Review: Driver: San Francisco (Playstation 3)

Driver: San Francisco
Developer: Reflections
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Driving
Release: 09/06/2011

Driver: San Francisco is the story of a prison break. The game begins as series arch villain Jericho is being transported to prison. John Tanner, the man who put him behind bars after numerous attempts (also known as the Driver franchise) watches in horror from a highway overpass as the convoy of Police vehicles is suddenly ambushed from the air by an RPG weilding attacker. Jericho breaks free, takes control of the police van transporting him, and leads you on a merry chase across much of downtown San Francisco that ends with a crash and an ambulance ride. Things look grim. Or do they?

Story:

So here’s a spoiler alert. Most of the game is actually played while Tanner is in a coma. You don’t know it right away, but if you’ve got any sense at all you’ll quickly realize that Tanner isn’t quite right, nor is the world around him. Tanner discovers that he has developed special powers since the accident, and he sets about using those powers to chase down Jericho and put him in irons once and for all. But to do that he must unravel the mystery of what Jericho is doing.

I found the story to be the weakest part of the game. The notion that a guy could go into a coma and hear everything that is going on in the outside world thanks to a TV set, and thus solve the crime that Jericho is going to commit by figuring it out inside his head and then waking up just in time to race into town to save the day is as much of a stretch as this sentence. I mean honestly.

Graphics:

Driver: San Francisco is a game that really takes advantage of the current generation of consoles. Each of the cars in game are faithful models of real life cars, right down to logos. There are well over 100 unique cars in the game too, so they didn’t skimp on the budget. Following in the tradition of previous Driver games the cars sustain damage if you crash them, though I suspect due to the licensing that the damage was toned down a little. I mean I suspect a semi truck crashing into a car I’m driving should cause the car to be totaled, not merely dented, but this is something I can live with, as the fact they managed to get any damage at all on these cars is a pleasant surprise.

The pre-rendered CG looks terrific, and the game engine looks so good that they mix it in with the CG, cutting between CG shots of Tanner and his partner in the car and shots of the city and outside the car using the game engine.

There are some missions that can be unlocked which are inspired by famous movie scenes in and around San Francisco. The movie Bullit for example, has what many consider to be the best movie chase scene in history, and that is faithfully recreated here. During these missions the developers included a filter to make the game look like you are watching a film. It’s not a huge deal but it’s a nice touch, and one that I appreciated.

Audio:

The game sounds terrific. The streets of San Francisco are teeming with 70s era muscle cars, modern day super cars, trucks and buses and your more standard family vehicles. Each of these cars and trucks sounds excellent, and driving around town can be an audio lovers delight.

The music too is great. Like previous games in the series the music is similar to what you might find in a 70s detective movie or television show. It might not be contemporary but it adds to the flavor of the game in a huge way.

Voice work is also on par with a quality experience. Each of the character voices sounds appropriate in all situations, and even secondary voice work, the stuff you hear when you jump into other cars, is awesome. It’s not even repetitive either. You either hear something unique or you don’t. Even better your actions early in the game sometimes cause you to hear a continuation of something later on.

Gameplay/Controls:

Eschewing previous attempts at making the game more like Grand Theft Auto, Driver SF sticks to driving. No getting out on foot, no shooting a gun, none of that nonsense. No, Driver: San Francisco has entirely new nonsense. Specifically you have the ability to possess drivers in other cars, called Shifting, and use those vehicles to affect the outcome of whatever mission you happen to be on. Need to catch up to a thief? Shift up to a car that’s just behind him, or better yet in the oncoming lane, and smash into him. Run him off the road. Involved in an illegal street race and don’t feel like actually competing? Take out each of your competitors in much the same way!

Your special powers, which are called Willpower by the way, also include the ability to ram your target by holding a button down to charge up your move, then releasing to have your car surge forward into the target. You can also use your ability to give whatever car you are driving a boost, in much the same way as using nitro.

You can upgrade your Willpower by completing side missions, ranging from street racing to police chases to evading police or other enemies. Sometimes they will involve you driving in your own body, other times they will involve you possessing other people and driving for them. One set of side missions involves you having to get a team of two cars over the finish line first and second. These particular races annoyed me, but fortunately you can force your opponents to retire by destroying their cars. Once I figured that out things got much better.

Controls are pretty easy to get used to. R2 and L2 are your gas/brakes, X initiates your out of body experiences, O is your parking break and L1 is used to ram opponents. The boost is controlled with the same analog stick that controls your steering, and this I must admit I have problems with. Basically to boost you just push up. This can often result in you boosting out of control like you are car from a Japanese manufacturer which is noticably absent from this game. Hmmmm. Anyway, this was fine back in the age of Top Gear or Pole Position, when buttons were at a premium. But now there’s no need. R1 spends the vast majority of game time unused.

Replayability:

The game is modeled on the actual city of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, so just driving around exploring could take a while. I don’t know if you could find your house in the game, but landmarks like The Golden Gate Bridge are there, so who knows, maybe? Anyway, the developers have included a huge number of side missions you can participate in. As you progress in the game you unlock more and more of the city by purchasing Car Dealerships. Doing this will not only unlock new cars for you to “purchase” in your ghostly form, it will also unlock new challenges across the entire map. Thus clearing the map early on doesn’t mean you’re done with that part of the map.

The game also has a pretty robust multiplayer mode, with numerous ways of exploiting the abilities earned in multiplayer. You do need to input a code to enable multiplayer, which is tied to a UPLAY account, so renters be warned. Thankfully Ubisoft have realized that people do like to rent games, and have included a 48 hour trial period on the disk for online, but again you need to link your PSN account to UPLAY, which is just tedious. If you bought used you can feel free to purchase an online licence. Ubisoft have a real hard on for DRM, and it’s unfortunate they have deemed the consoles another frontier in their quest for every last red cent.

Balance:

Most of the missions can be completed with successful use of the different skills you earn as you go along in the game. Be it boost, ramming, or assuming control of other cars, they each have their part to play and typically if you lose a mission it’s because you didn’t do it right. Failing a mission will result in a window popping up asking if you want to replay it. Story missions are done while driving Tanner’s 70s era Challenger, while the different side missions, which are called Dares (Speed Dare, Stunt Dare etc) will be done with which ever vehicle you have “purchased” and selected to drive in the various garages.

Towards the end things start to go whacky. There is one mission where you are in someone else’s body tailing your own body, and you are driving BOTH vehicles simultaneously. That’s certainly a unique experience.

The Final boss fight however is absurd, to put it mildly. At some point in the game you discover that Jericho can ALSO transfer between cars, and he then proceeds to develop other super powers. In the final boss fight you learn how to throw cars at him. This should be good but it winds up breaking the game. Instead of empowering you to finish the fight you are forced to endure his return fire and stay within a red circle on the minimap, at the center of which is Jericho, all the while trying to knock him off the road. If you get knocked out of the circle you can’t throw cars at him to slow him down, and you have 10 seconds to get back up to speed and catch him. Essentially if you’re knocked out of the circle you should just restart. Never have I felt so completely helpless in a level. Not because I didn’t know how to beat the level, but because the level was so poorly designed. And even when you do get a cement truck or a fire engine to throw at him it does little or no damage. Compound this with the fact that your car maneuvers like a barge and you have a recipe for at terrible final level which had me cursing and swearing at 3 AM, waking the neighbors I’m sure.

Originality:

When I first heard the concept for the game was going to be jumping around between cars I was unmoved, to be honest. It felt like the developers were throwing whatever they could at the wall and seeing what stuck. Fortunately I was terribly wrong, as the ability, if not the explanation for it, is an enjoyable way to mess around in an open world sandbox game. Instead of just forcing you to endure an endless series of races and chases they give you the option of using some strategy to decide if you’re going to beat your opponent in your own car or if you see a faster car on the road do you assume control and use that to win the race? Do you throw your own car into the heavily armored enemy vehicle to finish the job knowing that doing so might also total your own car thus ending the mission in failure, or do you simply throw more and more metal at them until they are run off the road. These are the choices you face when you pick up your controller and start playing Driver SF. I don’t know if they are going to keep the assuming control of other cars motif going in future Driver games, but after this I hope they do. Another coma? Robot cars? Who knows. Just do it.

Addictiveness:

Pretty damned addictive.

Appeal Factor:

If you dig the old Driver games then this one will fit right into your wheel house I think. Be it the single player story levels that are varied and never boring, the special cinema missions that retell famous movie car chases, the way you unlock the classic Driver proving ground level (hint: buy a Delorean and do what comes naturally) or the multiplayer which does Burnout Paradise one better, throwing you all into a city and letting you find your own way to your destination with the addition of the Willpower abilities.

Miscellaneous:

Reflections could have skimped on the cars, maybe gotten 30 car licenses and then populated the world with various colors of the same 30, but they didn’t. As I mentioned before they got well over 100, with a good variety of makes and models, not to mention cars from different eras. They also score top marks for getting many of the more iconic vehicle models into the game. Lets just say that if you’re a fan of some good old boys or Burt Reynolds you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.

The Scores
Story: Mediocre
Graphics: Classic
Sound: Incredible
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Incredible
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Incredible
Miscellaneous: Classic
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

This is the first Driver game I’ve played since the original that made me feel the way the original did. The cars all handle well and the story is cheesy or whatever, but I like the care and attention to details that went into the game. The menus are great and work and the game design, aside from the final boss, is outstanding. The abilities you control make what could have been just another boring driving game into something interesting to see. Glad to see the Driver series back on form.

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