I loved the first Driver game on the original PlayStation, and I can clearly remember how satisfied I felt when I finally completed the last few insane missions and finished it. However, subsequent games in the franchise were a lot less focused and fun, and the series lost its shine for me.
But that luster has been brought back for sure in the newest addition to the franchise. Set in my hometown, Driver: San Francisco certainly delivers a lot of the driving antics and mayhem that attracted me to the first game in the series. It also introduces a pretty crazy mechanic that some people seem to love, and others hate — the Shift mode that lets you leap from one vehicle to another in some kind of weird psychic switcheroo. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it certainly adds a whole new dimension to the game.
Shift is introduced into the storyline fairly quickly in the one-player game. And in attempting to justify an unusual and weird game mechanic in terms of the story, you’re immediately presented with another love-it or leave-it part of the game. For me, I can live with incongruous game mechanics if they’re fun. It’s a game. Weird stuff can happen. But the way it’s folded into the story just seems a bit lame. And because the story for me immediately felt ludicrous, I just didn’t care about it. Indeed, a few cut-scenes in and I was happily taking the game up on its offer to “Press X to Skip.” I’m sure some people will probably like the story, but I just felt that it was silly.
But what aren’t silly are the missions and the action. As you’d expect with a sandbox-y type driving game, you get lots of missions, some side activities, and plenty of bonus things to discover. While the game is ultimately linear, you can take most things at your own pace. The driving engine is sweet, and the game environment has been nicely designed so you have the space to be able to have fun. While the game definitely has the essence of San Francisco, with landmarks and areas in the right place, all the roads have been super-sized, and large chunks of the city razed to maximize the fun. Cars can take enormous punishment before they are crippled, and most are fast-steering enough so that you can avoid things for the most part if you concentrate on what’s going on around you. It’s all very arcade-y and cartoon-ish, but works very well to deliver a lot of driving entertainment, close scrapes, and mad-skills stunts.
In one-player mode, I plowed through the missions fairly quickly, and indeed that’s my first real criticism of the game: the difficulty level is a little spotty. Most of the time I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out what to do to succeed, but sometimes I ran into a mission that was much harder than the others. Sometimes I seemed to need a bit of luck to win — the right vehicle coming down the road at the right time that I could jump into, or for me to be able to race through a busy intersection to make ground, which was a dice roll because sometimes there were tons of cars there, and sometimes there was a gap. There wasn’t anything that was impossible, but it was definitely uneven in terms of going through a bunch of missions the first time without fail, and then getting hung up on one repeatedly. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, but it did feel like the game needs a little bit more finessing perhaps.
Overall, the missions are fun and varied, and some of them utilize the Shift mechanic quite creatively. I also didn’t expect the game to have the personal progression it has, such as letting you earn in-game currency to buy cars from what seems like a pretty huge roster of “real cars,” which you can then use to stunt and generally tear up the town.
While the one-player mode has limited appeal — I think most people will probably get through it not long after hitting double-digit playtime hours — the game does have a huge suite of multiplayer modes, and this is an area I think will definitely help add lasting appeal. I particularly like the tag game, which I spent a lot of time playing at E3, and there are definitely some creative and fun games to play from its suite of 11 multiplayer modes. Assuming there are enough people out there who like the game, and the community does stay strong, Driver: San Francisco certainly delivers a kind of racing fun that is pretty rare. Its combo of arcade-y/demolition/racing action is a nice and highly refreshing break from the usual serious racing games like Gran Turismo and Forza.
Overall, I thought the game was a good one. The one-player game is a lot of fun, if perhaps a little on the short side, but at least there are plenty of side missions and things to do after you’ve completed the main game to help round out its lasting appeal. But I do think it’s the multiplayer mode where most people will get their kicks. If you’re all good and connected, and like crazy car combat, I’d definitely check out Driver: San Francisco, and get ready to sign up for the somewhat annoying U-Play thing so that you can actually access the game’s multiplayer modes. If you’re not that interested in the multiplayer mode, I’d wait until you can pick up a cheap copy of the game, and not bother with the U-Play thing at all.
PROS: Slick, arcade-y racing that looks great; it’s really fun hooning around the supersized streets of ‘Frisco; multiplayer modes are highly entertaining.
CONS: Story seems ludicrously contrived; single-player mission mode is a little on the short side; uneven difficulty, with occasional potential random frustrations.