Driver: San Francisco Review
Driver: San Francisco's announcement had me worried. The original Driver was a revolutionary game that combined an intense and gripping storyline with an open world setting. The games got progressively worse, and though Parallel Lines was a decent return to the series' roots, it wasn't the game that I originally fell in love with. So when I found out that the new Driver had a feature that grants you the ability to switch -or Shift- from car to car, essentially taking over the current person that's driving it, I was dumbfounded. Turns out that it is hands down one of the most innovative and fun aspects of the entire game.
John Tanner is not having a good day. Taking place after the events of Driver 3, Jericho has been taken into custody but has much bigger plans. After his successful breakout from a prison van, Tanner pursues him in a high speed chase that results in a terrible accident. The majority of the game is then played in Tanner's coma-state. Thankfully, this explains the ridiculous yet extremely enjoyable premise of being able to switch from body to body. After a few initial missions to help you get familiar with the game's mechanics, the streets of San Francisco are yours to explore, be it from a car or from Tanner's otherworldly overhead view. This overhead view of San Fran is not only a great way to quickly get to each mission, it plays into figuring out various tactics and strategies when tackling missions. Not to mention, it gives you a scope of how big the map really is.
The game then breaks up into a set of missions that are scattered all over the city. Before you can advance to story missions, you must tackle a series of side missions. This is where Driver takes the cake. The missions are so incredibly varied, and you generally don't go about them the usual "driving game" way. For instance, a high speed police pursuit where you need to take down a series of street racers could simply be done by crashing your cop car into each racer and taking them out one by one, but why not make the job a bit easier? With a press of the A button, you can Shift into an oncoming car and take out the street racers with a well timed head-on collision. One mission had me defending a parked prison van from attackers by shifting all around San Fran and taking them out before they had a chance to even see it. Races become incredibly heart pounding as you're sometimes tasked to finish 1st AND 2nd in a team race where you must Quick Shift between the two cars, ensuring they're ahead of the pack. The game even takes some inspiration from Speed as you need to drive certain heavier cars, such as buses or freighters, above a certain speed or they will detonate.
Aside from side missions, you can also take on various Dare challenges that task you to drift a certain length, overtake a set amount of cars, or drive into oncoming traffic for a set amount of time. Doing these dares is optional, but it does tie into unlocking new abilities. Gone are the days of NOS upgrades. Instead, Tanner can provide a quick boost to each car using his new-found power. Another ability lets Tanner bash into a car from behind with more force, but I found myself never relying on it, since I could just as easily shift into an oncoming car and cause more damage that way. Completing every type of mission is all tied together with further unlocks. Buying garages across the city grants you access to more cars for purchase and challenges to complete; finishing dares unlocks abilities for purchase; completing side missions grants access to story missions; and those eventually grant you access to the entire map of San Fran.
Much of the game's charm relies on the fact that whenever Tanner Shifts from car to car, he inhabits that drivers body. If a passenger is present, they're completely unaware of this and it's often hilarious to hear how Tanner adapts from person to person. A mission had me shift into a scientists car that had her husband as the passenger who was suffering from a spider bite and was nearing a coma. I had to drive as recklessly as I could, drift around corners, drive through on-coming traffic, and overtake cars to keep his heart rate up until we got to the hospital. Hearing the husband freak out while simultaneously hallucinate from the bite resulted in a hilarious conversation.
The multiplayer is also terribly addicting, assuming you can tear yourself away from the open streets of San Fran. There are a few competitive modes such as standard races and checkpoint rushes, but the most entertaining and also most chaotic is Tag. It's basically a game of tag, except now you're in high powered vehicles. There are also a few co-op modes such as Go the Distance which tasks both you and your partner to follow a cars trail in order to keep it from losing fuel, all the while you needing to Shift from car to car to ensure you don't run out of fuel yourself. You and a buddy can also team up and either be cops to take down marked vehicles or become the most wanted and outrun the boys in blue. The multiplayer is super addicting, and does tack on loads of extra hours of gameplay.
Despite the praise I give this game, there are a few things that bothered me. Like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a yellow filter that is overlaid through most of the game that at times makes it look ugly. The game also mixes in-game with pre-rendered cutscenes in each story segment. Not sure whether it was to save space, but seeing a scene constantly switching from amazing looking facial features to characters that look downright stiff is a bit jarring. On the opposite side of the spectrum, every car looks great and even comes with its own impressive in-car view. It's no Forza, but it gets the job done.
I went into this game worried, lacking hope that my faith in the Driver series would be restored, but I came out absolutely blown away. This is unlike any other Driver game--make that driving game--I have ever played. It borrows some elements from other titles like Hot Pursuit and even a bit of Burnout, but it does them better. I personally want to shake the hand of the person who thought of the Shift ability, as it helped make Driver: San Francisco one of my favorite car games.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]