Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 3.0 GHz Pentium D/2.2 GHz Athlon 64 X2 4400+ or better CPU, 1 GB RAM (2 GB for Vista/Win7), 256 MB graphics card with Shader Model 4.0 support, DirectX 9-compatible sound device, DirectX 9.0c, 10 GB hard drive space
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
Driving games seem to fall into two camps: simulation and arcade. This division shows just how stagnant the genre has become. Just because a game’s based around cars, doesn’t mean that they have to all be so similar. Of all things, Driver: San Francisco comes along to stir the pot. After its first smash hit a decade ago, the franchise was dragged down by a series of poorly received sequels. Can developer Reflections revive both the property and the entire genre?
While hunting down the notorious kingpin Jerico, our hotshot cop protagonist Tanner lands himself in the ER. Shortly after, he’s back on the streets, seeking revenge. Not only does he recover quickly, but he also can possess other drivers at will, shifting from car to car. It’s pretty obvious that the entire game is just a hallucinatory dream Tanner’s having while he’s in critical condition. With the pesky fly of plausibility firmly crushed, Reflections can open the throttle.
In Driver SF, all you do is drive. That might seem obvious to you, but seems like a new idea to the franchise. First off, the handling is solid. It’s neither as floaty as the cars in GTA4, nor is it as tight and grippy as in Saints Row: The Third. All the cars have an appropriately weighty feel to them, and trying to fling them around corners takes a good bit of concentration. In addition, you get a boost move. Instead of a traditional nitro boost, you can slow down a bit and charge up for a boost, either to leap ahead or to ram an opponent.
And where else would you be driving but in San Francisco? The entire city is yours to rule, as you accomplish side quests and ultimately hunt down Jericho again. To use a crude analogy, it’s like a form of Burnout Paradise mixed with the mission progression of the first Assassin’s Creed. Only unlike Creed, the side missions are diverse and interesting. Also, you earn “willpower,” a celestial currency you can use to unlock and upgrade cars, making this one of the few times you can wish yourself into a new car.
There’s an undercurrent of joy that seems to run throughout Driver SF. You can feel it in the tongue-in-cheek story, the frictionless car physics, and the driving controls. Shifting between vehicles feels like a fun way to get around town, until you get creative with it. Why race fairly when you can grab a semi and hurl it into the path of your opponents? When all of this joy is blended together and poured into the open-world mold, it comes out in a cream-filled pastry that has a similar taste to Just Cause 2. It’s a happy place made out of American chrome and gasoline fumes.
I never thought that a driving game could be witty. I usually reserve that adjective for games with more plot and character interaction. Yet Driver San Francisco is filled with Quantum Leap-style exchanges, as Tanner jumps into the bodies of random drivers conversing with their passengers. Sometimes that means he’s a cop talking to his partner about retirement, other times he suddenly becomes a teen taking a driving test. It’s small details like these that make the game so gloriously fun. Driver SF isn’t just a great recovery for the franchise. It’s a fantastic game, period.