Driver San Francisco Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3
When Reflections first pitched their ridiculous sounding Quantum Leap inspired Driver title you could have been forgiven for thinking that they might have lost the plot slightly. Fusing together such a high concept idea with a Life on Mars style backstory for Driver San Francisco sounded like another nail in the coffin for a franchise which has badly lost it's way in the last few years. Somehow though the whole thing just about hangs together.
The Driver series has always been one to take its cue from Hollywood and in truth Reflections have done very little different with Driver San Francisco. True it may be wrapped up in a degree of silliness this time around but essentially it is doing the same thing it's predecessors did. The film references are all still there but the Life on Mars inspired storyline teamed with the Quantum Leap style Shift feature allows the game to break free and have some fun. This completely daft premise might have taken a while to really click but by doing something a bit silly the developers have actually been quite clever.
The game again centres around John Tanner as he chases master criminal Jerico around San Francisco after he escapes during a routine prisoner transfer. Tanner is left battered and bruised after a particularly nasty accident. He quickly realises though the near death experience has left him with a neat trick of being able to inhabit other people's bodies in the Bay Area and take control of their car. It’s a bizarre pitch for a game, let alone a racing game, but Driver San Francisco hangs it's best feature on the strange set-up - Shift.
Shift allows you to hover over the city at various heights which are unlocked as the game progress and jump into any car you fancy. With such a large city to explore it neatly bypasses one of the usual bugbears of sandbox gaming. If there is a mission you want to tackle (of which Driver San Francisco boasts plenty) then you don't have to spend an age getting there. It also means that any car in the game is but a quick jump away. Strange it may be, but even at these most basic levels the Shift mechanic takes away a lot of the tedious legwork which normally comes bundled with these types of games.
It also means story missions, side missions and free driving segments all happily sit in the same environment. Thanks to Shift you don't even have to exit back to the main menu for large parts of the game. If you fancy a break from the story you are free to shift into another body and do your own thing. Strange and a little high concept it may initially seem but Shift actually works. A couple of hours into proceedings and you'll quickly discover that Driver San Francisco's party piece actually allows you to approach missions a little differently. Having trouble winning a particular race? Simply shift into some oncoming traffic and plough into your troublemaker.
Shift may have seemed a brave creative decision but it actually makes a whole lot of sense. Most importantly it sets the game apart from it's predecessors and gives the game a reason, beyond the improved graphics, for actually existing in the first place. The feature is the driving force for much of the story in Driver San Francisco. Its a silly yarn at the best of times which is backed up by some corny dialogue but in the spirit of things it actually works. The whole thing feels like it is being played for laughs and has more in common with a cheesy '70s cop show than a triple-A video game. Shift could easily have become another quick travel feature but Reflections have fleshed it out and built a game around it.
The clever Shift mechanic would fall flat on it's face however if the driving side of the game wasn't up to scratch. Thankfully it is. There are plenty of cars to play with from run-abouts to big American muscle cars. More are available to purchase from the garages but when you can shift into any car you like it feels something of a redundant feature. All of them handle in their own, slightly different way even if the game does lean towards being a bit handbrake heavy, something which has always been a staple of the previous Driver titles. The handling works well though and captures nicely what made the original such a joy to play.
There are plenty of missions to get stuck into during the the main single player story, many of them featuring their own little narratives. None are particularly engaging but its all played for laughs at the best of times. It can get a tad repetitive after a while but the single player storyline never overstays its welcome and even throws in a couple of new concepts by the end. Throw in plenty of side missions and you'll be left with plenty to do when the credits finally do roll up the screen. With the usual car chases, races and time trials and you'll always have something to do.
There is plenty of content in the multiplayer modes as well with the Shift feature again being the ace in the hole. There are six different types of game on offer, each allowing you to use your boost and shift abilities in different ways. Tag and trailblazer in particular are two of the most enjoyable. The capture the flag style Tag mode sees you earning points whilst holding a trophy but opponents can shift into any car they like making any potential car on the road your enemy. Trailblazer meanwhile sees you following a DeLorean and earning points by staying in the trail it leaves behind. Only one car at a time however can earn the points.
San Francisco is lovingly rendered by an engine which churns out a near constant 60 frames-per-second. There is always stacks of traffic to weave through at an impressive rates of knots but it is the cars, handling and shift feature which steal the show. A few niggles prevent the game from reaching it's full potential however. Decent car chases, strangely, can be a little hard to come by at times thanks to an overly aggressive AI which will have you slammed into the walls on a fair few occasions whilst the decision to put the speed boost on the same control as your steering is a real oversight. While Shift is excellent it can be very easy to become too reliant on it during single player. Meanwhile if you persist with many of the extra missions you will be in for some serious repetition by the end.
Small problems aside Driver San Francisco is worthy of your attention. The Shift feature is excellent and while the set-up might be bizarre and strange Reflections deserve some credit for trying something different. In a world dominated by relentless Modern Warfare games it is nice to see someone trying to do something different. Driver San Francisco isn't always executed perfectly but it is a whole heap of fun and deserves some credit for being genuinely different.