Darren Forman reflects upon his time in San Francisco
The storyline of Driver: San Francisco picks right up from where the notoriously awful Driv3r left off. Detective John Tanner, having put his arch nemesis Charles Jericho behind bars, is tagging along from a distance as he’s transferred to the courthouse for sentencing intent on seeing it through to the end. Jericho however, being the evil criminal mastermind that he is, orchestrates a daring prison break during the transfer with the help of – what else – an attractive female assassin with a penchant for dropping dudes out of helicopters and firing rocket launchers at police transports. Naturally, Tanner’s not the sort of dude who’ll let all his hard work go to waste, and so the chase is on!
Unfortunately, ten minutes later Tanner’s car gets blind-sided by an 18-wheeler just as he catches up to Jericho and it’s off to dreamland for him as, not unexpectedly, he’s put straight into a coma from the impact. And so the game truly begins.
Of course, watching your comatose hero breathing through some tubes for the entire game would be a little on the boring side, so as luck would have it Tanner grasps this golden opportunity to unleash his powerful latent psychic abilities and hunt Jericho down through the medium of other drivers, stopping along the way only to help out those needy souls he comes across as he drifts slowly across the heavens, leering at them all from way up on high.
It comes as a bit of a shock for everyone involved, not least of all Tanner himself as he bumbles through his newfound powers in the game’s rendition of a tutorial – teaching you how to shift in and out of cars, navigate around the city from the sky and ready yourself for the eventual showdown with Jericho. Along the way you’ll have to help out a multitude of strangers, convince your partner that you’re not a complete screaming lunatic who can magically transfer his soul between moving vehicles, find out how Jericho escaped, what his plans are and maybe – just maybe – somehow make sense of everything that’s happened.
Not that it’s all doom, gloom and wondering if your brains have sprung a leak, mind you. In one of his very first body invasions, Smokin’ John Tanner warps his soul into the body of a News van just in time to hear the producer lamenting the lack of reckless transport related action on the streets. ‘Nothing like a head on crash to get the juices flowing,’ moans the insufferable dick in the passenger seat, unaware that Tanner’s just taken over his colleague’s body. Never fear, though – seconds later our heroic herald of justice shifts his body into the nearest blameless civilian and immediately sends her thundering headfirst under a lorry in front of the aforementioned News van. All in the name of capturing exciting (if somewhat horrific and morally reprehensible) footage to entertain the masses with.
I’d just like to remind everyone that this wasn’t something I decided to do for shits and giggles just because I’m an unpardonable bastard with a warped sense of humour. This is something that happens as part of the main storyline, and it’s all the more glorious as a result. I couldn’t help but feel that Tanner’s bizarre sense of justice and utter lack of empathy for the faceless commuters of San Francisco was incredibly endearing and refreshing from both a gaming and narrative standpoint. The designers had fun with this game, and it shows – from warping into a car with a Hospital director announcing that they’re about to start reusing latex gloves to chortling about losing someone their job after an imminent pile-up, it’s clear that they don’t take the madness too seriously for the most part. That said, they handle the occasional serious moment surprisingly well too, resulting in a story mode that’s a real pleasure to play through.
It’s not just the writing that carries the game, either – it plays really well. As a straight up arcade style sandbox racer it’s more than competent, but the ability to possess other vehicles and force them to do your bidding really makes Driver: San Francisco stand out from the crowd. Losing a race? Simply phase out of your main body, watch time slow down, take over someone nearby, smash them into whoever it is that you’re chasing and warp back just in time to speed past the smouldering pile of car shaped wreckage that you just caused. Life’s a lot easier when you can simply turn a lorry sideways into your targets, let me tell you – though the AI can certainly make a spirited effort to avoid your supernatural traps.
During your travels, you also acquire willpower from your exploits in the city – money to you and me. You can purchase new cars that you can keep for yourself rather than having to steal via inhabiting the current driver, upgrade your abilities to boost and generally improve your chances to take down Jericho.
It’s a good looking game, too. While there’s a certain blandness to the textures, the game maintains a rock solid frame rate at nearly all times despite the city being absolutely packed full of traffic and surprisingly spry pedestrians hurling themselves out of the way of your vehicle. The sense of speed is impeccable, and there’s no noticeable loading as you shift between vehicles or drive around the city. The sound is also worth mentioning – while a lot of the tunes don’t exactly stick in your head, their ambience is spot on and a couple of standout tracks such as the main title theme are excellent.
As for the multiplayer, it also turns out to be pretty good fun overall. The shifting mechanic translates well to online play and there’s a decent selection of modes to keep you happy if you fancy taking on the world online. An online pass is required, but you get a free two day pass that’ll allow you to taste what it has to offer even if you’ve bought it second hand or simply rented it.
To be honest, there aren’t many problems with Driver: San Francisco. The non-essential side activities can repeat themselves a few too many times and simply aren’t as interesting as the main storyline missions – though helping a father and daughter team come in first and second place respectively during a race is almost enough to snap your mind in half just thinking about it – and if you’re looking for a deep, technical racer with a lot of customization options and the chance to shave nanoseconds off your laps you’re looking in completely the wrong place.
In fact, the two quibbles that rubbed me the wrong way most were relatively minor. When shifting out of your host vehicle the AI will take over for you and occasionally do something incredibly thick such as drive straight into a wall or veer off down the wrong street – though often you can salvage the mission from this so it’s not really a huge deal, but it does warrant mentioning. The other issue is that a late game boss battle can be remarkably irritating due to a lack of decent checkpoints and an all new threat that gets introduced. To say more would likely spoil the encounter, but you’ll likely know what I mean when you see it.
With Driver: San Francisco, Ubisoft have taken a series that had previously stagnated into irrelevance and reworked it to deliver one of the freshest, most joyful racing experiences in years. With a sharp script, excellent gameplay, a real sense of speed and an 80’s buddy movie vibe that the designers have nailed absolutely perfectly, there’s a lot to recommend with Driver: San Francisco.
Darren spent about twenty hours on the mean streets of San Francisco, cleaned up the single player story mode along the way and did about half of the optional side missions presented to him. His dalliance with the multiplayer mode was brief, but fun while it lasted.