Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Game Review: Driver San Francisco

I know this is a major departure from what I usually do on California Streets, but I thought since it's a game that takes place entirely on the streets of the city where 4 out of 5 of my street sightings come from, and features a number of historically notable vehicles, it might be appropriate to do a review.

I received the PC version of Ubisoft/Reflections' Driver San Francisco as a Christmas gift from a good friend. Having watched the Internet Game Car Database's page on Driver SF in the months before its release, I was thrilled to see their list of over 120 licensed cars and a huge city that I could actually relate to.

The Driver franchise was groundbreaking back in 1999 when the Reflections studio released its first driving game. Playing as an undercover cop, you performed driving tasks in four cities: Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. It had vastly better graphics than the contemporary sprite-based, top-down driving game Grand Theft Auto - and if you could live without the pre-rendered cutscenes, it even worked without a CD! On the surface, Driver seemed simpler than GTA: You exist only as the driver of whatever car you're assigned for whatever task to take down gangs and baddies you never meet except in cutscenes and car chases. Pedestrians aren't an obstacle because they run out of the way when you come close, and can't be hit or killed like in the Grand Theft Auto series. If you smash your car, you can't just hop out of the smoldering wreck and commandeer a new vehicle, you must restart the mission. The cars' limited handling abilities ensured lots of movie-style skidding, tail-happy power slides and bouncing hubcaps. And like in most movie car chases, the cars don't usually go very fast. In fact, most of the cars in the game can't top 100 mph unless you enable a "Super Fast Cars" cheat.

Over the years, the Driver series became more like GTA, and with the advent of GTA III, that series became more like Driver with full-3D graphics. Driver 2 allowed players to get out of the car and jack another one. Driv3r was almost universally panned by critics who hated its emphasis on on-foot action and shooting, which to some degree was rightfully earned. Tanner could run, jump and swim (the latter something you couldn't do in GTA Vice City and Reflections wanted you to remember that - one of the game's Easter Eggs was an overly tanned, machine-gun-wielding character in a Hawaiian shirt named Timmy Vermicelli, who wore inflatable water wings as a symbol of his inability to swim) but his animations outside the car were poor and robotic at best. At its heart, Driv3r wasn't a terrible game and for years was on my short list of favorite driving games because it had some good cars and enjoyable driving. Its sequel, Driver Parallel Lines, had its own plusses and minuses. You don't play as Tanner, rather as a cocky kid named T.K. but the plot is slightly less convoluted than in earlier Driver releases and becomes a fairly simple revenge trip on the game's antagonists after they set you up for a murder and you serve 28 years in prison (rather than Driv3r's mission of recovering 40 stolen cars and killing several hundred nameless henchmen, bystanders and cops in the process).

Parallel Lines was a refreshing change, with two eras to play with, 1978 and 2006. Each era of New York City has its own flavor and distinct differences in the pedestrians, cars and police behavior. But if anything the cars were less realistic in their handling, and by God did I hate the on-foot action. For one thing, your character can no longer jump or swim at all. It seems that one constant with the Driver franchise is that if the studio cannot do something right in one game, they stop trying altogether. All the more reason why the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 blew Parallel Lines clean out of the water. Suddenly you had an interesting protagonist, tons of stuff to do, more cars, and a sandbox city that was fully interactive.

So after all that, we arrive at Driver San Francisco. I popped the DVD in and installed it, and was so excited to play the game I anticipated for so long. Immediately I noticed that it was more like the original Driver I grew up playing. Everything you do is in the car, except for very nicely rendered cutscenes in which John Tanner (holy crap, he has a full name!) and his cop partner Jones try to foil the crimes of Charles Jericho. The player acts out the "prologue" in which you learn how to control the car and then Tanner has a nasty accident that puts him in a coma. Thus begins the most controversial part of the game, the "Shift" mechanic. This is what makes or breaks the game for most people. If you're used to getting out of the car and stealing another one, it will seem strange to zoom out of the roof of a car and float above the roadway, able to choose pretty much any car at will and possess its driver to do whatever you need or want to do. Some players hate it; I got used to it pretty quickly.

Driver SF is an entertaining game for people who enjoy car chase movies and stunts. A lot of the missions involve pursuits, police or otherwise, and you collect movie tokens hidden throughout the city to unlock challenges inspired by famous movies. The city is stupid fun to drive in, kind of a loose interpretation of San Francisco optimized for stunts and fast driving. The streets are wider, almost every light is green, and the streets no one cares about are re-routed or omitted completely. In real life, Lombard Street is one of the longest roads in the city and begins at the top of Telegraph Hill and ends at the eastern edge of the Presidio. In Microsoft's Midtown Madness 2 (released in 2000), you could build up momentum for several blocks with the right car and launch over the famed crooked portion of Lombard. In Driver SF, Lombard Street is two blocks long and there is no jumping of the curvy bit (which itself is about 3 times larger and wider than it should be). Likewise, the bridges are too wide, especially the Bay Bridge which in real life is a double decker span with one-way traffic on each level. I suppose I can forgive things like this because the game is still fun to play without being totally true to life, and it makes battling traffic easier.

I think the greatest strength of this game is its cars. There are over 120 licensed vehicles and about a dozen more unlicensed trucks and buses. There's even an AMC Pacer. Yes, Parallel Lines had a Pacer knock-off called the Rhapsody and GTA IV: The Lost and Damned also had a Pacer knock-off which was also called the Rhapsody, but this is an honest-to-God licensed AMC Pacer. It's a terrible car but IT. IS. THERE. Likewise, normal cars like the perennially understeering FWD Cadillac DTS and dreary Chevy Impala and Dodge Caravan lend credibility (yes Virginia, the real world is full of boring cars). The chase favorites you see every drunk, car thief and redneck drive on World's Wildest Police Videos like the rollover-prone Chevy Blazer 2-door and GMC Sierra pickup are also included. The variety of supercars and classic muscle cars are also excellent, with a good range of past and present vehicles represented in beautifully rendered detail. And there's a dash view! There's something wonderful about seeing Tanner's hands gripping the steering wheel and shifting gears while you watch the door mirror flap about from your last scrape.

Where Driver SF falls flat is it's too easy in all the wrong places. Tanner's missions, while varied and having an interesting narrative in which he hunts down Jericho and his assistant (hint: it's not Calita, the associate we spent so much time dealing with in Driv3r), are too short. You do some unusual things like controlling your own car remotely from the driver seat of a different vehicle following behind, but it's all over too quickly. Even the side missions, which are often silly like deliberately scaring the crap out of a driving instructor, are over too soon. I beat the story missions - all of them - in three days. The small stunt challenges, however, are sometimes maddeningly difficult (as is the "Blast From the Past" challenge which emulates the original "Interview" from the first Driver. The Interview, consisting of a number of driving maneuvers that had to be completed in 60 seconds, was so hard for me I had to edit the game's mission ladder file to bypass it just so I could play the game's Undercover mode. Call it my Kobayashi Maru, if you know what I mean.)

There is another side to Driver SF though, and that's the other challenges located throughout the city. Races, "speed dares", "stunt dares", checkpoint challenges and loathsome "smash routes" are ways to earn "willpower", the game's version of currency. They've kept me busy longer than the story. Mind you, GTA IV took me 34 hours of playing time to beat the first time I played it through. I've since replayed the story and gotten it down to about 27 hours. It's said that Driver San Francisco's story takes anywhere from 7 to 20 hours of play to complete.

And then there's Tanner himself. Yes, the game mostly takes place inside his head, so the things you do don't affect real people. Tanner is a cop. During the course of the game this cop stops street racers by possessing soccer moms in minivans and ramming them headlong into the racers to disable their cars. And yet when you "Shift" into a cop car he lectures other cops on how to act to avoid hurting innocents. In races (what? Tanner street racing?) you have the option of cheating by crushing your opponents with big rigs instead of racing fairly. It's not very sporting, and you don't have to do it, but it calls into question some of Tanner's motives as a servant and protector of the public! But then again, it's all in his head, so nobody gets hurt. Right.

Tanner is sort of a lovable bastard, because he makes some genuinely funny sarcastic quips to people and there are some good exchanges with car passengers (especially when he warps into someone's body in the middle of an awkward conversation, like one in which a female cop reveals that she's transgender and talks about having once slept with the partner who was driving). One of my favorites is a woman who talks about committing an insurance scam and actually wants the vehicle to be destroyed, all the while "practicing" how to fake injuries until Tanner offers to hit her for real.

It's easy to tell that this game was made for fun rather than the seriousness of the earlier Driver games. Nobody gets hurt or dies in this game except a poor cameraman who gets dropped out of a helicopter during an introductory cutscene, and we never find out who he was or really even care. All right, there's one other guy who gets blown up in a car bomb, that's about it. Because very few of the game's events are actually happening outside of Tanner's head, there are rarely actual consequences to consider, and maybe that cheapens the experience. I must admit I was a little disappointed when the credits rolled, but I imagine that the developers expected players to spend more time doing online multiplayer games with their friends. I haven't even tried that yet.

So far, despite its flaws, I'm enjoying Driver San Francisco. We'll see if it has the staying power of other games like GTA IV.

The Good:
  • Awesome cars, and lots of them.
  • Beautiful graphics.
  • Excellent driving views with a fully rendered, accurately modeled interior for each vehicle complete with shifting animations for manual cars.
  • Much better crash 'debris' than in past Driver games.
  • Fun while the story lasts, still fun to chase and be chased through afterward.
  • San Francisco isn't perfect but is big enough to explore for a long time and is very drivable.
  • You get to explore parts of Marin and Alameda County as well as San Francisco.
  • Shift is useful and gives you some options you don't normally have in a driving game, like the ability to warp across town if you don't feel like driving.
  • In free roam, you have almost unlimited freedom to drive the way you want, provided you stay on the roads.
  • Film Director is back and allows you to record, edit and publish your driving exploits. (Driv3r had this too, but it apparently decided you didn't need to be able to publish them and forced players to use a third-party program like Fraps to rip their videos from the game.)
  • Traffic and police AI is vastly improved.
  • Music in the movie challenges is tailored almost perfectly to the mood and style of the films that inspired them. For example, the jazzy background music of the Mustang and Charger chase inspired by Bullitt is reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin's original soundtrack.
  • Different times of day are represented, as are different moods, depending on the challenge or stage in the story.

The Bad:
  • The story is too short and not very gratfiying.
  • Oakland and Emeryville, Yerba Buena and Treasure Island are included, but can't be driven through except on the highway.
  • Players are limited to roads, plazas and alleys, lacking much of the sandbox feel of the GTA series. Think more like Need For Speed, with invisible walls and such. Shifting can be a pain on highways unless you zoom out.
  • I hate smash routes with a passion.
  • Completing missions unlocks cars and abilities, however you still have to spend your willpower credits to actually buy them.
  • You cannot modify cars owned in your garage, not even to choose the paint color. You get a random color each time you use it.
  • No day/night cycle or weather during free roam.
  • "Thrill Cam" sucks hard for driving. Rapidly (and randomly) changing viewing angles that diminish the player's forward visibility are what Film Director is for; don't even bother unless you like driving slowly or crashing a lot.
  • Pedestrians are silly and literally slide out of the way if you come in contact with them before they can complete an evasive animation. No ragdolling peds here for fans of GTA IV or even Garry's Mod. Parents may consider this a plus for younger players, and it helps account for the game's Teen rating in the US rather than Mature.
  • In free roam, cops only chase you if you hit them first.
  • The unlicensed "ASYM Dessayne" sedan and cop car, as well as the 1974 Dodge Monaco cop car, are unplayable.
  • Not enough variation in traffic (granted, that's asking a lot of a game that requires fewer system resources and much less disk space than GTA IV).
  • No cable cars! The original 1998 Driver had moving cable cars in San Francisco. This has the tracks present in the streets, but the famous cable cars and electric trolleys are missing.


  1. Gosh I remember playing Driver one weekend and remaining hooked for a month until I discovered a racing game called TOCA 2 that had me hooked for a good year or so. Amazed that the Driver franchise is still running, I remember the cars were absolutely abominable to drive and it took ages to pass all the tests before playing the game properly. I'll have to see if our resident teenager knows about this latest version :-)

  2. I loved ToCA 2 as well. Got it from my youth pastor years ago and played it many times! I also enjoyed ToCA Pro Race Driver and played that to death, literally until something corrupted both the game files and the install CD. :(
    My favorite thing to do was put a full grid of '69 Charger R/Ts on a NASCAR track and watch the AI drivers lose control and end up stuck at the bottom of one of the high-banked curves trying in vain to power straight up onto the track.

  3. Check out the Driver Madness forums if you want to know how to get the ASYMS and Monaco squad car.