Driver: San Francisco is the latest iteration of the arcade driving series, first appearing on Sony’s PlayStation console in the 1990s. Since then, the franchise has moved across the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, as well as the Xbox and PC. After the PSP title Driver ’76, the franchise disappeared for a number of years. Now, it is making its return on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the PC, with a return to San Francisco.
With the release of a new game, Reflections will be hoping to avoid another Driv3r. Released in 2003, the game was panned by many critics and fans of the series, who saw the addition of gunplay as being wholly unnecessary. This feature then returned in Driver: Parallel Lines, though was not taken as negatively.
Driver: San Francisco is not a game that relies on its story; far from it, in fact. The game’s story follows John Tanner, who returns from Driver, Driver 2: The Wheelman is Back, and Driv3r. The game jumps six months after the events of Driv3r, with Charles Jericho en route to his court sentencing. Predictably, Jericho has broken out of his imprisonment and has his army of underworld contacts to help with his plan. These contacts have manifested themselves into a highly-organized group, responsible for helping Charles Jericho fulfill any and all of his goals, regardless of how questionable or illicit they may be.
Initially I had given up hope on a story, though as I traveled through the game I began to see that the concept was brilliantly realized. The ‘Shift’ mechanic introduces a new layer of gameplay to the arcade genre, which is always encouraging. While it may not work with every game, it works magnificently with Driver: San Francisco, as well as its completely fantastical story. The story remembers not to take itself too seriously, and also remembers to have fun with itself. In particular, part of Chapter 4, where Jericho makes frequent appearances, stood out for me. Owing to how it was executed it felt like part of a horror film, but this does not hamper the game. In fact, the fact it manages to blend all the different concepts into the one package makes it very difficult to fault the story.
The main issue I had with the game’s story stemmed from its length. Consisting of eight chapters, the length of each chapter is variable depending on how many side missions you choose to complete. The game uses a similar system to the Saints Row titles, by forcing you to play some side-missions in order to unlock the main missions. While Saints Row chooses to make you fill a meter, Driver instead opts to allow you to complete x number of missions before progressing onto the next mission. If you were to cut through the game as quickly as possible, I would estimate a story-length of eight to ten hours, if not less. It is hardly surprising due to the recent down-sizing of story content in games, but it is saddening due to the sheer quality of the world that the game basks in. It is very possible that the game could experience a downloadable content pack in the future, incorporating more single-player and multiplayer features.
Driver: San Francisco never attempts to pitch itself as being remotely realistic, and this counts in its favor when gameplay is considered. All gameplay will take place behind the wheel of over 100 different cars, so there is plenty of variety in this sense. Cars in the game also overlook realism in favour of over-the-top powerslides and crashes. Every car in the game handles in a manner giving complete control. Rather than feeling that you are ‘taming ‘ a car as you grow used to it. The game allows you to feel completely at ease regardless of what you happen to be piloting. As a result, some cars can feel like they are only ‘fillers’, serving no real purpose beyond providing a variety.
Almost all of the cars in the game are licensed from real-world manufacturers. Companies such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz are not present, though the majority of major manufacturers appear. Almost all the manufacturers are well represented, with a considerable number of vehicles for each. Of course, the Electronic Arts agreement with Porsche means that you won’t be screaming through the streets in a 911, but at least you can take control of a RUF CTR instead.
Missions in the game are split into two main categories: ‘Dares’, and actual missions. Dares do not progress you through the story, but can reward you with new cars to purchase, or currency. The game’s currency is called ‘Willpower’, and helps to convey the nature of the world that Tanner has found himself in. With Willpower, cars can be purchased from Dealers, as well as the Dealers themselves. You are rewarded for purchasing Dealers with new cars to choose from, though whether this provides much help is debatable. Due to the nature of the ‘Shift’ mechanic, you can zip across the city much more rapidly than you can drive across it, so you will often be abandoning your high-powered supercar in favour of a Crown Victoria, simply because it will be faster than driving to the location.
Purchasing cars only provides a benefit in some Dare events, though other events allow you to shift between cars anyway, arguably negating the benefit of owning a vehicle. An example of this would be an event asking you to drive at over 150mph for thirty seconds. While you could buy a car capable of hitting this speed and then surpassing it, as often as not you’ll find a car suitable for your needs just roaming the roads. Therefore, you can grab it and bypass any need for Willpower, beyond getting achievements. The game does not make it hard to earn Willpower, and it is needed for some Achievements / Trophies. For those not concerned with bolstering their Gamerscore or Trophy count, it could be entirely possible to progress in the game without a need to buy a car.
Meanwhile, actual missions start you off in a car already. Often you cannot leave this car. In the case of Tanner’s missions, you will almost always be started in his signature 1970 Dodge Challenger, with only a few opportunities to jump out and make use of the public. Other missions, such as the street racing events, only really offer a need for Shift in order to disrupt opponents. Some of them do not even offer Shift at all, so you can focus entirely on driving to win. Spending money on a car in-game is unnecessary unless you intend to remain in the one vehicle for long periods of time. Of course, this would result in missing out on some of the game’s more unusual vehicles.
Shift has given Reflections quite a large window for creativity with missions. In the prologue for the game, you experience using the Shift manoeuvre after a car crash. This means that you take control of the ambulance that is carrying you to the hospital. It is through creative decisions such as these that the game manages to feel so unique in its premise. Team races in the game involve frantically shifting between two vehicles in order to ensure both take podium positions. Of course, this can be made easier by simply using a civilian car to wipe out opposition, whereupon you instantly score victory.
The city of San Francisco is well developed in the game. It never comes across as a realistic adaptation of the city, but it has been well optimized for frantic high-speed driving. Some of San Francisco’s tourist attractions, such as Lombard Street, appear in the game and offer collectibles. These collectibles are normally Movie Tokens. When a sufficient number of these tokens are collected, you will be able to access a new challenge which is themed similarly to a movie. The first unlocked Movie Challenge is a 1970s themed car chase film. All the cars in the city are classics during this challenge, and you will be pursued by older police cars while driving. It helps underline the fact that, while Driver: San Francisco has some realism behind it, the game never takes itself too seriously.
Multiplayer in Driver: San Francisco shares a few vibes with the design of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. This is hardly surprising to discover, with both games having been published by Ubisoft. Actual gameplay online is radically different between the two. While Assassin’s Creed is based upon stealth and ensuring opponents do not expect your attack, Driver: San Francisco is all about full-on automotive carnage.
Having already played the game’s online demo, which offered Tag and Trail Blazer, I was familiar with the two initial modes offered in the game. Tag is effectively the playground game from school, except that everyone targets the player who is ‘It’. Players score points for being ‘It’, and can steal the tag by shifting and ramming into each other. The mode is incredibly fast-paced, and a player can easily turn the results on their head through strategic actions.
Trail Blazer is slower-paced, though just as chaotic. Each competitor is told to follow a glowing gold DeLorean DMC-12 which is projecting trails behind it. By driving in these trails, points are earned. Fighting for the trail is often ferocious, and there are fewer moments in online gaming that are more exciting than a final fight for the last few points, especially when both drivers are determined to bully the other away from the trails.
For ranking up, players are rewarded with Profile Icons, and Abilities. These Abilities can be likened to those in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, except they are again, nowhere near as subtle. Profile icons are small images that appear alongside an online ID in the online lobby. These help to give each player a sense of identity online, as the icon will appear alongside any notifications pertaining to them. It could be compared to the system in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, though it not as advanced. Ranking up in the game is a fun prospect, with numerous achievements and plenty of unlocks to ensure you keep playing. Some of the achievements also reward players for doing certain things in each mode, which also means you’ll never be too familiar with a mode.
When first joining Multiplayer, you are taken to a Free Drive lobby. This pre-lobby meeting room is similar to the concept behind ‘Free Mode’ in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. You can meet friends here and ready for competitive games, but some players could quite easily get their kicks from simply messing around in the city of San Francisco. The game also includes a tutorial, for those who want to simply jump online, without experiencing the story first. Of course, the game alerts you if you attempt to do this, though some players may choose to continue anyway. The tutorials award you with additional experience, so they can be invaluable for getting started in the game and getting a ‘leg up’ in online competition.
From my own experience with lag, the game is incredibly smooth. It manages to remain smooth even with multiple players ducking and weaving through the well packed streets of San Francisco. At times you may question the game’s decisions; for example, it may not display any contact between your car and another car during Tag, but the game registers it. These moments are few and far between though, and don’t really detract anything from the gameplay.
I will admit, however, that I am not a fan of some of the abilities. Among them is the ability to ‘spawn’. In other words, you can make a car simply appear anywhere on the map. It means that if you use it correctly in Tag mode you can become virtually unavoidable for the person fleeing with the Tag. The other ability I’ve seen with the ability to annoy is the ability to morph one car into another. In short, you can turn a DeLorean DMC-12 into a supercar, and then take all the difficulty out of a competitive pursuit. It’s not a major game-breaker, but it can be frustrating when you are doing well and are beaten through rank, rather than experience.
This is something of a similarity to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Both games rely more on time spent playing online, than on actual ability. If you are a higher rank you will be able to do more to succeed, while lower-ranked players are unable to compete. While the ability to transform from one car to another is unlocked extremely early, the ability to transform into a decent car is not. Therefore, high ranked players can simply run rings around you using a Lamborghini Murcielago, regardless of whether they are actually good at the game. This is similar to in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, where you could pass as a newer player, but the chances of actually succeeding are very slim.
Sound within Driver: San Francisco is excellent, for the most part. Vehicles in the game sound great, and you can have a lot of fun just speeding through the city. Each engine does seem to sound about right for the car it’s in. The game is also well-complemented with a soundtrack that fits right at home.
Music in the game is a variety of jazz and light rock, as well as a few other genres. They seem to fit with the car chases that the game establishes, though they do not always play. This does not seem to be a bug in the game, but a rather unusual design decision. During main missions, audio does not play. This is a real shame, as the game’s soundtrack is rather good. At times, especially during some of the final missions, music does play. This may explain why it is not used elsewhere in the game; when it is used in these final missions it gives a new atmosphere, and it’s hard not to love the usage of the tracks in this manner. During Dare challenges, music plays, so it is definitely not an issue with music simply not working on my copy of the game.
Voice acting was considered a negative point in the game by other critics. I haven’t noticed any real issues with it personally, and the banter between Tanner and Jones during cutscenes is reminiscent of ‘buddy cop’ movies. The dialogue doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the game manages to take everything in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Perhaps the weakest voice acting is that of your arch-enemy, Charles Jericho. During the game it is shown that Tanner, obviously, loathes him. Yet when you finally encounter him he does not show the same emotion over the situation as Tanner. For a psychopath, he does not seem particularly dangerous or threatening.
One voice acting detail I liked was when you jumped into a car with a passenger. The passenger will continue to have a conversation with the car’s driver, remaining unaware of Tanner’s manifestation as the car driver, unless you do something crazy. Some of the conversations can be quite entertaining, though the number of available conversations is relatively limited.
Graphically, Driver: San Francisco fares impressively. On the Xbox 360, the game looks spectacular, and no doubt it will be even better on the PC and possibly the PlayStation 3. Car models are detailed, though obviously not to the same extent as in Gran Turismo 5 or Forza Motorsport 3. However, the damage models for vehicles are absolutely superb in comparison to these games, with smaller details even being acknowledged. Wing mirrors on the car can be smashed off and broken, and a car can be transformed into a wreckage depending on how you want to treat the opportunity.
The game’s biggest strength, graphically, are the cutscenes. While cutscenes are stereotypically the best looking part of a game, the cutscenes for Driver: San Francisco really are exemplary. Facial animations are spectacular, even without the game using the same MotionScan technology as Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. Mouth movements during speech are also reflective of the work put in, as they never appear out of sync.
During actual gameplay, character models are not as impressive. Tanner’s model looks very rigid, though this is so minor that it would be difficult to pick up on without deliberately checking around in the game for such moments. It is not a real complaint, because the less memory devoted to the minor things such as this allows for more high-quality car models.
Driver: San Francisco is definitely a worthy entry into the franchise. If you’re a fan of arcade racing games, or you’ve enjoyed older Driver titles, it is worth looking into San Francisco. The game ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable experience. It is important to note that the game is more of a successor to Driver 2: The Wheelman is Back than to Driv3r, due to the lack of gunplay. While I did not dislike Driv3r by any means, it felt less focused upon driving and more on shooting people, so it is good to see that the franchise has returned to its core values.
Driver: San Francisco does a lot of things right, and these outweigh the downsides. As a fan of the Driver franchise, I cannot fault the game as a complete package. Everything about it works, and it is only through a few rough edges and questionable features that I concluded with the score I have.
As for buying or renting: I’d definitely rent it first. While I absolutely loved the game and the two demos released for it, I know some of my friends did not, even with some of them enjoying other racing games. While reviewing is a subjective task, the game can be hit or miss even among fans of driving games. All the same, it’s definitely worth trying at minimum. Even if it does not wow you, it definitely is a title worth playing at least once.