Driver: San Francisco Review
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On 10/19/2011 at 08:00 PM by Jesse Miller
The real San Francisco treat.
For anyone looking for a stupid good time.
Driver: San Francisco has no business being as fun as it is. It has one of the most ridiculous premises I have ever come across a video game, it oozes of 70’s car movie clichés and has enough cheesy dialogue to throw an epic fondue party. Yet somehow all of these components meld together in a strangely fantastic way that makes for the most pleasantly surprising video game experience I have had the pleasure of playing all year.
Taking place approximately six months after the events of the much maligned Driv3r, you’re once again put in the shoes of the wheelman, John Tanner. Jericho, the Driver series’ seminal bad guy, is finally going to jail, but Tanner, ever vigilant, has a keen eye on the transport proceedings—expecting that there is no way it could be this simple. Of course he’s right and Jericho launches a daring escape that culminates in Tanner getting t-boned by a speeding semi truck that sends him head first into a coma.
That’s when things start getting weird. While the audience is aware that John is lying comatose in a hospital bed, he finds himself back behind the wheel of his amazingly undamaged Dodge Challenger. He remembers the accident, but nothing more. For all he can tell, nothing has changed…except for the little fact that he can now shift into the bodies of any of San Francisco’s numerous motorists—think Quantum Leap, but he can control it. When shifting, John retains his persona, but assumes the role of his host whether they are a beat cop, a crook on the run, or a sixteen year old girl on her way to the mall.
Shifting is the glue that holds Driver: SF together. By using this unique ability, John can seamlessly shift from vehicle to vehicle without having to stop the car, exit the vehicle and enter another one. This is important as it helps to retain the focus on driving and the evolving experience that lies within that basic premise. Also by not restricting the nature of when and how car changes are made the player is given an immense amount of freedom to experiment with. And since there is no limit on shifting besides a few mission-specific exceptions, the player has access to almost all of Driver’s 125 licensed cars as soon as they boot up the game.
Each vehicle has its own stats regarding durability, speed, handling, and drifting ability. Driver: SF is certainly more arcade racer than simulation so there are times when the physics get a little whacky, but these instances are rare and I was actually impressed with how well the game handled overall—only the most weathered of racing fans would find any real issue here and I’m betting that even they would give it a pass considering how fun it all is.
Certain vehicles are rarer than others, so finding them all can be a pain. To counteract any frustration that may result from this, Driver: SF gives you the ability to purchase vehicles and other upgrades, such as boost bonuses and stunt cameras, at garages that are located throughout the city. All purchases are made with Willpower, or WP, which is earned by completing missions, winning races and pulling off wicked stunts as you drive through the city.
Story missions serve to move along the over-the-top plot and are fun in their own right, but the real attraction comes in the form of the game's seemingly infinite side missions. Side missions come in four flavors: dares, stunts, races, and city missions. Dares challenge you to push your driving skill to the limit by having you speed down a busy road without hitting anyone or some other example of extreme driving. Stunts are rather self explanatory, with the objective being to complete a particular stunt or set of stunts under restricted conditions. Race types range from simple time trials to open city marker challenges. There are even some races when you need to ensure that particular racers finish in first and second place. In these instances the focus isn’t so much on your racing skills but on seeing that the competition doesn’t make it to the finish line, which can be accomplished by shifting into oncoming traffic and crashing into them head-on, leaving behind a mess of steel and broken glass along with a very confused civilian. Finally, city missions put you in the role of the local law enforcement, with the objective being the take-down of a suspected perp. Here you can shift from cop car to cop car and ram the suspect until his car is no longer capable of locomotion. The ethics involving using vehicles as deadly weapons may be questionable, but it’s hard to care when it’s all so much fun.
Even though Driver: SF takes place in the modern era, it takes most of its aesthetic cues from the car chase-centric movies and television programs of the seventies and early eighties. The city has a soft, desaturated color scheme that has more in common with Bullit and The Italian Job (the original Michael Cain version) than the Fast and the Furious. I get the feeling that Driver: SF is fully aware of how ridiculous it is and rolls with it, making the bold decision to never take itself too seriously and just have fun with the absurdity. The game even takes breaks occasionally to recap what happened previously, like an old school cop show.
Tanner’s coma dream ends up being a very freeing experience that is transferred to the player, allowing them to break free of the driving genre’s typically restrictive environment. The plot may be ludicrous, but it’s the kind of crazy that we all need once in a while. For those that have no problem looking past the absurd, or better yet embrace it in all its foolishness, do yourself a favor and play this game. Not even a coma will stop you from enjoying yourself.