Driver San Francisco (XBOX 360)
Games can sometimes make you feel very old... take Driver as an example. This reviewer can remember quite clearly playing the original game in the series which was released over 12 years ago... in 1999. Worse than that though, Reflections who are responsible for developing the series made titles such as Shadow of the Beast in 1989... and I can remember playing that too on my trusty old Amiga, scary stuff.
Since the original Driver the series has gone on to sell millions of copies and it is somewhat rare for that to happen, let alone have a number of games under the same brand be successful for over a decade. Until now Reflections have succeeded in doing that, even if the more recent games didn't live up to the quality of the first and that has allowed them to make the latest instalment, Driver San Francisco.
Driver San Francisco is no ordinary car based game though, yes it still has its roots in the same gameplay mechanic as the other titles in the range but this version adds a unique twist which could make or break it. Today we take a look at the latest version to find out whether Reflections bold decision succeeds and whether it is worth your hard earned cash at a time when major gaming releases are hitting the shelves fast.
In previous Driver games Reflections have taken a stab at various different gameplay styles, offering us the chance to try significant gameplay sections based on bike or on foot action. With San Francisco they action is primarily car based, sometimes branching out to a van or on occasion a helicopter. Controls are reasonably normal (X360) with right trigger for accelerate, left for break, B is handbrake and the left stick steers (right stick to change view). We can also boost later on in the game by pressing forward on the left stick for a short lived turbo which then recharges and left shoulder button actions a ram. So far so standard...
The single player campaign is story based with our character, John Tanner, moving from chapter to chapter trying to solve a crime however the gameplay within the "universe" is very much open to interaction by the player. Essentially we get a map of the city and as well as the main missions we can take on a huge number of mini-tasks which help us build up skills and points which can be spent on upgrades or new cars. In all there are over 200 missions in Driver San Francisco.
Moving between these missions is where things get interesting though... and a little ridiculous too... without giving too much of the story away, at the beginning of the game we see a major criminal, Jericho, escape from a prison transfer. Our character Tanner who was originally involved in his capture and his partner Jones are involved in a crash while trying to stop the escape and from there we end up in a coma. Whether the game then takes place in "our" head, via a near death experience or something entirely different we shall leave to each player to find out however what this does allows is for a unique method of mission choice and gameplay mechanic.
Essentially because we are not exactly in the physical world our top down view of the San Francisco map is through Tanner's "spirit" looking down on the city and we can zoom in to look at any area or marked mission on the map. We can then enter the mission by possessing the body of the driver assigned to that mission... or any other driver in the city for that matter. Yes, we said possess...
This would be completely ludicrous if it was done in a serious way but it is clear that Reflections knew this and so our characters are very much in on the this insane idea and it works because of this and a decent plot which drives things along.
This "Shift" mechanic that allows us to move from mission to mission also plays a huge part in the missions themselves. For example we can be playing through a section which requires us to stop a tanker full of chemicals reaching its destination, to do this we must cause it as much damage as possible so we "shift" into a vehicle, ram the tanker, shift into another and ram again. As the action hots up it creates a tense and action packed gameplay segment and one which can be tweaked for varied gameplay. In other areas we could for example work against the clock to get four different vehicles from their current location (where they have been stolen) back to and inside police trucks... one of which is moving. Everything is over the top in Driver San Francisco; trying to win a race is easy, well how about trying to come first and second in the same race, at the same time...
As well as the single player campaign Reflections have also included local split screen multiplayer which can be played in various modes including free-drive or co-op and competitive missions are present as is online multiplayer. The modes available varied and fun, using Trailblazer (which is similar to a mission in the campaign) as an example we have to follow another vehicle, staying its trails to accumulate points. Other modes are more destruction based and therefore will please those who like to see as many high speed smashes as possible.
Graphics and Audio
When playing Driver San Francisco it is clear that Reflections have gone all out to create an audio and visual style which is very much reminiscent of old style TV with the thrills and spills associated with their car chases. Think Dukes of Hazard, any 70's car movie/tv classic really or more recently Fast and Furious or Death Proof and we are in the same ball park as the latest Driver. The game is of course littered with destructible objects from piles of boxes to bins, fire hydrants, lamp posts and more than a few jumps, even over moving car transporters. Each of the 120 licenced vehicles show damage as we smash them and larger crashes, which destroy cars, get a slow motion replay of the last few seconds... a TV esq choice which also extends to the "Previously on Driver..." recaps which are spread out through the main campaign.
Particular highlights on the visual side of things are the facial animations and detail present on the characters in cut scenes, how well the paintwork of the cars is rendered and there are some great road and light textures and effects which work well in the game, especially when driving at high speed. Speaking of speed, that is something which there is no shortage of in this game. While each vehicle (and road surface) drives differently and there are some slow and sluggish vehicles in the game it is fair to say that the majority of our gameplay takes place in powerful cars and later on in supercars. Hit top speed in them and then apply a boost and the game really excels in delivering a feeling of speed, it looks and feels great.
That said, when we slow down and actually look around the city there are areas which are a little bland, though this is forgivable given the massive gameplay area created by Reflections. We also noted a few occasions where the framerate became an issue during significant crashes.
Audio wise the impressive experience continues, a great selection of licenced driving tunes makes up the soundtrack and while there are a lot of generic voiceovers in the game these are littered with nice one-liners. For the main characters the voice acting is good and again the script decent, in fact on a number of occasions it is genuinely funny, playing on the absurdity of plot.
Past Driver games were criticised by some for trying to emulate GTA and failing to be as good, with Driver San Francisco we have a game which leans more towards the original game in the franchise rather than its competitor. There are of course similarities, they are both story/mission based driving games after all, but the tone of Driver is much more positive and up beat. This game is designed to be fun and over the top rather than gritty. Something which is summed up as much by the funny script and over the top plot as it is by the fact that it is impossible to run over pedestrians. Speed down a packed sidewalk at 100mph and no-one will die, no matter how hard the player try's.
Much of the success of driver is a result of the "Shift" gameplay mechanic. Partly because it adds something new but also because it means Reflections are able to keep things fresh in a game which could have been repetitive. For example just when we think that a style of mission (let's say bomb defusing) is going to be the same as the last, a twist is added which means we need to shift to a vehicle half way across the city, choosing a low height model, then manoeuvre underneath a moving truck on the freeway to deactivate the bomb... before having to do the same a few times more against the clock.
We also liked the fact that on a few occasions we drop into the body of characters we have seen earlier in the game, in particular two boy racers who get in with the wrong crowd but keep winning races and become embroiled in Jericho's gang because we keep winning the battles for them in order to pass the mission and unlock the main story elements. The dialogue between the passenger and his friend possessed by Tanner is great.
As we noted earlier the game also looks and sounds good, in fact we would go as far as to say it looks better than the most recent GTA... and offers a different feel when driving too, especially in terms of how much speed we are offered by the cars playable in this game. It is also hard not to be impressed by the size of the gameplay world, it is pretty big about half way through the game but becomes massive later on.
As long as the player is willing to get on board with the absurd aspect of the plot which allows us to "shift", Driver San Francisco offers a fantastically action packed, over the top, thrill ride of a game. Those looking for a GTA clone are best to look elsewhere; those looking for an alternative may well find one of the best driving games in a long time.
||Easy to pick up and play. Each car feels different which is always welcome and the missions are both challenging and fun.
||The cars look good, the cut scenes great. Some additional detail on scenery (mainly buildings) would have been appreciated but overall, thumbs up.
||A good soundtrack backed by some decent voice acting and a script which is often funny.
||A massive game where even the main missions will take around 20hours to play through properly. Add in the smaller challenges and the multiple online/multiplayer modes and we have one of the biggest games in a long time.
(Not an Average)
||The best Driver game to date. Packed with fun and over the top action. Never takes itself too seriously and succeeds because of this.