Ubisoft's Driver: San Francisco—the latest addition to a long-lived franchise that I've followed fairly loyally all the way back to the original Driver, released in 1999—is perhaps the most contrived entry not just in the series, but in the entire genre of action racing games.
The story begins with police detective and expert wheelman John Tanner observing the transfer of one of the worst criminals ever to terrorize the Golden Gate city. Predictably, the maniac escapes. Less expected is that the high-speed chase ends with a major accident that puts Tanner in a coma.
This sets the stage for the game's designers to implement the novel mechanic that drives the rest of the experience. While recovering, Tanner dreams an intense fantasy in which he is still chasing his prey, but with one major difference in tactics: He (meaning we) can now "shift" out of his body and hover over the city in spirit form, watching cars crawl along below in super-slow-motion. When we find one we like we can dive down into it, instantly possessing the body of its driver, be it a civilian, a police officer, or, in some circumstances, even a villain.
The narrative, the missions, and the driving physics have all been explicitly crafted to satisfy this innovative shifting concept. It's a clear case of an entire game being designed around a single mechanic, and it would be easy to decry Driver: San Francisco for this--if only it wasn't so much fun.
The ability to shift at will into the bodies of other drivers creates a variety of undeniably original play scenarios. We can, say, leap into a vehicle a couple of blocks away heading in the opposite direction, placing ourselves in a perfect position to cause a head-on collision to stop the car we're chasing. When part of a group of cars chasing a criminal, we can shift instantly from one car to another, repeatedly leaping into whichever vehicle happens to be best positioned to ram the fleeing suspect. When engaged in team street races our objective becomes not just to place first, but to ensure all cars on our team are at the front of the pack, which requires us to keep tabs on several cars' locations and shift to whichever one is in greatest need of Tanner's expert driving ability.
The possibilities are almost as wide ranging as they are enticing.
Plus, there are no long drives between missions. Once you've finished a task you can simply leap out of your car and float around searching for new activities. The streets of San Francisco are riddled with mission icons, ranging from side story threads—such as a couple of brothers engaging in street races to earn money for college—to quick, one-off stunts. At a point early on before missions become more challenging I was pretty sure I was completing as many as three or four activities every 15 minutes. It's a satisfyingly speedy pace that makes it hard to set the controller down.
And while Tanner's fantastical antics frequently put the people he's pledged to protect at risk (though he never kills them--San Francisco's pedestrians are an amazingly agile lot), gamers with strong consciences will be pleased to know that the coma plot conveniently relieves Tanner of any potential wrongdoing. He may wreak havoc while in the bodies of civilians, smashing their cars to bits for no reason greater than to fulfill a newsman's need to capture some spectacular vehicular carnage, but since he's just dreaming everything his character remains untarnished.
Make no mistake; this game is far more sensational and arcade-y than its predecessors, which generally attempted to tell serious crime stories and deliver fairly realistic driving experiences. The story missions often have a lightly humorous vibe (when Tanner tries to convince his partner of his ability, his friend's first thought is to question what it's like to jump into a woman's body), and many of the non-story tasks have more in common with a game like Crazy Taxi than Grand Theft Auto.
But change isn't always bad. Open world car games have been popping up like mad over the last few years, so attempts to innovate in this space should be welcomed. So long as you go in expecting something that feels very much like a video game rather than an interactive recreation of Bullit, there's every reason to think fans of arcade-like driving will come away well sated.
Driver: San Francisco
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections