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'Driver: San Francisco' a real treat

Nov 11, 2011

By Daniel Barron - G4 Canada

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Driver: San FranciscoDriving video games can be separated into two types: simulators, and everything else. The former puts a focus on minute realism, vehicle customization, jaw-dropping graphics and accurate physics. The latter typically throws all of that out the window, and no game proves this point more than Driver: San Francisco.

A return to form for Ubisoft Reflections, the studio that has handled the majority of the series' titles since the original Driver was released in 1999, Driver: San Francisco melds Burnout-like mayhem and Crazy Taxi-esque goofiness with a single new gameplay element that sets it well apart from the pack.

That element is shifting, and D:SF lives and dies by it because without shifting, the game is about as generic as racing titles come.

Simply put, shifting allows the player to "jump" out of a car - like an out-of-body experience - and take control of another one at the press of a button. A lot of gamers know the frustration of missing a turn or smashing into tree head-on and realizing there's no way they'll be able to catch up to other players or objectives. Shifting effectively erases that, albeit with a few asterisks.

Driver: San Francisco In D:SF, you take control of John Tanner, a detective who is tasked with finding and arresting Charles Jericho, an escaped criminal who Tanner believes is planning something that could put a lot of innocent San Franciscans in danger.

Early on in the game, Tanner gets t-boned by a truck while sitting in his vehicle and lapses into a coma. While unconscious, Tanner's mind plays through events going on San Francisco, and it's here he's given the ability to shift. It's not exactly the greatest story ever told but hey, it makes for a good setup for the shifting mechanic.

As the name suggests, the game takes place in and around San Francisco, with different areas opening up as you complete more story chapters. Although there are usually only a couple of story missions in each chapter, they're locked until you complete a certain number of side missions. Without this, the game would be done in about one sitting because with cutscenes aside, the story missions usually don't take all that long.

And you can be certain there are a ton of side missions available. A lot of them aren't even required to move the story along; they're there in order to earn more money, which lets you buy important upgrades and of course, purchase new rides.

A lot of the side missions, such as chases and dares, are relatively quick and dirty, but the story missions are often multi-faceted, requiring the completion of multiple objectives. The developers did a pretty good job of keeping things interesting, which is presumably a lot harder to do in a game where you spend all of your time behind the wheel.

Driver: San Francisco One mission, for instance, has you trying to increase the heart rate of a passenger by pulling off dangerous driving manouvers, while another asks you to get to a checkpoint by travelling on side roads only, as driving on major streets will cause a "suspicion" bar to increase, and if it goes too high, you fail.

Of course, plenty of missions require the use of shifting. One has you driving under moving trucks to defuse bombs, but the numerous trucks are strewn throughout the city, and you only have a limited time to defuse them all.

The missions start off very creative, but become somewhat repetitive as the campaign goes on. Not only that, but some are simply boring (chasing an ambulance around in a nightmare sequence? No thanks) while others are downright frustrating. Despite a relatively large city to drive around in (albeit one that needs to be slowly opened up), the annoying time limit found in a lot of missions means that they have to be completed in a specific way, effectively making D:SF feel too linear, too often.

The controls straddle the line between "arcade-y" and "realistic". You'll certainly be able to do things in the numerous licensed cars you could never do in real life, but it's all grounded in a certain realism; for instance, vehicles aren't invincible and will blow up if too much damage is taken, though you'll still be able to drive a car that plows headfirst into a semi truck, when in real life, it would take only one of those hits to be relegated to the scrapyard.

In addition, it's impossible to hit the numerous pedestrians on the streets of San Francisco. Clearly the developers were aiming for a rating less than "Mature", but it does take away from the realism when every human can move like an Agent in the Matrix, and no blood is ever spilled anywhere, despite some spectacular crashes.

Driver: San Francisco There are a few other nagging issues with user-friendliness. The biggest one is with the game's garages. There are a few of them that can be easily found throughout San Francisco, but the only way to change vehicles is to visit these garages, which can become quite cumbersome. In addition to this, there's no easy way to check what vehicles you own. You have to move through the dozens of manufacturers and check every car it has until you see which ones you've bought.

Where all of Driver's gameplay really manages to shine is in the robust multiplayer offering. Players can choose from no less than nine game modes, and while some are stronger than others, they all offer a fun and very different experience for individuals or teams.

A few standouts include Tag, where you actually want to be "it", as doing so allows you to accumulate points, with the first vehicle to a set number of points wins. Trailblazer, meanwhile, requires players to stay behind a computer-controlled car in order to accumulate points.

Both these modes require liberal use of shifting, but keep in mind shifting successfully is a lot easier said than done. Shift too close to a vehicle you want to hit and you'll miss it completely, but shift too far and you'll never be able to catch up.

Driver: San Francisco This may sound like a no-brainer, but it's also worth noting that shifting doesn't work in classic races where the first player across the finish line wins. If that were the case, everyone would be shifting at the beginning of the race to the car nearest the finish line.

There's a simple-yet-effective ranking up system, which unlocks new avatars and other aesthetic additions, and Reflections even did a great job with the in-game "lobby". That lobby is the city of San Francisco itself. Players can mess around on the streets, earning some extra points by pulling off stunts, while they wait for friends to join in. Once all your buddies are in the lobby, the host can then jump directly into an online game.

One of my favourite features is the ability to put together a playlist of game types for private rooms. You can add as few or as many of the nine games to the list, and it simply loops them all until you're done. It's all really slick.

The campaign for Driver: San Francisco is not without its faults, but it manages to do just enough to be relatively successful despite a threadbare plot and repetitive missions.

That said, if you're itching for a new, unique and exciting online driving experience, look no further than Driver: San Francisco. It's quite simply one of the best online games released so far in 2011, in the driving genre or otherwise.

 

Driver: San Francisco
Format: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Official Site: http://driver-thegame.ubi.com/driver-san-francisco/en-US/home/

Rating: 8 / 10

 
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