Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview -- Fast Cars and Body SnatchingBy Miguel Concepcion - Posted Apr 29, 2011
What We Already Know: San Francisco has been one of the most popular videogame locales of the past 15 years. Everything from Motorstorm: Apocalypse to the Project Gotham series to countless Sega games has reimagined The City in numerous forms. The liberties taken with S.F. is not all that different from the inaccurate but acceptable district-hopping chases from films like Bullit and The Rock. Which brings us to Driver: San Francisco.
Ubisoft Reflections, formerly Reflections Interactive has been working on the latest installment in their Driver franchise, and this time they’re bringing back their original wheelman, Tanner. We know that a new gameplay mechanic, known as Shift, will play a big part in Driver: San Francisco. It’s a bold design change, where Tanner instantly transports himself into the bodies of other drivers. As a positive, it saves time from having to walk on foot and carjack. On the questionable side, it’s a rather fantastical feature.
What We’re Seeing Now: The Driver series has had a habit of drawing inspiration from '60's and '70's car chases and the cinematic aesthetics that came with those films. Based on the hour I spent with the game, Driver: S.F. doesn't go overboard with that look, but it still remains slick. The cutscenes aren't bad either, pushing some areas of photo-realism, specifically with the character models of both Tanner and his arch nemesis, Jericho. While we're talking looks, the gameplay performs at an impressive 60 frames per second.
While many great San Francisco-based games have gotten away with just using the downtown and adjacent areas for the levels, Driver: San Francisco ensures that the entire city will be used, not to mention Reflection's interpretations of the nearby locales like Marin and Treasure Island. Just don’t expect any kind of Google Satellite-assisted accuracy.
If there is one aspect of the level design that stood out for me, it’s that the streets are pretty wide, which did encourage me to drive a little bit more aggressively compared to other games with urban settings. Speaking of which, there is a positive that the game--unlike the first Driver--does not have a strict multi-step tutorial on how to look like Steve McQueen in a Mustang. You’re practically golden once you figure out the e-brake, which you’ll be using a lot.
I certainly couldn't fault Driver: San Francisco for being bold in its premise; an adventure driving game these days needs to stand out somehow. However, it is the most fantastical setup out of any Driver game by far. A chase accident involving a prison escape by Jericho brings Tanner into a coma. This then leads to a driving section in a dreamlike state, complete with excessive light bloom and other otherworldly visual effects. Maybe I've seen too many films where the narrative was all in the protagonist's head, but the moment I see an established dream sequence, I have a hard time trusting any subsequent scene that poses itself as "reality". Yet, it seems like Reflections wouldn’t mind my skepticism since they want me to suspend belief, which brings up the series’ newly introduced Shift mode.
So I had to do a double-take when I learned that much of Driver: San Francisco's gameplay does involve Tanner jumping into the bodies of other drivers in San Francisco. I initially thought that this was some not-too-subtle way of adding filler to the total playtime, but I was assured that many of these scenes outside of Tanner's body do have some relevancy to the main plot. If anything, many of these missions were actually fun, although the characters didn't necessarily sound or act distinctly "San Franciscan." At one point, I was part of a roving camera crew looking to capture some accidents on film. So I then jumped into the body of another car to give the camera crew what they wanted, even if it did mean a head-on collision.
We are drawn to videogames for being able to suspend belief, and so these out-of-body jumps that Tanner makes is something that many players will be able to go along with. It doesn't stop Driver: San Francisco from being wholly amusing, especially when I reached the scene where Tanner is trying to convince his partner that he does have this super power. Tanner succeeds but only after I got him into the bodies of a few road offenders.
When asked about the total playtime, I was surprised to hear how open our Driver spokesperson was in telling me that the game would only take 20-30 hours to beat, and that's including all the optional missions. Clearly, my surprise was from having too much of a Grand Theft Auto mindset. It'll be up to Ubisoft's marketing team to remind the rest of the public that Driver games weren’t meant to have 50+ hour GTA playthroughs.