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Driver: San Francisco

10:2505/09/2011Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

In a thinly veiled dig at the Driver series’ ill-fated on foot experiments and its hero John Tanner, Grand Theft Auto III included a mission entitled ‘Two Faced Tanner’, in which ‘Tanner’ is described as ‘strangely animated’ and of being ‘more or less useless out of his car’. Now, whether or not the Driver developer took this face-slap to heart we cannot say, but there’s little denying that the series has been eating GTA’s dust ever since; Rockstar’s game went from strength to strength while Tanner was left floundering behind the wheel of the underwhelming Driv3r. If ever there was a time for the series to go back to the drawing board it was now and this is exactly what Ubisoft Reflections have done for Driver: San Francisco.

If previous Driver games have striven for a movie-flavoured sense of realism, Driver: San Francisco marks the point that Ubisoft Reflections removes these shackles, grinds them into a fine dust, snorts them up their collective nostrils and sets Tanner off on a flight of fantasy that is unheard of within the genre. The game’s opening also belies the game that follows; there are the usual chases, some nicely rendered cutscenes and enjoyable buddy-cop banter between Tanner and partner Tobias Jones all accompanied by much revving of engines. In short, it feels like Driver, albeit set in the blazing sunshine of a cleanly rendered San Francisco teeming with vehicles and pedestrians. It’s not before long that John Tanner’s world comes crashing down around him after a close encounter with a truck; an event that, rather than bringing his life as a wheel man to a premature end actually gives him – and the series – a new lease of life and sense of freedom.

Central to this new freedom is Tanner’s new found ability to ‘Shift’ or, to be more explicit, to leave his body, hover above the streets of San Francisco and leap behind the driving wheel of any and every car he can see. Initially, he can only float through the streets at roof-top level, but as the game progresses can fly higher and higher until he’s looking down from seemingly thousands of feet up, at which point skyscrapers become dinky match-boxes and cars too tiny to see. This extreme height is perfect for speedily nipping between missions and also proves vital in successfully completing many of the challenges in which you partake.

Shifting presents a dizzying amount of possibilities, putting as it does the entire city of San Francisco and all its vehicles in the palm of Tanner’s hand. With this, however, comes a nagging doubt that Ubisoft Reflections might have bitten off more than it can chew; that it might have traded in Driver’s original vision for a headline-grabbing but ultimately gimmicky new direction. Thankfully, it transpires that this is far from the case, with shifting merely being a single facet of Driver: San Francisco’s multi-pronged attack on the driving genre and fan expectations.

The game is broken down into a number of elements, with a core narrative holding it all together. Scattered throughout the city of San Francisco are multiple challenges that can be attempted in any order, with more missions being unlocked as you progress. The variety of missions on show is genuinely impressive – one minute you’re hopping into the seat of an enthusiastic (and slightly mis-guided) street racer the next you’re attempting to smash down bill-boards to scupper the party-spoiling plans of a rival rap-star. The full breadth of the shift power is also explored, such as missions that play out almost like a tower defence game, with Tanner nipping around the city to take down approaching henchmen intent on raiding – or destroying – armoured trucks and the like.

Underlying all of the missions is an impressive list of influences encompassing both games and movies. In terms of gameplay, everything from Burnout, Need For Speed, Midtown Madness, Crazy Taxi, Grand Theft Auto, OutRun, Chase HQ, Smuggler’s Run and many more spring to mind when hurtling around the streets of San Francisco. That – in nearly every case – Ubisoft Reflections managed to produce homages that more than competently ape the success of these influences is a testament to the care and attention that has been taken in producing the game.

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