It’s strange to think that life is full of surprises. It may not appear so on the surface but once you reassess your definition of ‘surprise’ you will soon see that it’s literally cascading with the little buggers. The problem is that for many folk the word surprise means a pre-fix to a secret celebration or a gift kept hidden until you least suspect, a huge event waiting to spring upon you. For me though, surprises are more than likely to be small, succinct and gratifying.
They are the Chomp bar that you had forgotten about just when your hunger peaks. Or your favourite pen, that you thought you had lost, turning up once again out of the blue. These are what I would call ‘nice’ surprises. Look hard enough and you’ll find that your day will be littered with their shimmering presence. Buy Driver: San Francisco and you can be happy in the knowledge that you own the ‘nicest’ surprise of 2011.
When it comes to the franchise, for too long developer Reflections have been a weeping mess. The superb debut, Driver, was a point by point lesson in how to capture a Hollywood aesthetic and turn every corner into a performance. However, under the shadow of Grand Theft Auto, the innovative development seemed to stall and now on their fourth publisher, expectations for the British team are not exactly towering. It has not been the prettiest of histories.
Other than one previous Wii title, Parallel Lines back in 2004, Driver: San Francisco sees Martin Edmonson take his company onto the next generation of consoles for the very first time. Bringing series protagonist Tanner with them, (the renamed) Ubisoft Reflections have in D:SF a natural sequel to Driv3r. Events have cooled since bad guy, Jericho, shot Tanner in the back in the previous title and not happy with his new jailhouse surroundings in D:SF, Jericho breaks out with Tanner in pursuit. One trip down a blind alley later and from within twisted crumbling metal Tanner is put in a coma and Jericho walks free. The rest of the game now belongs to Tanner’s subconscious.
It is a theatrical setup for an equally melodramatic plot line, which sees you essentially play D:SF inside Tanner’s unconscious mind as he nestles within a coma. Quests, missions, characters and details are either parts of Tanner’s own self trying to regain consciousness, or small parts of his cognisant mind picking up on the twenty four hour news coverage of a city at the hands of Jericho. The thrilling thing is, is that Tanner still thinks he is sane, fully alert and intent on bringing down his nemesis.
It all smells of Life on Mars mixed in with Kingdom Hospital. You drive past billboards that say ‘Wake Up’; you hear get well messages streaming from the police radio and try all you’ll like but you’ll never be able to run over a pedestrian. This world, not only affords for some sparkling conversation between Tanner and his (imaginary) partner Tobias Jones, as he tries to convince him he’s not going mad, but also it gives Ubisoft Reflections enough rope to happily swing from.
All the pieces here seem like they belong and so they should in the mind of a petrol head. Driving is a joy, full of risks and frustration but ultimately, gratifying rewards. The setting looks and feels like a living city and even though he is essentially nothing but a breathing vegetable, here Tanner exists in a world which is purpose built to let him flex his driving muscle. Each car, race, and journey feels part of an experience destined for celluloid and they all exist on a stage that is geographically sublime
Music fuels the adrenaline further and as with every inch of the design, you feel like it is a world populated by Tanner’s favourite cars, locations and soundtrack. There is also one spectacular thing that Tanner’s subconscious allows him to do whenever it takes his fancy, which is shifting.
With one easy press of the button, entering Shift gives Tanner a bird’s eye view of the entire city. From this vantage point he can now inhabit any driver of any vehicle that he so wishes and take their place behind the wheel. It is simple, bonkers, and bizarre. In one simple shift, Tanner can move from his body into that of a kid taking a driving lesson, a man trying to impress his wife by driving fast, or even a member of Jericho’s gang trying to move up the ranks. The story of the city is told through these plotted shifts that exist in-between your main objectives.
Hopping from one car to another to find you’re the wife of a man being driven to hospital after being bitten by a poisonous spider, or you’re one of two brothers racing to pay for college tuition, feels un-endlessly satisfying. With every shift it feels like there is potential for more. Cop chases can be closed down by shifting into a lorry mid-race and putting it across the chasing pack and missions can be completed on a scale as big as the city as you can move miles in seconds.
Shifting is D:SF’s gambit and it pays off, and what delivers in the singleplayer delivers tenfold when taking play online. Multiplayer games such as Tag, sees one racer who is ‘it’ have to fend off hordes of shifting combatants changing cars and position at will. What is an effective mechanic in the singleplayer here becomes tactical and tenacious. The paranoia of a shifting crowd will force the player who is ‘it’ off the road, make them drive at speed and encourage them to move in anything other than a straight line. All because of shift there is as much fun online as with Burnout Paradise or Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, if not more.
Not everything though in D:SF is as well implemented as the brilliant shifting. Facial animations might be great but lip syncing is all over the place and for a driving game, the pacing of the story is decrepit. For some reason, which is never made clear, ‘story’ missions remain locked until you’ve completed several ‘city’ tasks, which requires inhabiting other people through shifting. Some of these contain an essence of the plot but others feel more like gleeful distractions and do their best to destroy any narrative tension.
The police can also do their bit to fizzle out the action by actually being far too overly aggressive when in pursuit. Sure you can shift in their way and cause mayhem but some situations are not built for thinking between two cars. Whilst there is less of a focus between cops and robbers in D:SF, their lack of sincerity does make pursuits messy and clumsy affairs rather than the cinematic showpieces they are meant to be.
It is no doubt that D:SF has found its home on this current generation of hardware. It looks and sounds fantastic, all within a concept that is fittingly just as over-the-top as the cars you’ll drive. Not all is shining bright though, with severe amounts of screen tear when the action picks up and pacing problems that pick the story apart. Without the glorious shifting D:SF would be good but not great.
Shifting is the main star of the show and what Ubisoft Reflections have managed to achieve and the potential it promises, will without question be their shadow to cast over other driving games to come. Considering all the Driver titles that have been before it, Driver: San Francisco is the ‘nicest’ surprise of the year.
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: PS3/ Xbox 360/ PC/ Wii Release Date: 02/09/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Driver: San Francisco for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of four days on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.