The Driver series has been around for more than a decade, but the years weren’t too good for the one that laid many of the foundations for what GTA represents now. In 13 years and 5 titles, Driver went from a title basking in universal acclaim to scandals linked to paid reviews and then to the shadowy depths after Driver: Parallel Lines. But Ubisoft kept fighting the good fight, seriously listened to the fan complaints and even put in some new features that have huge potential for next productions.
It’s obvious that not everything is perfect and picky fans will start off with the story. Yes, Driver: San Francisco is a driving game that tries to tell a story, bringing back into the spotlight the de-facto hero (except Driver: Parallel Lines), policeman John Tanner. Together with his partner Tobias Jones (a very politically correct African-American), Tanner once again is pursuing Charles Jericho, his longtime nemesis.
The bad guy escapes, cops set out to get him, but everything seems to end before it even begins: the lawmen “kiss” a truck during the chase, the Dodge Challenger is shredded and Tanner ends up in a coma in the hospital. After that, the action moves in the mind of the hero, an idea that allowed the producers to introduce the new gameplay element that will let you spin around in any car in San Francisco, from the common Ford to buses, trucks or trailers.
In his dreams, Tanner realizes that he can leave his body behind to enter into that any of the city inhabitants as long as they are driving. Called Shift, the ability is at the same time a ridiculous presumption (out of body experiences are more of a Discovery story), but also the key to give huge freedom to the player (maybe too much of it sometimes).
Also, this new Driver is presented as a return to innocence – you no longer get out of the car, which sets it apart from the mix genre proposed by GTA or Mafia. We just get driving and cinematics and you just choose from the dozens of missions to forward the story and unlock all kinds of bonuses.
At first, Shift doesn’t seem to do much. You go out and see the city from above and any car is yours; the tutorials are deceiving because the ability grows in utility, the zoom level increases and you get to cross the whole Bay area in just seconds, if the missions demand it. Tanner has to get used to his power too and his partner becomes a believer after he’s proven that even the nicest drivers can go haywire, provoke cops and go way over the speed limit on the sidewalk if they are possessed by our driving maniac.
But Shift isn’t just about controlling any car. Depending on your needs, you get an instant Shift and maybe you get to hit the rival with a truck and block a street with a lorry just for the fun of it or to win a race. As you unlock missions, the boost bar appears too, charged by just driving, yet easily drained. Anything you do behind the wheel – speeding, near misses, jumps, drifts – is rewarded with Willpower, the equivalent of experience points.
Only that this “will” won’t buy levels, but cars and upgrades: 140 vehicles await you, most of them licensed ones, some of them surprising in brand and model and also because of the activities they unlock (I’ll just say DeLorean…); the upgrades are practical – enhancing the boost bar, the recharge speed, activating the bonus detector or the Willpower multiplier – but also just for fun, like the Thrill Cam (it unlocks a cinematic camera for free driving).
Nothing is cheap in San Francisco though, so even garages have to be bought before getting access to the cars inside. The same cars also break down, which means that even the meanest Lamborghini Diablo must take a break from time to time by getting into the garage from the menu or just by driving in the street through the blue circle that marks it. For the 100% achievement aficionados, be advised this is a long run, the 8 hours of story being way too short to get everything you want.
Fortunately, once the spirits are gone, you get all the secondary missions and a “plus” mode for an even more difficult second run through. If you also consider the Challenges, you add a rich series of special missions, unlocked in-game (during the story, using certain cars, etc).
Yet I’m not sure how many players will stick to it because all the options are there and the game isn’t too easy either. The freedom of getting any car you want also doesn’t help in motivating you to buy and use your own. It doesn’t really matter if you just purchased a fast one if you can just go around, find it and wreck it. For free. Of course, the top cars aren’t found around any corner, but they aren’t that rare either.