Electronic Theatre In-depth Review: Driver: San Francisco

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Rating: 4.8/5 (33 votes cast)

Ubisoft’s Driver: San Francisco has had a rather publicly troubled development period. Originally intended for release back in 2010, the press demonstrations taking place shortly after the game’s official unveiling were met with a mixed response. Back to the drawing board for a whole then, but given  Electronic Theatre‘s appreciation of the build demonstrated in July of 2010, the team here are wondering exactly where that additional year of development time has been spent.

Videogames are well known for being able to tie together the loosest possible plot threads into something resembling entertainment, and pull in some far fetched details in an effort to support the gameplay mechanics. Driver: San Francisco however, prides itself on basing its core principle on one of the most unbelievably bizarre hooks ever presented by the interactive medium. The game takes place a few months after the events of the widely derised Driv3r, with both Tanner and Jericho having survived the shootout in Istanbul. Upon being transferred to a new prison, back in San Francisco, Jericho escapes custody and hijacks his prison truck. Tanner and his partner, Jones, witness this from Tanner’s car, pursuing Jericho as he causes havoc on the streets of the city. Tanner’s vehicle ends up in front of the prison truck in an alleyway, and gets pushed in front of a tractor trailer. From that point on, the events of the game will take place in Tanner’s mind as he struggles with the constraints of being in a coma.

In terms of gameplay, Driver: San Francisco starts off abruptly. While explaining this loose leaf plot the game challenges the player to pursue a dangerous criminal while in charge of a poorly balanced wagon for which oversteer is a byword. Following this, the player must take an unwieldy ambulance to the hospital within a strict time limit under the guise of your patient’s heart rate. A fine example of the challenges to come perhaps, but possibly an obstruction to progression that the game could’ve done without at this early point.

Once the player unlocks the all-important jump mechanic, things become a lot more open planned. With a simple press of a button the player will be elevated above their car, able to float around the city at will, find another car and press the same button to jump back in. Players can jump into any car they wish, unless the constraints of their current mission dictate otherwise. It’s a very interesting premise – almost worthy of the incorporation of a bizarrely ham-fisted plotline – but it does also make the game feel very empty at points. Missions are marked on the open-world map as simple icons, and players must complete a number of alternative missions prior to being able to take part in the story missions. In order to get to these missions however, the player can drive or simply jump out of their car, float to one near the objective and drive a few yards to begin that mission. This frequently results in just as much time being spent out of the car as it is driving, floating between mission locations at an awkwardly slow pace: while it may be necessary to limit the pace in order to allow precision jumping mid-mission, it would have been appreciated had the developers chosen to allow gamers to speed things up when just cruising the map.

The objective types the player is given in Driver: San Francisco follow the typical template of requiring you to complete progressively more difficult instances of the same event, but those events are surprisingly inventive at times. Lightning emblems above a car begin Tanner Missions, which vary greatly in setting and duration, and the City Missions which are less open to interpretation but no less challenging. Blue diamond emblems begin Dare Missions, which offer great rewards for completing more difficult objectives such as driving at high speed along a specific stretch without colliding with any vehicle, building or object. The rewards available for all missions – other than working towards unlocking further Story Missions = generally revolve around Willpower bonuses, but they can also unlock upgrades for your vehicles.

Willpower is the game’s currency – everything you do earns Willpower, and it can be spent in garages on new cars and upgrades, and also on buying garages themselves in order to house more vehicles. It’s a basic system that offers the player a measurable tally of progress, but pales in comparison to the similar charts of Test Drive Unlimited.

While the single-player game is sporadically enjoyable, the online multiplayer gameplay is far more successful. The player has a wide range of customisation options available to tailor their online experience, but jumping straight into the Quick Match game mode is just as viable an option as any. Here, gamers first play through a qualifying stage which offers a similar variety of tasks as the single-player missions but with a competitive edge: leave the tarmac lots, drift lots, overtake lots of cars as close as possible. Your placement in the qualifying stage affects your starting position in the main event, as well as the amount of ability bar you begin with. The ability bar is the artificial limitation applied to your boost and jump mechanics to prevent the online game from breaking. The events range from the hectic Trailblazer, in which players must sit within the golden path outlined by an AI car for as long as possible, to the Blitz mode, in which one team must ram enemy cars to prevent them from entering their base before switching sides and attacking the base in the next round. More basic events do appear, such as Tag and Capture the Flag, and the variety of gameplay modes available within the default multiplayer set-up keeps the online play feeling fresh for far longer than you might expect.

The visual quality of Driver: San Francisco is somewhat of a mixed bag. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design of the city, it’s unquestionably bland for the most part. As you progress through the single-player Story Missions, unlock new areas and specific landmarks come into play thing do become a little more interesting, but on the whole it’s quite hard to care about the street you’re on as long as it’s leading you in the right direction, or about the car you’re driving as long as it goes fast. Contrary to the gameplay presentation however, and at a direct opposite to the questionable basis for the story itself, the cut-scenes are frequently astounding. The skin textures are easily on par with the best the current-generation has offered thus far and the incidental detail is staggering.

For all the attempts at creating a solid, alternative driving experience, returning to the drawing board seemingly a dozen times, Driver: San Francisco doesn’t play any better than it appeared as though it would this time last year. It’s enjoyable in the single-player, but not exactly a top-tier production. The multiplayer is a surprisingly rewarding gameplay experience, but not enough so to be sold as the title’s key component. It’s a game that is likely to please a few eager gamers, but unlikely to surprise those not already eagerly awaiting it’s release. For all its attempts to innovate, Driver: San Francisco has ended up pretty run-of-the-mill.











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