, one player is “it” and must evade the other players in order to score points. The catch is that the players who are not “it” can shift, so every other car in the city becomes dangerous to the player that is “it.” Trailblazer is equally as chaotic, or maybe even more so. In the Trailblazer mode, up to 8 people are competing to stay within two yellow lines that trail from a DeLorean (in a true “I see what you did there moment”) as it drives all over the city. One player can block the lines from the others, so it was especially great to shift into a semi-truck and become an unmovable object behind the DeLorean, well at least until the car turned rapidly. There are also several team modes and a car chase mode where the cops can Shift but the getaway driver cannot. The multiplayer uses Ubisoft’s UPlay service, which is no different from EA’s independent service and just as annoying. It should also be mentioned that since this is an Ubisoft game, their DRM software on the PC version will be included.
Driver is one of those rare games that is better than it should be and deserves to be bigger than it is. There are not that many story based racers around, much less ones that are this much fun. In fact it is the best story-based driving game I can think of since 2005s Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Unfortunately, the game deserves much better than it is getting, being released without a lot of hype, but more so being put up against several other big fall titles such as Dead Island and Resistance 3. While it is not the deepest game I have played, and it certainly is not without its flaws, there is a lot of fun, varied gameplay here. An exciting multiplayer only caps off the solid, if cheesy, single player. The life of the single player is even extended by the addition of a New Game Plus option. Hopefully this game can surpass its own image and become a true sleeper hit.