I should have been playing more Gears of War 3 Friday night. I had an early copy. But I tried Driver: San Francisco.
I should have been playing Gears of War 3 most of Saturday afternoon, but I felt the irrepressible urge to do something else: play more Driver: San Francisco.
I got some Gears in yesterday, but I was late to work this morning. My excuse? I was finishing the storyline campaign of Driver: San Francisco.
I never played a Driver before. I'm not even much of a racing game fan. Those are no hurdles for a fantastic game like this. Let me tell you about my favorite surprise game (so far) of 2011, the one I didn't think could be so much fun... my own personal Dead Island, Driver: San Francisco.
My old writing buddy N'Gai Croal accuses me of having an "innovation bias." Well, yeah. I've been playing games for a couple of decades. If a new one can surprise me—if it can empower me to do something I don't feel like I've done before—I'm impressed.
Driver: SF has me doing something I haven't done in games before. Specifically: while racing through a virtual San Francisco in at Aston Martin at 150 miles per hour, in pursuit of a criminal getaway car 10 yards ahead of me, I can tap a button and suddenly be watching this chase from the clouds above. I may then spot an SUV driving in the opposite direction, tag it with a tap of a controller button, suddenly be driving behind the wheel of that SUV…. then take this new vehicle, cross the median and smash it headlong into that criminal getaway car as my original car whizzes by behind it on some sort of ghostly cruise control.
This is the wonder of Driver: San Francisco. The developers at Ubisoft Reflections have given gamers the kind of open world you'd find in a Grand Theft Auto, created dozens and dozens of missions, all car-based, in that city—races, chases, destruction derbies and more—and armed the player not just with driving controls but with this crazy ability to take immediate control of any car that you can see on the road. [Editor's note: I captured the video here to show a moment like this. Watch and enjoy.]
Let's say you're in a race… in Driver: SF, you don't just have to crawl from eighth place to first the old-fashioned way, with smart acceleration, power-sliding and high-speed avoidance of traffic. You can also keep hopping out of your car (while it keeps driving under some crazy cruise control), scan ahead through some sort of airborne spirit-walking flying camera mode to find some car in the other lane, take control of that new car, cross the median and smack it into the people ahead of you in the race… then with a single tap of the button be back in your own car and pass all of your crashed opponents.
You don't have to race the ghost way. That's just one more tactic to the standard ones you'd use in a racing game. The more grounded player might simply learn the roads better, purchase better cars with in-game money earned by finishing side missions. Me? I find a bus going in the wrong direction and try to get three racing rivals to T-bone it at once.
Sometimes you're not in a race. Sometimes you are parking a van that needs to be examined for evidence, but some criminals want to destroy it. This being a video game (and one that takes place in a man's coma dreams, which I'll explain in a few moments), the bad guys will try to destroy the truck by sending their henchmen in cars from all around the city with the intent to converge on the parked van and ram it. You, the hero who can float above the city and possess cars, can spot the red markers of enemy cars below and possess nearby cars to ram the bad guys' off the road. Now you're managing car crashes across several square blocks.
At other times, you need to get two cars past the finish line, first and second, and you'll need to hop from one car to the other to keep them both ahead of the pack. Sometimes you'll need to possess a certain kind of car to finish a mission. Maybe you'll need to grab a low one so you can drive it under a flatbed tractor trailer that is gunning down the highway. You need to get under that truck to defuse a bomb, of course.
Much of the time while you're playing Driver: SF, you won't possess another car not for the sake of any mission. You'll do it just because it's fun.
The game's justification for your ghostly ability to "shift" from car to car is that your character, hero cop John Tanner, has been knocked into a coma by the fender of the game's main bad guy. In that coma you can dreamily stop crimes you're hearing about on the TV news that's playing in your hospital room.
Tanner's coma world functions similarly to the real world in that the cars in dream-San-Francisco are driven by people, people with personalities. If you possess a car, you're actually possessing the driver. Much to the game developers' credit, those Quantum Leap-style body-hops are played for plot-twists and comedy. In the game's story missions, you're possessing small-time criminals in the hopes of finding out what big-time ones are up to. Or you're possessing cops to help with an investigation. (Or, once, you're possessing a woman who has to get a guy who was bitten by a spider to a hospital before he died, the rougher the ride, the less likely he'll pass out.)
The game is at its funniest and most charming when you're possessing the cars of regular people. Every time you do this you get to hear a snippet of conversation. Think of the kinds of things people talk to each other about while in a car. That's what you hear. You'll take over a car just in time to hear the lady in the passenger's seat confess that she slept with your boyfriend. You'll hop in another and hear the passenger freak out that he is sure he is being followed. In another, the teenage girl in the car is complaining to her mom—who is now controlled by Tanner/you—that she doesn't want to take music lessons anymore (violin, if memory serves). The best part of this is how Tanner reacts. Sometimes he's befuddled. Other times, he willfully screws with the person. Go ahead and quit those lessons, he tells the girl. Not what she expected to hear.
You are interrupting ordinary lives, visiting them just for a few seconds. You're doing the most unusual thing in video games: interacting with characters who seem like regular, ordinary people who have the regular, ordinary problems that make us grouchy one moment and happy the next. Saving the world or even stopping criminals has nothing to do with these mini-dramas which resemble the dramas of our lives.
Driver: SF seems like it's a crime game but the little dialogue moments that occur when you possess random cars on the roads of San Francisco turn it into this wonderful celebration of our quotidian experiences on the road. And yet how profound and emotional moments those are… it sounds so right, so jarring, so funny and sometimes so sad all at once to hear the rage, the hysteria, the raised blood pressure of people speaking in that weirdly private public place: the front two seats of a car. You're the ultimate eaves-dropper in some of the most ordinary, human moments ever captured in a game.
For all of these delightful reasons and because it's not a very long game, I did get through Driver: San Francisco in a weekend. At least, I got through the main story missions, of which there can't be more than 20 or so. There appear to be at least a hundred side missions and a raft of online options I didn't even start. Leave it to me, though, to be satisfied with a weekend of innovation. In those 20 or so main missions I didn't just do some of the things described above. I met new surprises at almost every turn. I drove through a nightmare. I drove toward a tide of cars barreling sideways toward me. I once had to chase myself. There are other mission shocks, too good to ruin for you.
The main game is over quickly. The rest of the game could last me a while. But back to what matters: This is a game that doesn't feel like the others, one built on that most old-school of gaming concepts: a new way to move through a virtual world. Let's add the-ghostly-possessing-of-any-car-visible-from-the-clouds-above-a-city to the Super Mario hop, the Bionic Commando swing, and the Katamari Damacy snowballing of scenery. It's a game mechanic you should try, wrapped up in a world full of such natural, human moments that it feels like a very special game.
Download the demo, at least, if you can get it. I recommend you get the full game and relish its celebration of driving and the people who drive cars.
In what other game will you hop into a speeding car to hear the words: "I slept with your boyfriend. There. I said it."
And in what other game will the hero bark back to this woman he has never met before and say: "Great. Are you buckled in?" Then, a second later, he's gone. Into the next car we go.