Driver: San Francisco is eccentric but brilliant, carving a slapstick narrative around its complex mechanics. The game's prominent gameplay feature, 'Shift', not only introduces a new way to play, but also opens a window into developer Reflections' creativity, offering objectives that are not only extremely enjoyable but also wilfully imaginative.
At the heart of every great action movie or cop drama is a car chase. Newcastle-based developer Reflections has spent the past 12-or-so years trying to pay homage to such motorised set pieces in its video games, starting with Driver on PSone. Driver: San Francisco is the studio's latest attempt at a return to form, after more recent entries failed to live up to the critical and commercial success of the franchise's debut.
You play as series veteran John Tanner, an undercover detective with a mean showing of designer stubble. The game opens with its headlights blaring, as you chase down antagonist (and convict) Jericho, who's just conveniently fashioned a jailbreak on his way to sentencing. As you dash in and out of traffic in a jaw-clenching pursuit, you eventually find yourself T-boned by a truck, leaving you in a coma. Worse still, your Dodge Challenger is completely wrecked.
It's from here that Driver: San Francisco gets a little nuts. Controlling Tanner from the haze of a dream, the game's populated sandbox setting becomes a window of opportunity. Tanner adopts the ability to 'shift' from car to car, adopting the persona of its driver and jumping between wheels with relative immediacy.
What sounded like a bizarre premise pre-release is actually one of Driver: San Francisco's most brilliant features. In the context of the narrative it's wild and silly, but Reflections handles the subject with enough irony to make it work in a comical manner. The gameplay implications that are infinitely more noteworthy. At first the game keeps things simple; allowing you to latch onto a new vehicle without the need to open a menu or visit a garage, but it quickly becomes more complex. Chases become playful affairs in which you take control of the oncoming traffic and slam them into your target, while races transform into unique missions in which you must not only guarantee the success of one car, but two or three.
Reflections could have retired 'shift' to a back-of-the-box gimmick, but it's actually crafted one of the most original arcade racing games in years. In one particular mission — and probably the most inventive in the game — you control Tanner's famous Dodge Challenger from behind the steering wheel of another car in pursuit of it. For all the brilliant ideas in Driver: San Francisco, Reflections rarely recycles. Sure, there are side-missions based on specific mechanics, but for the most part the developer finds ways to keep things fresh throughout.
'Shift' also gives Reflections the opportunity to explore various sub-narratives. In addition to the cop drama plot at the core of Driver: San Francisco, the developer also takes the time to explore the city's dense range of personalities. When Tanner assumes the persona of another driver, he'll be thrown into the conversations taking place within the vehicles' cockpit. This leads to a number of hilarious sub-missions, as you attempt to frighten a pushy driving instructor or earn a couple of International students enough funds to get into college. It's slapstick, but knowingly so, and as the individual storylines develop you actually find the narratives become more and more engrossing.
This humour is balanced by a side of stern-faced plot development. As Tanner's condition worsens, you're plunged into a deserted vision of San Francisco where you must chase an ambulance to survive. Instead of tamely recognising its baffling scenario, Reflections treats it intelligently. It's never credible nor plausible, but it's at least interesting throughout. Reflections even manages to create a fairly satisfying 'boss fight' towards the climax of the game, all without ever taking the player out of the car.
Speaking of which, for a game featuring the name 'Driver' on its title-screen, San Francisco is also a robust arcade racer. The handling model itself is inspired by the car chases that influenced the series, and so the vehicles require heavy use of the handbrake to cut through corners with outstretched tail-ends. The handling's theatrical, but it's satisfying, and its buoyed by some outstanding particle effects to create the illusion of burning rubber.
Each car is equipped with a variety of arcade unlockables, including the ability to boost (which is rather clumsily mapped to the left analogue stick) and ram. Both additions are fine, but they don't necessarily add much to the action and feel hastily implemented.
The car models too don't quite live up to the standards of more recent racing releases. With over 140 cars in the game — drawing from a pool of muscle cars, sports cars and miscellaneous trucks and lorries — you're at least ensured a variety of different handling models to experience. While San Francisco's poor visual standard transcends into the city itself, Reflections has at least pushed the boat out by locking the gameplay to a buttery smooth 60 frames-per-second.
The 'shift' mechanic itself is a technical marvel too, allowing you to jump between opposite ends of the city without so much as the sight of a loading screen. It's seamless, and, as a result, staggering that Reflections was even able to achieve such a feat.
In addition to allowing you to jump between the city, 'shift' also serves as Driver: San Francisco's overworld. From Tanner's dream state you can access the game's variety of sub-missions and objectives with the tap of a button. Small challenges — known as 'Dares' — offer very simple side-tasks, while more fleshed out objectives see you chasing down lawless convicts or competing in races.
You do all of this to obtain 'Willpower', which is very much Driver: San Francisco's way of saying 'XP'. 'Willpower' can be spent on new vehicles and upgrades to your abilities, as well as new Garages which unlock side-missions based on classic movie scenes. These missions in particular are accessible from the game's main menu, and even include online leaderboards in order to give time attack fans their dues.
That's without even paying attention to Driver: San Francisco's ambitious multiplayer component, which takes advantage of the game's 'shift' mechanic to create something distinguishable from other multiplayer racers currently available on store shelves. With a generous helping of playlists, San Francisco's multiplayer manages to appeal to both the core and boisterous areas of the game's single-player campaign, with something to offer for multiple types of player. We'll have more on San Francisco's multiplayer when we've spent more time on its retail servers.
In an age where arcade racers thrive on USPs, Driver: San Francisco has crafted something that's both bizarre and brilliant. 'Shift' is well conceived and wonderfully integrated, resulting in a campaign that's daringly original. San Francisco is easily the best Driver game since the series began, and is right up there with the very best PlayStation 3 arcade racers.