• Driver: San Francisco Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    Reflections have been mixing things up a little with their last few Driver games. Tweaking and changing the traditional formula to try and take the series down a new path, and with San Francisco they've managed to successfully fuse the core elements that made the original titles so well loved with a novel concept that brings a lot of new options to the table. The vast bulk of the proceedings actually play out within cop-lead Tanner's coma-induced dreams, as the player attempts to unravel crime boss Jericho's motivations, whilst simultaneously dealing with the emotional scars and desire for revenge that he has left on Tanner.
    Car chases don't get much better than this.
    Car chases don't get much better than this.
    Such devices, when used to explain behaviour that is either impossible or unrealistic in the real world in order to avoid breaking the player's suspension of disbelief can backfire. In this instance, however, the developers have instead used it to excellent effect to gradually explore Tanner's mental and physical health through a combination of main storyline based missions, that focus heavily on his recovery, and side-quests that allow him to explore and rediscover his identity and self-motivations. These subtle nuances, such as the way the player can help two good-natured street racers avoid a life of crime over the course of the game - thereby reminding Tanner why he became a cop in the first place, really work to tie the plotline together as a whole, despite the open world nature of the game. The story is surprisingly mature and well handled for a racing title, veering into some quite unnerving nightmare sequences as you literally battle to keep Tanner alive. The integration between his body's physical condition in the real world and his mental state in the dreamworld are tightly interlinked and the conflict within his brain between his various emotions is a fascinating thing to behold. Reflections really manage to elevate him from a more light-entertainment style character at the start of the game to someone you deeply care for by the end.

    Storyline aside, this conceit does provide for a number of interesting concepts. The main gameplay element is the ability to Shift, wherein you can leave your body and hover above the playfield. When you do everything goes into slow-motion and you are able to possess other non-hostile vehicles and take full control of them. This technique can be used in the majority of the game's challenges and not only does it make for some creative problem solving in your normal racing modes but also offers up a number of new game types. Taking your standard race setup, play then becomes a combination of both driving and taking advantage of opportunities provided by the traffic and road networks to interfere with the opposition through inventive use of collisions and pileups. This can devalue the emphasis on traditional racing techniques when it's available and does, at times, unbalance the game a little in favour of exploiting opportunistic traffic patterns, but at the same time back ending a car yourself can cause considerable time delays to the player. Many of the missions also force you to use the more demanding vehicles in terms of handling, which evens out the trade off considerably.
    The Shift mechanic can be used to rapidly traverse large swathes of the map.
    The Shift mechanic can be used to rapidly traverse large swathes of the map.
    The Shift mechanic further makes for some excellent variety in side missions with a few real standouts on offer. Chief amongst these is a defence mode where the player must seize civilian vehicles and collide with enemies who are trying to ram a static target. Balancing elements such as weight and speed with the need to keep on top of multiple incoming adversaries makes for a fast paced and very enjoyable offering. Another high point is the team races, undoubtedly the most challenging of the new modes, where the player must drive two vehicles, switching between them on the fly, and secure both first and second place to win. Your AI teammate is usually quite poor so regular Shifts between the two vehicles are essential to secure a win. This means that at the flick of a button the player is suddenly presented with a completely different road position and traffic layout that they must immediately adjust to whilst still driving at 100 miles per hour. Ultimately the Shift mechanic delivers a novel way of approaching the standard racing game paradigms and is far more than just a gimmick, providing a long lasting, entertaining way to play. Any issues with the ease of some missions are entirely down to game balancing as opposed to any faults with the core mechanics.

    On a side note one area where Shift certainly provides a lot of laughs are in the random conversations you can jump into when tooling around in free-ride mode. Enter a vehicle that contains a passenger and you'll often step right into the middle of a full on argument, a couple in the middle of life changing decisions or any number of different setups. One particular highlight this reviewer experienced was stepping into a vehicle where the two occupants were midway through a 'talk like a pirate' dare. Cue ten minutes of amusing one liners as you try triggering all the different dialogue options by driving on pavements, into oncoming traffic, taking the odd hit and bump and so on. It's rare to play a driving game that can see you chasing down drug traffickers one moment then laughing your head off the next as Tanner backchats some of the varied, humorous characters you carjack.
    Drifting American muscle cars round busy interchanges is an important part of the game.
    Drifting American muscle cars round busy interchanges is an important part of the game.
    San Francisco doesn't just rely on the Shift mechanic for all of its new hooks. Throughout the main storyline the developers have played up the blurred boundary between the real and dream worlds. One particularly interesting example involves controlling two cars, your current vehicle (viewed from a first person perspective) and an additional one in front of you, with the same steering controls. Others involve driving from a set of third person static cameras, akin to what you might see in the traditional racing replays, and sections involving dodging thrown automobiles and chucking others back at your assailant. Such moments help to create quite a diverse, varied experience, it's just a real shame that they hardly show up in the side missions at all. While the main side races don't feel overly repetitive, there are a lot of smaller spot challenges scattered around the game that are all repeats of the same basic setups such as performing a certain number of overtakes, jumping a set distance and so on, that would have benefited greatly from a larger injection of the kind of diversity on display in the main campaign levels.

    The greatest aspect of this release really has nothing to do with the Shift implementation at all though, as the simple act of navigating the environments is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. This is thanks to two key facets, the first being the traffic algorithms and the second the looser handling model and more gradual acceleration gradients, that work hand in hand to provide an unbelievably smooth, controlled experience full of tight, precise driving and movie-like moments. Cars still have a noticeable sense of speed, especially when you start reaching the faster car unlocks, but it's a far more measured pace than most racers. It's still traffic orientated rather than being track focused but unlike its contemporaries the emphasis is on planning your manoeuvres two steps in advance rather than rapid, twitch-based dodges. This is thanks in part to the fact that the speed of the cars is more closely matched to the traffic around you and the AI also avoids making any big, sudden movements that can catch the player off guard. The challenge is to look at the road like a moving puzzle layout and on the fly calculate where it will be when you reach a certain point, lining yourself up well in advance. The looser handling also means that oversteer is noticeably reduced, making the larger, controlled drifts and glides across lanes far more viable.
    Even Tanner's jacket has racing stripes!
    Even Tanner's jacket has racing stripes!
    The traffic population algorithms in particular are far more tailored and intelligent than in most open world racers. You never get hobbled because the computer has thrown a particularly evil combination at you that's impossible to dodge. When you crash there's never any doubt that it was entirely your fault, a particularly impressive feat when dealing with busy intersections midway through a race. However once the player is used to their car, the appropriately sized gaps between vehicles and the variety of transportation on the road make for plenty of near miss moments that feel just as slick as the movies. It's not uncommon so slip under an HGV, smoothly sliding your car between its two sets of wheels and appearing out the other side mid-race to get a better position, or to line up a perfect jump off the back of a vehicle transporter that can put you onto the opposite side of a motorway barrier without hitting the oncoming traffic. Even the mini-map is easily extendible at the touch of a button and positioned perfectly so you can quickly peruse the upcoming routes without going headlong into the back of the car in front of you. For a racing game of this type to make the simple act of driving around aimlessly so much fun is a real accomplishment, and while the Shift mechanic may hog the bulk of the limelight, it's the solid enjoyment of such a tightly meshed set of basic driving mechanics that make the core experience so memorable.

    Despite how well implemented these features are the one real problem is the balancing of the game's difficulty. Every twenty minutes the player earns additional in-game currency based on the value of their car collection, this currency can be spent on upgrades or additional vehicles, which become available as you progress through the game. The problems here are twofold. On the one hand if you invest heavily in your car collection early in the game it becomes very easy to build up a massive income level that easily dwarves your winnings from completing missions. This then means that in the middle of the game it becomes far too easy to buy all the upgrades and fast cars you need to thoroughly blitz the challenges that start appearing and it's not until the tail end of storyline that they begin to catch up with you. This ultimately exposes the fundamental problem with the car unlock system, it's just not linear enough. You get access to some very powerful cars too soon and they don't scale in synch with the challenges, after this point, buying and learning any other vehicles becomes a mute point because their performance just doesn't measure up to what you already own.
    Environments are bright, detailed and stylish.
    Environments are bright, detailed and stylish.
    The multiplayer modes, unfortunately, fail to provide much in the way of long term appeal. Some are broken by an overuse of Shift which makes games far too random and luck based, while others such as an interesting take on the defence mode from the single player ultimately fail due to overly simplistic mechanics and wonky, one-trick pony level design, that in this particular case all too often turns it into a random scrum using just one of the approaches. There is potential to the ideas on display here but in their current incarnations they really lack any form of depth and this is compounded by a grossly unfair upgrade system that gives higher level players significant advantages in some of the playlists.

    Overall Driver: San Francisco makes for a very good single player racer. While it lacks the tight, competitive elements that make for a good multiplayer driving game, the inventive use of new mechanics and the simple joy of driving around the bright, busy city to an inspired collection of classic soul and hip-hop tracks more than make up for these shortcomings. The balance needs fine-tuning and the multiplayer is a no-go but the core is strong, the storyline is extremely good and the driving superb.
    Driver: San Francisco screenshot.
    Players:
    1-8
    Genre:
    Racing
    Developer:
    Ubisoft Reflections
    Publisher:
    Ubisoft
    Platform:
    Xbox 360
    Version:
    European
    Pros:
    - Shift mechanic injects novel modes.
    - Fantastic handling model.
    - Great marriage of storyline and gameplay.
    Cons:
    - No difficulty curve.
    - Shift mechanic doesn't translate well to multiplayer
    Score: 8/10
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