It’s weird to say this about a big-budget franchise sequel, but Driver: San Francisco is full to the brim with great ideas. Some of these are stylistic – like the constantly refreshed ‘Previously On…’ cinematics that launch whenever you boot up the game after a break – but what really grabs your attention is the seemingly unending parade of smart little tools that the game uses to keep its mechanics fresh. Driver: San Francisco is a Driver game, it’s a Chase HQ homage and in a very, very bizarre way it’s almost a God game. But whichever plate it’s spinning, it never stops grafting for your affection,
Take the ‘Shift’ mechanic for example. This allows you to bounce in and out of different cars (and drivers) across San Francisco in a matter of seconds, via an effortlessly intuitive floating birds-eye camera. This is entertaining in itself, but it’s only kept that simple for a short period of time. Before long you’ll be utilising ‘Quick Shift’ to move between two cars at once – to either take up the first two positions in an illegal street race, or to double-team an escaping felon – or you’ll be using the vanilla Shift mechanic exclusively to possess trucks, so that you can decimate tankers solely via the art of the head-on collision.
Although Tanner can no longer exit his vehicle (thankfully) Driver: San Francisco does take place in a (slowly expanding) sandbox that’s very easy on the eye, and stuffed with countless activities. There are sly movie homages (get from A to B but don’t let your speed drop below 60mph) and nods to the early (superior) Tony Hawks games, with you performing all manner of dangerous stunts for the benefit of a shady tabloid news crew. These side-quests not only unlock story missions but also add to your tally of Will Power points, which is the single player campaign’s solitary currency.
As you’d expect, WP points allow you to purchase and upgrade your vehicles and tools, but they also allow you to buy up all of San Francisco’s motor garages; the ownership of which nets you a tally of WP profit every twenty minutes, Monopoly-style. You’re also constantly topping up by driving recklessly, with points added (in the classic Burnout style) for overtaking, drifting, getting air-time and utilising the incorrect side of the road. It’s a shame that the multiplayer modes don’t use WP points – they use a separate, standard XP system instead – but in the end they’re so different that this ends up making perfect sense; with the impossibly hectic (though rowdily enjoyable) multiplayer modes deserving their own progress-based currency.
As a series Driver has always been heavily indebted to the pop culture of the 1970s, so San Francisco takes a step away from the more modernised Driver 3; a very wise move. It’s basically a 70s cop show (with a funk-heavy soundtrack and copious uses of split-screen to prove it) buoyed by some contemporary slickness, and it works like a charm. The lightness of tone is amiable, the characters are likeable, and it’s very difficult not to warm to the barmy plot; which may incorporate terrorism into its machinations during the second act, but never threatens to become even remotely serious.
So it’s a bang-on return to form for the franchise, and a hugely enjoyable videogame in its own right. The multiplayer portion is the icing on the cake, with more modes and XP unlocks than you can shake a Ford Gran Torino at. Shifting plays a part in almost all of the online modes, which gives most of them (like the perpetual destruction derby of ‘Trailblazer’) a frenzied aura more akin to something like Call of Duty than another driving game. It also looks utterly terrific. Detective Tanner may or may not be dead (no spoilers here) but Driver has never been more alive.
Driver: San Francisco is out now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC and Nintendo Wii.
Watch the Driver: San Francisco trailer here: