Driver: San Francisco

This started as a preview but inevitably morphed into a comparison to Driver. But to hell with it, if you’re going to return after 7 years in a coma expect some comparisons. We’ll chalk this one up as an affectionate throwback to a game about driving. They called it Driver. (In America they called it Driver: You Are The Wheelman, because otherwise how would Americans know what they had to do?)

For me, Driver always began in the same way: by breaking none of the rules. Games have long been wrapped up in extreme fantasy, the make-believe pipe dreams of teenage boys, sword waving, head-bursting, world ruling, off-screen blowjobs. Driver was cool because a couple of years after GTA sent millions of teenagers silly with its fuck-the-police (and everybody else) mentality, it was backwardly appealing to poodle about San Fran or Miami obeying the local laws. Easing off the gas for corners, maintaining the appropriate distance between cars (more so in wet weather conditions), driving on the right. But then a little eagerness with the throttle and a head-on collision with a tram and Hail Mary, the real fun began.

The tenet was a solid driving experience with little in the way – which may or may not have had something to do with technological limitations at the time. Whatever, it paid off. Driver was a game about driving and Reflections nailed it. Handling is still liquid gold today and plays deftly into the hands of the game’s inspirations – those wonderful 70s car chase movies. Flirting with disaster was the lifeblood of the experience, handbrake turning and slaloming between cars and down alleyways to avoid the iron fist of the law.

Fortunately the police were a comedy of errors waiting to unfurl – acting without regard for themselves or the civilians they were supposed to be protecting. Often careening into oncoming traffic or hurtling over summits without a thought for what might be over the crest (in the best of cases it would be a chest-high wall. The chasing police would soar over it and become stuck outside the map).

Reflections were smart enough to know that if the po-po were constantly tickling your tailpipe there’d be no room for panache so it wasn’t until you’d ran a couple of hundred red lights and left a few family sedans smouldering in your wake that they’d start getting antsy; deploying road blocks (that failed to take into account SIDEWALKS) and shunting you off the road with a brazen disregard for their own wellbeing. Gentle escalation.

So it became a game about forging your own glorified stories; stories ungoverned by shonky set pieces, intrusive cut scenes and, oh Lordy, character depth. A slice of the American Dream pasted to your bonnet and police presence swelled like a tumor leaving you to conjure up new reasons for why you were fleeing to Mexico. For true love. For FREEDOM. FOR JUSTICE! Fuck the police and fuck San Francisco. (Contrary to earlier claims.)

Following on from Driver the series lost its way in spectacular fashion; a fashion Ubisoft has strived to emulate with the Tom Clancy games of late. Driver 2 attempted to edge in on the GTA formula by allowing the player to wander about the world – with little to do in it – and Driv3r was a feral beast of appalling proportions.

But time heals all wounds, or so they say, and so here we are in the year two-oh-eleven with Driver: San Francisco furiously revving its engines to drown out the questions.

A lengthy opening cutscene introduces protagonist Tanner, his nemesis Jericho and partner-in-disaster Jones. Jericho is about to be slapped silly for heinous past crimes but, because you can’t drive cars really really fast without a half-baked reason unless your name is Vin Diesel, he breaks free. The demo doesn’t go into much detail but at some point early on in the game Jericho nestles a bullet in Tanner’s think tank (or something to that effect) and the game pans out as the fevered fantasies of comatose Tanner.

The first mission sees Tanner running amok in an attempt to convince Jones of his new fangled ability. This segues into the reveal, Driver’s gimmick. Replacing being a pedestrian is this thing called Shift where you sort of climb out of your own head and in RTS fashion move a big cursor from a Google Maps-esque point of view over any car you want to drive. Then you smash A and teleport into the car.

Now I’ve read dozens of opinions on Shift and it’s obviously a Marmite affair. From the demo I had a tough time getting behind it. Partly because I couldn’t get behind the idea that the game is largely Tanner’s comatose dream – what’s the point in anything and why can’t I have a nuclear powered mech suit made out of moon rocks with missile launchers firing giant cocks from its eye sockets – and partly because it shatters the verisimilitude every time I’m aiming a cursor over another car. Maybe you’ll like it.

More than either of those though, nowhere in the demo does Reflections demonstrate a half-decent use for the mechanic. Throughout the course of the first mission you leapfrog between Jones’ car and your own, pulling vaguely dangerous stunts to prove to your colleague that you’re a psycho lunatic with the power to rule the entire world. In the end he takes this pretty well but I managed to drive like an asshat well enough in my own car. This is purely story.

In the next mission – lifted from some point later in the game – Tanner’s helping a father/daughter team beat a couple of lowlifes in a street race. You’re tasked with securing both first and second place by switching between the two cars and counting on the AI to work the magic while you’re babysitting the other vehicle. This seemed to work out all right but also hammered home the prevailing sense that Shift seems largely pointless. A fat gimmick. Nothing was gained by controlling both cars, in fact it was mildly annoying redoing parts of the race. Throughout the gauntlet such masterful poetry as: “It takes teamwork to make the dream work” helped ensure it lasted even longer. I assume that in the actual game there’s going to be more meaningful uses for Shift but if you’re demo isn’t illustrating at least one then it’s not doing its job.

But it’s the third mission that highlights San Fran’s glaring quandary; it defies the first game’s one tenet. Cars handle like turds. Far from Drivers’ wonderfully slippery rendition of 70s movie-alike driving, San Fran’s vehicles pilot like they’re worming through the world with the carcass of a dragon strapped to the roofbars. They literally do not turn until you’ve jammed a finger up the exhaust pipe and said please.

It also has GTAIV’s mechanic of outpacing cops by driving a yard out of their circle of influence, illustrated on the map as a circular red zone. In GTA you could get out, fire off an RPG or two, slap a man into the ocean and jump into a speedboat. In Driver you just drive. On and on until you escape the 10 second cool down or are caught. But driving isn’t that much fun, at least driving the vehicles in the demo isn’t. And saying that hurts. Even after Driv3r. Even after Driv3r.

The stupid thing is I reckon getaways that actually let you utilise shift to ping between cars would be a damn sight better than the getaways in the demo. But it doesn’t let you do that. Instead you’ve got cut scenes and cardboard characters. Hooray.

The demo left me cold, certainly, but confused more. Like some sorry half-dead beast at the side of the road yearning for times gone by. Drivers’ campaign had you chauffeuring criminals, smashing restaurants for 2-bit gangsters, eventually saving the President of the United States by driving really really fast. Quick, painless, stupid, hilarious stuff that played into the hands of the great driving mechanic.

There’s too much getting in the way of the driving here, for me. It doesn’t feel like Driver. Tanner was never a strong protagonist so why such emphasis on the man now? Because GTAIV had Niko Belic and Bioware games sell? It’s Driver, I want to drive like that kid at the start of the new Star Trek film.

The snag then, as with Driver 2 and DrivTHREEer, is that Reflections seem to have lost faith in Driver. One day they’re going to look at that PS1 classic and think: damn, we half-near created the best driving game of them all. It ticked all the boxes. As an encapsulation of the wonderful 70s movies it so clearly worshipped it was basically the greatest film tie-in ever, two decades late and ugly as hell.

As a ten year old with an imagination jammed into overdrive it proved endlessly fun.

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