Take a buddy cop drama, throw in a couple of ounces of revenge and then stir it all up with a hint of surreality and you’ll have DRIVER San Francisco. The latest release from Ubisoft, developed in-house at its Reflections studio, is a game that shakes up the racing genre quite a bit. Instead of being limited to one car, Detective John Tanner is able to become the eye over the city, after a severe car accident puts him into a coma.
What this new dream state brings about is the game’s star shifting mechanic, which lets players jump from vehicle to vehicle, adding a game changing mechanic into a genre which needed a bit of a boost. It’s a fun new addition which really amps up the chaos, bringing with it some new ways to complete traditional driving game objectives accompanied by new types of challenges.
DRIVER San Francisco starts off with a bang and never takes its foot off of the pedal until its explosive conclusion, always turning the proverbial knob up to eleven or twelve. It follows our aforementioned comatose detective as he tries to find out what his arch-nemesis (an escaped convict) is up to. You see, the aforementioned prisoner who goes by the name of Jericho, was locked up.
The streets were safe and everything seemed to be okay. However, it’s not a good idea to get too complacent, especially if you’re the lead character in a cop drama or video game. As one would expect, something happens as the baddie is being transferred to court, becoming a free man thanks to an unknown ally and the use of an acid popper hidden inside of his mouth.
In true genre fashion, the next set of events sees the escaped threat doing his best to outrun the cops, causing carnage in his way. Our favourite detective and his partner are right behind him, though things don’t go as planned. Instead of stopping the escape attempt thus putting an evil man behind bars once again, the three main characters are involved in a terrible car accident.
Detective Tanner is rushed away to the local hospital by speeding ambulance, with everyone around him fearing for his life. It’s unknown as to whether or not he’ll ever wake up from the severe coma he’s slipped into. Thus begins the strange adventure into a dreamlike state, where our hero is unknowingly working in a comatose sleep. You’d think he’d click in when he first notices his new god-like ability to switch to an aerial view showing all of San Francisco, which then allows him to drop down into any car in sight. However, he’s just not thinking that way, with a mind focused on only one thing: bringing Jericho to justice once again.
The entire story is structured like a buddy cop film, as the two detectives check out leads, pursue targets and piece together a detailed case around what they discover. What their arch nemesis is up to is a mystery. It seems like he has allied with some nasty characters, who are more than willing to do the dirty work, stealing some dangerous materials without fear of the law. Why though? That’s up to the player to piece together and find out through some badass driving surrounded by some explosive car chases, high speed tails and gnarly drifts. Once the seatbelt is buckled and the engine has purred to life, the streets become a dangerous alleyway full of high speed adrenaline and tons of exhaust.
At its core, DRIVER San Francisco is an open-world arcade racing game, though it doesn’t always focus on the fight for first place. There are quite a few of those sprinkled in throughout the storyline and within some of the side activities, but chases, tails and bumper car stoppages are much more in-style here.
Think of it as a mixture of Burnout and Need For Speed, borrowing hints of the visceral and over-the-top action (plus crashes) from the former, then mixing it in with the high-speed, insanely high intensity chase gameplay from the latter. That happens to be the best way I can think of to describe what is one of the most action-packed racing games I’ve ever played. If you’re looking for an eight hour long adrenaline rush, then this is your fix. Of course, that amount of gameplay time can balloon if one feels like playing through the 100+ additional challenges, dares and activities.
To best way to explain the new shift mechanic would be to say that the game has a possession mechanic. As the story moves forward, Detective Tanner learns how to expand his vision further out into the clouds, eventually allowing for almost all of the game’s titular city to be visible on-screen at one time. This is done by pushing the right joystick back, with the opposite motion giving players the ability to zoom the camera back toward land.
Looking from above is a lot like taking a look at an area using a satellite imaging system, or scanning an icon-filled world map from many other open-world titles. As per the usual, absolutely everything is visible. This includes story events and secondary missions, as well as garages containing inventory of cost efficient licensed vehicles, challenges and upgrades. Though, the main draw is certainly the fact that, for the first time, individual vehicles are visible from above.
Zooming in to take a look at the hilly landscape of one of America’s most iconic cities, players can pick and choose from a large amount of real-life automotive contraptions, selecting the one which suits their current mood or need. Hovering over each moving vehicle will show its make as well as three different stats columns relating to speed, acceleration and strength. Once the optimal chassis is selected, the A button can be utilized to jump into its driver’s seat, possessing the body of the person who was previously in mental and physical control.
This can be done at will, providing ample opportunity to use oncoming traffic as high impact chase stoppers, or the chance to turn them into screeching rockets with a powerful ram move. If your vehicle is damaged and there’s need for a new one; just use the shift option to find something suitable. Now there’s no need for fast travel, loading screens or slow-paced travel throughout the city in order to get to new challenges.
Early on in DRIVER San Francisco‘s story mode, it’s explained that John Tanner only becomes the person in which he inhabits. There’s no physical alteration or noticeable change. Due to that reason, he’s able to jump into characters’ bodies to help them out without their passengers noticing a thing. To unlock major story missions (of which there are usually two per each of the game’s eight chapters,) digital professional racers must lend their help to some of the city’s inhabitants. Several of these characters become a part of the storyline, though only in minor roles.
Their needs are always different, whether it be a high-speed trip to the hospital or help winning a perilous race where a loss means death at the hands of Jericho. Other times, it’s the police who need help putting an end to a street race through car crunching collisions, or security workers who need to be kept safe until the police can arrive on scene. The side missions have a pretty good amount of variety; as do the game’s assorted challenges and dares. The latter ask the player to perform stunts, such as long jumps, high-speed driving lines and lengthy drifts.
As with many of its fellow arcade racers, DRIVER San Francisco goes with a control approach which favours high-speed intensity over perfectly tuned finesse. The driving mechanics found within happen to be a bit more loose than what you’d expect to find in something like Gran Turismo and occasionally it’s to the point of annoyance, as spin-outs occur a bit too often. I found that it was sometimes overly difficult to get out of a drift or avoid disaster during a high-speed turn; things which could have received a bit more fine tuning and polish.
Other than the occasional bits of frustration coming from those aforementioned issues, my inner speed demon had quite a good time tearing up and down the game’s multitude of differently contoured streets. Fun, insane speed and electrifying chases outnumbered the frustrating moments by a high ratio, aided by the development team’s smart idea to move the turbo mechanic to the left joystick. Pressing up to boost makes more sense than having to press a second button.
I found the single player storyline to be exciting and a lot of fun, though it unfortunately ended too soon with a conclusion that wasn’t as amazing as I’d hoped. Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of extra content found in the aforementioned additional challenges, as well as some unlockable movie-style ones. Plus, there’s the opportunity to enter a basic editing suite where players can use quick cuts and cinematic camera angles to create the car chase movie sequence of their dreams. Several split-screen challenges are also available, in addition to a pretty robust multiplayer offering.
Gamers will discover that DRIVER San Francisco isn’t just a fully-fledged and enjoyable single player experience. Its multiplayer options are nothing to scoff at. Included within are several different modes including more traditional ones such as races, team races and shift races. These are accompanied by cops versus robbers takedowns, capture the flag shenanigans and an attack/defense mode.
One of the more chaotic game types is referred to as trails, where several players jockey against each other to be the only one positioned right behind a pace car. Its trails give off points to those following close behind, with the winner being the one who gets to 100 first. It’s an interesting and action-packed mode amongst many others – all of which happen to be pretty solid. I did notice a couple issues however, such as random disconnection and an instance of starting line lag.
In similar fashion to what the Call of Duty franchise offers, online drivers can unlock new power-ups and profile icons based on performance. A levelling system has been implemented to dole out unlockable awards based on experience points earned within each game type. Whether it’s the previously mentioned icons, power-ups such as the ability to swap a vehicle with your favourite, or the option to stun enemy vehicles that get in your way, there’s a decent amount of incentive to be found. In order to unlock some of the game modes, you must become a certain level. An online pass is required to unlock the entire mode, so keep that in mind.
One of the more impressive aspects of DRIVER San Francisco is its presentation. The buddy cop motif mixes well with the surreal aspects of the game’s mechanics to create something quite interesting. The development team went with a bit of a 70′s feel, with the use of some film grain and altered colour filters, which represent different moods, mission types and story events. I was quite pleased with the overall look of the game, though the impressively large and varied city landscape looked a bit too sterile, needing to be roughed up just a bit.
The game really pops in high-definition, especially during its cutscenes. Those displaying Detective Tanner and his partner were the most impressive, as their character models feature a stunning amount of detail, with some realistic facial animations. Jericho’s character model was also quite well designed, with a good amount of visible detail and some nice animations, though his isn’t as impressive looking as the aforementioned two. Unfortunately, a bit of immersion was lost when I noticed that the lip-syncing was off during a couple of the scenes. The issue was only noticeable during a certain couple of scenes, as the others seemed perfectly fine.
An eclectic mix of music, realistic car audio and some boisterous sound effects accompany voice acting which is well-above par. This is especially true when it comes to the two main characters. However, despite the audio being quite good in many ways, I found that the volume dropped off significantly when the title switched from gameplay to certain cutscenes. Sometimes, the volume actually needed to be turned up so that I could hear what was going on during the dialogue heavy CG scenes. When it would return to the game, the effects, voices and car noises would go back to their loud selves.
When DRIVER San Francisco was originally announced, I thought it looked and sounded like a pretty solid game. A title the type of which I would enjoy playing but would probably not be blown away by. Its new shift mechanic didn’t make sense and seemed like it’d make things too easy. Having played the game for quite a bit of time now, I’m happy to admit that I was wrong.
This is a quality racing game, which brings a lot of new elements to the table which the genre needed. Its driving mechanics may not be the most finely tuned ones around, but that didn’t bother me much. I was too caught up in its visceral action, impressive visuals, engaging storyline and abundance of content. Buckle your seatbelt because you’re in for quite a ride. One that I certainly recommend taking.
DRIVER San Francisco was released on September 6, 2011. This review is based on a copy we received for review purposes.