Driver: San Francisco review
Deep in a coma dream, Tanner floors his imaginary gas pedal and begins the chase. The suspect in the red SUV desperately weaves in and out of traffic, but if he’s hoping the risk of civilian casualties will keep him safe, he’s in the wrong car chase.
Tanner may not yet realise he’s lying in a hospital bed, but that doesn’t stop reality being his subconscious’s bitch. As the suspect hits the freeway, Tanner becomes a floating, ethereal spirit, possesses a truck driver coming the other way, and turns his truck into a high-speed battering ram.
And later, things get a bit odd.
Driver: San Francisco is one of the weirdest driving games ever, in the best possible way. It’s Life on Mars turned into a wheelman’s wet dream. Tanner’s ability to shift between cars at will takes what was previously a straightlaced series and makes it constantly fun, funny and chaotic. In the main story missions, it’s treated as a superpower that only Tanner and his partner are initially aware of. In side-missions, it’s cheerfully abused to hand out such objectives as coming first and second in the same race, helping a femme-fatale evade the cops and turning dangerous driving into a televised artform.
Tanner’s enthusiasm for all of these is infectious, and the fact that he’s temporarily possessing drivers instead of simply their cars makes for great in-game chatter from other terrified passengers. For instance, to convince his partner, Tanner torments a boy-racer by leaping into him and forcing him to smash into cops and leap off moving car transporters. Another couple of missions are about scaring people to the point of heart-attack through high-speed insanity. If all this wasn’t openly presented as a dream, Tanner would be the biggest dick this side of Saints Row 2. Instead, you can enjoy the ride, guilt-free.
It can be a bumpy one though, especially on PC. This isn’t a great port, starting with the fact that it quite obviously is one. Graphically, it’s unimpressive, and with no real options beyond switching antialiasing on or off. The biggest annoyance, however, is that the controls are designed for a controller with analogue sticks, and trying to play with keyboard and mouse is a recipe for insanity. You’re also stuck with Ubisoft’s DRM, which demands an online check when you fire the game up, though at least it lets you play offline after that.
Even with a controller, the actual driving is usually mediocre, with poor handling in most vehicles, and very rubber-banded races. Rarely do you come across a particularly difficult mission. This keeps the story humming along, but makes the occasional spikes all the more noticeable when they do show up.
Without its shifting element, Driver: San Francisco would be enjoyable enough mediocrity, but nothing special next to other driving games. With shifting, it’s one of the most enjoyable racing games in a very long time. Gimmicky or not, there’s a gleeful purity to Driver’s action, from its lack of gun battles and on-foot action, to the way it soon convinces you that magically weaponising oncoming traffic can be as natural as a handbrake turn. That especially is a hell of a trick.
Hardly the drive of your life, but easily one of the most memorable – and a great one-time gimmick done well.