The story picks up six months after the events of Driv3r (that was the clever name for Driver 3) for those familiar with that. Once again you play as John Tanner, an NYPD detective who has finally captured his nemesis; convicted drug dealer and cop-killer Charles Jericho. In the intro Tanner watches as Jericho is transported to his new home in prison, but with the help of a couple of friends Jericho is able to gain control of the transport vehicle and attempt to escape. Tanner, seeing what is going on sets off in pursuit and a chase ensues. The result is a nasty crash that puts Tanner in a coma where he can no longer dog the heels of Jericho right? Wrong! This is where ‘shifting' comes into play.
'Shifting' is the ability for Tanner to take control of any person in San Francisco at any time. In isolation the ability seems a bit hard to stomach, but given everything is taking place inside Tanner's head while he's in a coma, you can forgive it. And as a game mechanic it's quite interesting and has many entertaining applications.
As you've no doubt derived from the title, the game is set in San Francisco. I'm not sure if it's an accurate representation of the City by the Bay but some well-known landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County and Lombard St are all in the game. Apparently there is over 190 miles of road to explore in the game, making it a sizeable game-world, but one that is still possible to learn the ins and outs of.
The main task in the game is to track down Charles Jericho and put an end to any evil schemes he's got planned. When you shift (which is as easy as pressing the X button) the camera pans back, giving you a bird's eye view of the city. On the map you can spot the yellow icons that represent story missions. There are around three to five story missions in any given chapter, and eight chapters altogether (there is a ninth chapter but it takes a different form where you don't need to complete any story missions). What that means is that if you are so inclined you could play through the game in just a few hours.
Luckily the map is chock full of blue icons representing dares (there are eighty in the game), activities (there are at least fifty) and challenges. Dares are usually simple, short tasks where you have to drive above a certain speed or pull off a particular stunt - drifts and jumps mainly, though you do get to smash stuff occasionally. Activities and challenges are more demanding, consisting of different race events, getaways and takedowns and other stuff. There are a variety of different race types from straight racing, to team racing where you have to shift between team members and get them over the line in first and second, smash races where smashing specific objects earns you more time and adrenaline races where you must keep your (or your passengers) heart-rate above a set level by performing stunts and risky driving maneuvers.
As far as upgrades go you can buy ability bar increases, recharge speed enhancements, multiplier increases, token finders and thrill cam. The ability bar refers to Tanner's ability to boost his car temporarily through something very much like a nitrous burst. It recharges over time meaning improved recharge speed gives you access to more boost. The multiplier increase earns you more willpower for your actions. The token finders help you track down the many movie tokens littered around San Francisco which in turn unlock new movie-based challenges for you. The thrill cam is akin to cinematic cameras in other driving games. It's all but unusable for general play, but it does make the game look pretty during gameplay clips.
The game features robust multiplayer options if driving with friends is more your cup of tea. Whether you opt to play split-screen with a friend or go online there are plenty of games to choose from. When playing split-screen you can choose between co-op and competitive events. In co-op there are takedown events where you stop other cars from getting away and getaway events where the shoe is on the other foot and you have to escape from the police. If you prefer competitive play you can choose between Tag, Trailblazer (stay close behind the lead car to earn points), Sprint GP which are short, technical checkpoint races and Checkpoint Rush. Checkpoint Rush is a race to be the first through one-hundred checkpoints. If you fall behind here you can shift back into the thick of the action with the push of a button, making for hotly contested races.
As you level up in Driver: San Francisco you also earn upgrades for your character. You start out with boost, then comes swap (the ability to turn any car into your car of choice), next up is impulse (which causes the target car to spin out) and then spawn (which creates a vehicle from shift). You'll also earn some ability bar and recharge speed upgrades to go along with more cars as you hit the higher levels.
In the time I spent online the game ran very smoothly and got the adrenaline pumping. There's solid variety to the game types meaning there's almost always something to suits your present mood. Some events require expert use of shifting but there are others where shifting is not an option, and thus focus more on your driving skills. While the online modes here are unlikely to keep you busy for as long as a game like Modern Warfare, you'll likely play online for at least as long as you spent on the story mode, effectively doubling the games length.
There were one or two missions I got tired of quickly, particularly the ones where you have to defend a car and take out all enemies. Even though the missions have a three minute time limit shifting slows down time which makes the missions last more like ten minutes. Ten minutes of shifting and driving head-on into cars was a little bit of overkill for me. Being really fussy I disliked the mini-map placement – it's at the top of the screen which made it hard to look at and plot a course on the fly. Lastly, during checkpoint races the checkpoints are numbered but the numbers don't stand out so often you have no idea how far through a race you are.
Graphically the game is very good – not quite A-grade, but not far off. From all reports the game runs at 60fps and it runs very smoothly. There is an occasional ‘rippling' on the screen, which looks like it's refreshing the on-screen action for you - it's not as bad as screen-tear but it is noticeable. San Francisco itself looks great from the streets to the bridges, the asphalt to the off-road areas and the business district to the docks it's a believable and varied game world. All the cars look great and can take damage unlike all the Gran Turismo's before number five. Car damage isn't totally realistic, but it does the job well enough. Plenty of times you'll notice bits of glass and other fragments go flying off a car (it was usually my own) while you're racing along which adds plenty to the authenticity of the action. Cut-scenes, like the rest of the game, are only a tick below A-grade. There aren't a lot of them in the game, but what's there is of high quality.
Overall Driver: San Francisco is an excellent game that just lacks the knockout punch to make it a must-have title. Shifting is an interesting game mechanic and it's put to clever use throughout the story and multiplayer game modes. There is a wide variety of missions (and only one or two suck), the game looks great and the sound is excellent (particularly if you select your own music). Yet somehow it never blew my socks off, and it felt like it just needed something else to tip it over the edge to awesomeness... Still, this is an excellent game and a welcome return to form from Ubisoft Reflections. If you like arcade racers then this comes highly recommended.
Review By: Michael Allison