Driver: San Francisco ReviewGreg Knoll
I can think of no other word to describe the latest installment of Driver. Whoever had the idea of designing a racing game that takes place in the roving, cascading, crowded streets of San Francisco should be commended...then immediately committed. Every facet of Driver: San Francisco-from the story missions to the multiplayer-is a journey into insanity filled with airborne cars, intense traffic dodging and mind-shattering stunts. It's nerve-searing, scraping by on the skin of your teeth game that is a far cry from the previous titles, but I dare say that Driver: San Francisco is the best title to date.
For years, the franchise has struggled to stand out, constantly marred with bland ideas and criticism that it was simply a G.T.A. clone. Perhaps both things were considered by developers when they entered into the project, as San Francisco steps away from all things that could be considered Grand Theft Auto-esque-such as leaving the car, incessant crime and vehicular manslaughter to focus on the one thing that initially made it successful: driving. That's not to say the game is without certain aspects that make it creative and unique, only they're done in an entirely different manner.
Tanner-the ex-racer turned cop from the first games-returns. Within the first five minutes though, the incredible wheelman is virtually destroyed by an escaping, high-profile criminal by the name of Jericho. If that line disappointed a few of you who were excited to play an old school character, don't let it. Oddly enough, you are still playing Tanner as the game takes a very odd-albeit interesting-turn. Like a storyline ripped right out of a comic, the coma grants Tanner an incredible super power and introduces perhaps the coolest ability I've ever seen in a racing game-Shifting. Anytime, anywhere, Tanner can Astral project out of his body and into another. The game pulls away from the car to give you a top-down view of the San Francisco streets, allowing you to move the cursor along the map, find a car of your choice and warp into it. The entire game centers around this one theme, and propels what would otherwise be a murky storyline. The chase for Jericho seems almost trivial, as Tanner has the ability to Shift into informants and criminals closest to the crook to gather information and collect clues. Jericho, however, is well protected and finding him is no easy task, so you're required to use all your skills to track him down-like a Scifi version of Starsky and Hutch.
I'll be the first to admit I'm not a huge fan of the seventies style this game has taken on-the over-dramatic, varied window viewpoints consistent with television shows of that era, nor do I think Reflections spent a decent amount on hiring a competent writer. Though it really isn't a complaint as the story takes a backseat to focusing on more entertaining aspects and varied aspects of the same-old racing. Checkpoints are given new life, as at anytime you can Shift into an oncoming car and plow into your competition to buy you some much needed time. If you inadvertently (or like me intentionally) crash into a cop and initiate a chase you can either prolong it or simply Shift into a vehicle that isn't targeted by the boys in blue and go on about your way. Shift into a tow truck and latch on to the lamer who cut you off in traffic, driving him out to the middle of nowhere and leaving him there.
Reflections obviously knew this spectacular new addition would catch on, and they implemented its use in almost every story mission. Sometimes it's a matter of showing off to your partner Jones, and Shifting into a specific driver and performing various feats that Tanner predicts, liking jumping off a moving car transport or plowing through a road block. Other times it's protecting crucial clues that will lead you one step closer to Jericho, like the armored car he used in the heist and it's up to you to Shift into surrounding vehicles and take out all attackers. Perhaps the most entertaining-and frustrating-was trying to win a father/daughter race in first and second, the mission requiring you to Shift back and forth between the two to maintain your lead.
The mechanics allow quick Shift with one button, and you can always return to your main car regardless of how many times you jump. This aspect plays into the insanely entertaining, wildly intense multi-player modes. Again, Reflections have outdone themselves and provided a wealth of variety. There are no simple races to be had here. One has you smashing through objects, trying to beat another players score. Another finds you trailing a lead car that leaves a visible trail from its stream. Manage to stay within that and you score points. If it manages to get too far away from you, simply Shift into another vehicle and try again. My personal favorite was Tag. The rules are simple: hitting the main car will mean you're tagged and thereby "it". All other racers will track you down, trying to plow into you and steal your tag. The longer you hold onto it, the more points you get. I know it sounds simple, but when you throw Shifting into the mix it turns a simple car chase into a chaotic frenzy where you're not safe anywhere. Remember that scene in the Matrix where Neo was running through the alley, trying to escape and every civilian he came across eventually became an Agent? Picture that, with cars. It's spectacular.
Bottom line, Shift sells the game. Imagine GTA without all the running, without the guilt and recourse of doing something crazy and illegal. Driver still needs some work. The soundtrack is utterly horrid at times, some cars are a little too sensitive to the controls and sometimes the writing is blatantly cliche...and not in the funny way. All that aside though, Driver: San Franciso is more than worth it for that one aspect alone. It gives the game a new, unique identity. It may take a sequel or two for everything to come together, but it finally feels like this franchise is back on track.
Track...get it? Because it's a racing game.
Oh forget it.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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