posted by Steve Robinson
[I wrote this the week it came out. I then had something of a gaming midlife crisis (again) and didn’t submit it. Consider it a review for a game you were waiting to drop to £19.99 for]
I used to wonder what it would take for me to become a ‘professional’ games journalist. I hate my job but know a lot about games so, y’know, writing for a living could be fun, right? I mean, you get to play games all day and write about them! What could go wrong?! And even if you got a game that was utter fucking gash, you could lay into it because hating on shit is also fun! It’s a win-win!
But what happens when you get games that are, for want of any better description, only ‘OK’? Forcing yourself through an abortion of a title is kind of fun, just so you can put the boot in, but what about those thousands of titles that fail to elicit ANY kind of response above a shrug and “…s’alright”? This is the problem I have with Driver:San Francisco.
The Driver games have something of a shaky lineage. The first one was a cracker for its time, although I do know quite a few people who never got off the ‘tutorial’. Tutorial isn’t a strong enough word, to be honest. You’d have to extend it into a phrase, like “trial by fire,” or “the game fists you with a rusty plate-mail glove,” something like that. Anyway, if you did get into it you’d notice it was a good ‘un. After that, well… Driver 2 was trying to be ahead of its time, but Driver 3 was one of the worst games I had the misfortune to play on the PS2, and given the PS2′s copious back catalogue, that’s really saying something. I didn’t even bother with Parallel Lines.
After that small catch up, we find ourselves at Driver:San Francisco, and Ubisoft Reflections has a problem. Given the proliferation of GTA-style games (and their own mis-step with Driver 2), there’s a problem of how to make available to the player a vast inventory of cars without having a police detective turn into a graceless thug by stopping traffic, dragging the drivers of the cars to the tarmac, and stealing off with their ride. How do you get around that? By putting your main character in a coma and giving him the ability to remove himself from his body and into anyone else who is behind the wheel. Don’t worry about spoilers; this happens about five minutes in, so you’d know about it soon enough.
You control Tanner, who can ‘Shift’ out of his body and float above the city to have a shufty from a birds’ eye view; then you pop yourself into a car to toddle off and perform missions, or just bomb around the city, leaving carnage in your wake. Apparently, being a copper gives you carte blanche to just write off people’s conveyances willy-nilly.
With more of the city unlocking as you progress complete with Activites (side missions which earn you Will Power to pay for upgrades to boost bars and also to unlock more cars in Free Ride) and other types of side missions as well. The thing with Shifting is that it takes some time for it not to seem utterly, utterly ridiculous. In fact, it never seems to become un-ridiculous; it just gets less ridiculous as you play the game and the plot develops. It doesn’t help that the navigation of the map, with its three zoom levels (ground level, slightly higher and pretty far out), is quite a bit clumsier and slower than it really needs to be, and for the first hour or so, the Shifting aspect breaks up the flow of the game quite a bit.
Some of the missions also have you take down enemies/suspects/the police from your vehicle, and encourage you to Shift out of your body to commandeer an oncoming large vehicle, thus running into them and stopping them dead, but this…well, it feels like cheating. If you can just head-on into enemies, why would you even bother chasing them? The chase is the majority of the fun in games like this, so to be able to simply jump into a tanker and plow into the enemies just seems a little rubbish. Add to that the fact that the AI that takes over your car in these missions is a little flaky, and that the computer AI cheats like hell, and you’ll find it’s occasionally made frustrating.
Speaking of missions, we should expand on them a bit. You have certain missions to complete before you can go into a story progression one. These are usually tied into recurring characters throughout the game into whose bodies Tanner pops to help out in some way, or to steer the plot forwards before the next large jump. It’s also a good way of crowbarring in a lot of variety of game types from contrivances like “Disarm the bombs under the trucks!” where you have to get in low-slung sport cars and get under flat-bed trailers to disarm said bombs, to using your mad driving skills to save a pair of Japanese students who thought illegal street races would be a good way to pay for college. That’s just two examples, but there’s enough to stop the game going stale pretty quickly, especially when you throw in the eighty or more activities dotted around the vast map. I never felt the need to keep going with the activities, which was weird as I’m usually a sucker for trying to mop up as much side mission stuff as possible.
There are a vast number of licensed cars, vans, and trucks in Driver:San Francisco, and although there’s a satisfying sense of weight, gravity, and resistance to the handling in general, each vehicle is individual in the way it drives. The Trans-Am is like a shopping trolley with a rocket strapped to its arse, whereas the Audi R8 is a smooth-as-butter, flowing-like-water-from-a-fountain ride from heaven. The Charger is heavy but fun, the Scirocco nimble but not that quick, and there’s everything in between.
As I’ve mentioned, the story is very, very peculiar for a game of this type, and in its quirky way, it’s kind of refreshing. It took a lot of balls for Reflections to pull something so odd out of the hat, and even though it feels a bit wrong at times, it’s something a little different and that should be applauded on its own. The writing isn’t bad, with a lot of the incidental characters descending into annoying white noise (except the Nakamuras, the aforementioned street racers) but Tanner and Jones have some very amusing banter and Tanner himself is packed with one liners and comments that make him likeable and actually quite cool. That, and he’s an American protagonist in a video game that’s not voiced by Nolan North either, which makes a fucking change.
One thing that jarred, and this sounds an odd, back-handed compliment in itself, is the way the cut-scenes abruptly skip from rendered in-car dialogue to in-engine car shots. The dialogue scenes are shot like American TV shows (at, say, 24fps), whereas the in-engine stuff is at the same 60fps (for the majority, it sometimes slows down a little when busy) the game is played in. I know this seems like nitpicking, but the story is driven along by these scenes, and it has a cool TV show aesthetic to it, so it just makes you wonder why they didn’t make the in-engine shots run at the same frame rate with the same grain filter over the top just for them. Well, aside from people pissing and moaning about how it isn’t 60fps.
The thing about Driver:San Francisco is that it never raised itself above “That’s really cool” but it never descended into “What the fuck is this sack of shit!?” It just kind of plodded along, being entertaining and balancing out its good points with its bad points in some kind of equilibrium of OK-ness, admittedly one populated by more peaks than troughs. It’s a shame, because the love for the genre (including the movie homages crammed in throughout) is abundant, and it’s polished as hell, even if it does have its clumsy UI elements. Driver: San Francisco is by no means a bad game, not by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just not a great game.