Driver: San Francisco Review

By Adam Ma on September 9, 2011

These days you can break racing games into two categories: open world and closed track. Closed track titles are all about the car themselves, the realism, and authentic feel of each vehicle. Often the tracks themselves are taken from real world locations, or genuine settings in order to enhance the feeling of authenticity. Open world, or sandbox games, are a bit different. Missions are spread out through a city-wide track that all have racing oriented goals, and let the player familiarize themselves with the road in a way that a closed track often times cannot compete with. Driver: San Francisco is an open world game, so racing fans should already know that picking up a copy means getting ready for some city-wide exploring. What they might not be prepared for is the ability to spiritually disconnect from the car they're using in order to possess any other driver all over the city and use their car for your own needs. Interested? You should be.

Driver: San Francisco takes place shortly after the events of Driv3r (or Driver 3 for those that don't speak 1337), as players again follow the story of cop John Tanner and gangster Charles Jericho. Things take off fairly quick as a series of cutscenes catch new players up to the state of things, while series fans learn what's become of the pair. Executing a daring escape from prison, Jericho manages to hijack a police truck in a chase that eventually ends up with Tanner in the hospital, deep in a coma from his car accident injuries. From there players are given control of a John Tanner, not in the real world, but rather in the San Francisco in his mind. And to make things even stranger, he's still on the hunt for Jericho and not entirely aware of his real world hospitalized state.

The plot is already more interesting than most driving oriented games on the market, and it's made even more engaging through the way players take advantage of Tanner's comatose state. You see, Tanner is able to leave his body and possess others using a mechanic called Shifting. He can then assisting them with their car-oriented goals that range from street racing, to emergency deliveries, to helping local law enforcement take out in pursuit convicts. Possessing a car is easy to do and serves as both a fast way to get across the city, and a means for starting quests that will earn points used to unlock cars that can be used for challenges throughout the sandbox city. Unfortunately, for as handy as simply jumping from car to car is, there's also a little bit lost from hopping around at first as being forced to drive around for quests in a more traditional manner serves as a means for familiarizing players with the layout of world.

Thankfully Ubisoft tossed in two relatively helpful aspects to the single player campaign that help sort out some of the confusion. One of these elements is the map at the top of the screen which can be expanded with a simple button press. Expanding the map doesn't pause gameplay, but instead just shows players a further zoomed out view of where the player is, where the roads are and where objectives may be located. It's a quick and easy way for players to know where the best roads are without having committed to memory every single twist and turn, and it allows players to jump right into any mission without having to worry about memorizing all the best routes.The second key element is the possession mode itself, which slows down time so that players can actually take in not only which car they would like to take, but what model car it is and what direction their objective may be going. For any objective/challenge that isn't spur of the moment (like a car chase or race) this kind of information is extremely helpful, and helps to keep players that aren't veterans to the racing genre still in the game without the stress or having to make snap decisions.

In addition to using Shift to take control of cars, Tanner can also give cars he controls bursts of speed or a charged up ram to assist in various missions. All of these abilities are tied to a meter, which will naturally replenish as players use their skills earning points (so basically just driving). Driving well and using speed boosts at the right time means securing victory from other less patient racers.

Completing quests, doing stunts, and generally just furthering the storyline will earn players points which can be used to unlock new cars, and auto-fanatics will be happy to know that every car in-game is based on a licensed vehicle in real life. Each car comes coupled with its own stats that makes it more or less effective for a particular task, but to be perfectly honest most of the action takes place in the game across so many cars that it's hard to notice when you have a car that's particularly top notch. The only time that there's a real clear difference between vehicles is if you're taking control of a truck or bus versus a van or a sports car. On one hand it means there's no right car for the job as just about anything does the track as long as it falls into one of the three general categories, but at the same time there's something to be said with falling in love with a particular vehicle and using it to accomplish every in game goal.

Surprisingly multiplayer is actually similar to the game's story mode as players are given the option of freely exploring the city or going head to head against other players in a fairly wide variety of game types. Just like the rest of the game is built around non-traditional 'racing' elements, multiplayer modes take advantage of the Shift mechanic by offering hectic game modes such as Car Tag. Slamming into other vehicles in a city-wide game of tag, attempting to tailgate an AI controlled car while smashing the opposition aside, capture the flag, king of the hill style control points car fights, there are so many new and different ways to play that even those tired of the typical game modes will find an alternative that will keep them entertained.

Final Thoughts

Driver: San Francisco is unlike most racing games in that even gamers who aren't particularly drawn in by the genre may find themselves having a good time, at least with the wacky online modes offered. The single player mode disappoints in a few respects like the lack of familiarity you might get with one particular car, but the inclusion of real makes and models makes up for that. Ubisoft also deserves some props for somehow managing to make spiritual possession, sports cars, and capture the flag all blend together seamlessly; and the fact that the rest of Driver: San Francisco maintains its strange high speed action without missing a beat is just a testament to the developer's creativity and ingenuity. Anyone who enjoys racing won't be disappointed by this title, and anyone who enjoys slamming their cars into other cars demolition derby style should find some satisfaction here too.

Shifting mechanic works really well.
Multiplayer modes are original and very fun.
Features plenty of real cars.
Shifting mechanic can make it hard to gain familiarity with the city.
It's difficult to retain a single car to complete goals.
Multiplayer is fun in short doses, but can be difficult to become invested for longer.
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