Driver: San Francisco Review
Xbox 360 | PS3 | PC
Driver: San Francisco Box Art
System: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii
Dev: Reflections
Pub: Ubisoft
Release: September 6, 2011
Players: 1
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p Drug Reference, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence
California Cruisin'
by Shelby Reiches

I don't normally play non-kart racers. They're frustrating exercises in a type of precision I don't possess. I don't play destruction derby games, or anything in the Twisted Metal series, and my relationship with Interstate '76 was less than friendly. Why, then, did I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to play a title that subtly mixes elements of these together under one awning?

The first thing that strikes you about Driver is its graphics. Specifically, they're jarring. While the cars are accurate and gorgeous models of licensed vehicles, the animation and character models used in the CG cutscenes are awkward and look like plastic. They also run at a visibly lower frame rate than the game itself, a fact that is practically thrown in your face. Driver: San Francisco simply uses the game engine any time it needs to show you cars instead of people. It's a minor nitpick, but it makes a bad first impression.

Driver: San Francisco Screenshot

It's all right, though—that first impression almost immediately gives way to (if you're as poor a driver as I am) the realization that these licensed vehicles all take realistic damage. You can run over a VW Beetle in a tanker or crash a Chevy Volt into the side of an H3 and it'll react realistically to the impact, glass flying everywhere, frame crumpling as the hood careens off onto the sidewalk. Even minor scrapes, which don't actually decrease your car's health, will leave scratches down its side or shatter its side-view mirrors, which then dangle uselessly by a few wires.

The visual spectacle is accompanied by appropriate auditory punch, with visceral crunching and splintering sounds, the wince-inducing shrieks of paint peeling off and a funk-infused licensed soundtrack, including a particularly awesome Diplo remix of Marlena Shaw's "California Soul."

Driver: San Francisco Screenshot

But what happens when your car's too broken to go on? That's where the game's "SHIFT" mechanic comes in. The absolute cornerstone of gameplay, SHIFT is Driver: San Francisco's unique contribution to the genre. It allows players to instantly zip out of their car and see the city from above, zoom out to get a better lay of the land, then jump into any other car on the road. Any. Other. Car. There are occasional exceptions in races, such as opponents' vehicles, and other players' cars can't be taken in multiplayer, but it's largely an open thing. This allows for some lateral problem solving in single-player missions, and defines the multiplayer experience from top to bottom.

Before we touch on the mechanics of the campaign, though, we have to talk about its story. It's short, ludicrous, and poorly acted. The script isn't actually bad, but lines are delivered with inappropriate emphasis and some of the word choices don't fit the characters who speak them. What makes the plot disappointing overall, though, is how little it does with its potential. Charles Jericho, during a prison break, puts detective John Tanner (that's you) in a coma. The rest of the game? It's Tanner's coma dream. This is played for great effect both early and late in the game, but it just sort of fades into the background during the bulk of it all, which is too bad. There's something entrancingly surreal about chauffeuring oneself to the hospital while inhabiting the ambulance driver's body, seeing signs that urge Tanner to "wake up" or "do it again," and one particularly haunting chase through the packed, but silent, streets of a frozen San Francisco.

Driver: San Francisco Screenshot

The rest of the time, though, is spent on typical buddy cop shenanigans, as Tanner and his partner try to recapture the escaped Jericho and puzzle out the meaning behind an apparent terrorist attack. All of that time is spent getting involved in other people's stories, and when Tanner wakes up, they're completely forgotten with no payoff. It's a lot of busywork that could have been given some real weight if the developers had been willing to make Tanner's out-of-body experiences something more than a series of misfiring synapses.

But, disappointing though the arc may be, the missions themselves are often a blast. The SHIFT mechanic opens up unique possibilities, even in tasks that don't directly call for it. Fallen too far behind in a race to ever hope to catch up? Possess a car in oncoming traffic and smash your competitors into the asphalt. Winning by default is still winning, after all. The campaign also gives Tanner a pair of extra abilities: boost and ram. Both draw from the same ability bar, which can be upgraded both in length and recharge speed, but, as long as you have the meter remaining to use them, you more or less have free rein. They're rather self-explanatory, but it's strange that only boost makes its way over to multiplayer.

Screenshots / Images
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