After spending more than a decade slowly morphing into Grand Theft Auto, Ubisoft's Driver franchise a metaphysical turn that seems right at home in San Francisco. It's the ultimate out of body experience!
John Tanner has been driving recklessly since 1999's Driver for the original PlayStation. He's gone from criminal to cop, from getaway driver to getaway stopper, and now he's going out of his mind, literally. After a terrible accident leaves Tanner clinging to life in a hospital bed, our hero finds himself living out a fantasy in which he can leap into other drivers' minds, taking over their vehicles by taking over their bodies.
Yes, it sounds completely ridiculous, but the game critics aren't just reading a synopsis off of Wikipedia. They're playing Driver: San Francisco, and this is what they think.
Driver's main problem stems from the lack of evolution. Putting it bluntly, the game feels old and archaic. Almost immediately, players will be plunged into a high speed chase that results in lead character John Tanner laying on his deathbed, prisoner to the confines of a coma.. Luckily for him, Tanner witnesses more than light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, his crash has turned him into a detective who can not only swap between looking into the minds of others, he can manipulate them to capture Jericho, a ballsy felon. It's through this narrative that Ubisoft include their new gameplay element, as players get the chance to explore the city through a thousand different eyes.
Official Xbox Magazine
Given this inventive gameplay-wrinkle's otherworldly appeal, it's a drag that San Francisco feels so sterile. There's no day/night cycle to offer moody relief from a contrast-killing noon-day sun. Notoriously nutty Bay Area drivers putter along like they live in Orlando. You can even power-slide through a crowd of nimble pedestrians without injuring a single soul. Plentiful side missions such as stunt dares, cop chases, and checkpoint races let you rack up piles of Willpower currency, which you can then spend on garages and minor ability upgrades. But while there's a believable sense of speed - especially if you drop the hammer in a modern supercar - the city never really feels like a thriving automotive playground.
The ability to shift from body to body, car to car, makes Driver San Francisco a totally new experience, and that's not something that can't be said very often when talking about driving games - or any genre, for that matter. Developer Reflections also gets playful with its mission design now and again, using Tanner's coma to deliver some crazy situations that stand out as the best the game has to offer. Towards the end things really go up a gear or two, with some neat ideas making for some thrilling sequences both in and out of a car. There's no on-foot action though, which comes as something of a relief after what we've suffered in past Drivers.
The driving itself, however, can be somewhat mixed. Handling is extremely weighty and drift-heavy. Back ends whip out at the gentlest coaxing, tyres squealing as white smoke flutters from the rubber and asphalt. Initially you will spend more time wrestling your car away from walls and metal dividers, but with mastery comes a thrilling sense of cinematic flair. San Francisco is a delightful playground, with plenty of climbing roads to launch yourself into huge jumps, and landmarks such as the famous, winding Lombard Street are recreated for you to throw your car around. Each of the 100 odd licensed vehicles —from Tanner's Dodge Challenger GT to a Lamborghini Murcielago— have their own stats and personality. Perhaps a little too much, in fact; smaller runabouts with a low handling rank spiral out of control, while the higher end models react with whip-sharp precision. It's satisfying to hunt out the best cars and be able to thread them through traffic, but the differences in simple steering can reach cartoonish levels.
Driver: San Francisco's online achievements are also considerable. Alongside standard online races, Tanner's shifting ability is put to riotous effect. A particular highlight is ‘Trailblazer', in which players are tasked with following the trail of an AI controlled car whilst battling opponents. The jostling for position that ensues creates a chaotic, hugely enjoyable and unique online experience. Lobbies are also handled well, with short mini-challenges punctuating the main events that determine the players' starting positions; this helps to keep static load screens down to a minimum and mean joining the action is pain-free.
The plot's surprising new direction and gameplay simplification measures have allowed Tanner to loose himself from the shackles of predictability and Johnny-come-lately game design that tarnished his prior escapades. Ubisoft Reflections has pruned the dead weight from Driver's branches, and the result is a pure, focused experience, unencumbered by redundant mechanics and "me too" design choices.
It's Grand Theft Auto: Mental Edition!