Driver: San Francisco Is All In Your Head - Review

By Mitch Krpata in Reviews
Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm
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Driver: San Francisco's hero, Tanner, can teleport between vehicles at will.
With some games, there's a constant battle between your head and your heart. My head told me that Driver: San Francisco was a well-designed game with a clever conceit and the technical chops to execute on most of its ideas. My heart - well, my heart kept reminding me of another racing game I played recently, one that shared a lot of the same ideas, but did so with laser focus and stunning presentation.

Time after time when I loaded up Driver: SF, my heart kept asking me: wouldn't you rather be playing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit?

Let's start with the good stuff. Driver: San Francisco contains one idea that is so clever, it's hard to believe nobody has thought of it before. Thanks to a silly narrative framing, in which the entire game is taking place inside the head of a comatose San Francisco cop, players have the ability to shift into any vehicle on the map at any time. You'll be driving down the street in one car, press the A button to move into an overhead view, and then target any other vehicle you'd like. Press A again, and boom - you're in the seat of that car.

Not only is shifting an intriguing idea, but it demands that you reconsider your ideas of how a racing game ought to work. It isn't enough simply to chase after your quarry. Instead, you can leap ahead of them, take the reigns of a fuel truck, and jackknife it across the road to create an impenetrable barrier. Then shift into a pickup truck and smash it into your prey. Easy as pie.

Shifting works pretty well in single player. It's even better in multiplayer. Driver: SF's array of multiplayer modes are never better than when they emphasize shifting. The best, Tag, has one player as It trying to avoid being touched by the other players, who are shifting into oncoming traffic and trying their best to tag him head-on. The action turns into a mess of pile-ups all over San Francisco, with thunderous lightning strikes indicating that another player has shifted into a nearby vehicle. There's nothing else quite like it.

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The single-player campaign does a good job of varying mission types.

The single-player game does a good job of varying mission types, so it's not all races, not all takedowns, not all escapes. Yet nearly every mission, no matter how minor, for some reason needs to contain a jabbering passenger, and a tortured storyline that ceases to be interesting by the time you've driven a block. You have to wonder: does a racing game really need a storyline? Isn't a premise enough?

That's one of the many things that had me reminiscing about Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. There was no narrative in that game, only the premise. You are either a cop or a racer, and you need to either bust the racers or escape the cops. From that, you had all the information you needed, and every single race was a wild, unpredictable drama. Because Driver: San Francisco has an involved storyline, every mission, necessarily, has to end the same way. And while some of the details along the way might be your own, you don't get the sense that you're helping to write the story.

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The cars in Driver: San Francisco look great, but handling is suspect.

Ultimately a racing game succeeds or fails based on how the cars handle, and in all my time with the game I never felt like I had the hang of it. Every vehicle fishtails mercilessly. Because the boost command is mapped to the analog stick (you push it upward), it's easy to accidentally trigger it, which wouldn't be a big deal if it didn't run out so fast. And a ramming maneuver just doesn't feel tactile enough. All of this is a little odd since the all the supporting characters keep saying, over and over, how godlike your character is behind the wheel. It's not reflected in the action.

Driver: San Francisco is certainly miles better than the previous entry in the series, Parallel Lines. For its innovative multiplayer modes alone, it's worth a look. But it's perhaps too clever for its own good, and so hung up on high-concept ideas that it forgets to ground itself in tight, white-knuckle driving. It doesn't make your heart race.

The Official Verdict: 3 out of 5

This review based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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