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The first Driver to arrive on current-gen consoles may well be one of the best in the series so far...
If we’re being honest, we probably weren’t expecting much from the Driver franchise. With Driv3r sporting more bugs than your average rainforest and the follow-up, Parallel Lines, failing to deliver much more than an economy class GTA experience, no-one was really giving it much thought. When we made the leap to the current generation of consoles, we weren’t anxiously anticipating another instalment in a series already running on empty. And so, when the Driver San Francisco press releases began circulating, they were met with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for the announcement of a new National Lampoon’s film.
But then, something odd happened. Following press events, there were whispers of something a bit different. A bit clever. And more than a bit good. And you know what? The whispers were right.
Taking place only a few months after the events of the much-criticised Driv3r, this latest instalment begins with Tanner’s nemesis Jericho imprisoned in San Francisco. Ever the fiendish master criminal, Jericho engineers his escape as he’s being transported through the streets of SF. Tanner, one of those 80s style cops who relies almost entirely on hunches, predicts trouble and luckily is nearby when the shizzle hits the sizzle. A car chase ensues and Tanner is involved in a serious collision which leaves him comatose with a nasty looking bruise on his nose. The majority of the game then takes place in Tanner’s unconscious mind in what is quite a hefty nod to policeman-in-a-coma TV serial, Life on Mars.
And, surprisingly, Reflections has handled the story pretty damn well. While you shouldn’t expect BAFTA material - there’s a lot of the wise-cracking hit and miss humour we’re so accustomed to seeing in games - there are also a number of nice narrative touches that make the game’s storyline pretty interesting. For one, it’s presented as a kind of action TV serial, complete with “previously on Driver San Francisco…” recaps when you start new story missions and a voiceover/evidence board at the end as Tanner attempts to piece together the puzzle and discover what Jericho’s up to. Sure, these are simple, subtle little devices but they all contribute to a decent single-player game that you’ll want to see through to its conclusion. But, of course, the most impressive aspect of the narrative is that it sets up the game’s primary new feature: shifting.
See, because Tanner’s all unconscious and that - and this whole tale is taking place in his noggin - he can break the rules of physics a little. What this means is that at almost any point in the game, you can leave Tanner’s body behind, float up into the sky of the game’s open world and choose to inhabit the body of another driver. This not only allows Tanner a significant advantage in investigating Jericho, but it also opens up a variety of City Missions to complete. City Missions are basically your side missions in Driver San Francisco and you’ll need to complete a couple to unlock the next episode in Tanner’s story.
And Reflections has cleverly made sure that there’s a fair amount of variety on offer in the City Missions. With races, police chases, stunts and more, the City Missions rarely feel like a chore, but the nicest touch is that, throughout the single-player game, you’ll encounter the same characters at different parts of their own stories. There are the street-racing brothers, for example, attempting to earn enough money to pay their way through college; or the beleaguered TV stunt show camera crew, constantly under pressure to find (or engineer) some good footage for their show; or the two cops who take it upon themselves to rid the city of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. It’s a smart way to keep the side missions interesting in an open world structure and they’re often as engaging, both in terms of narrative and gameplay, as the story missions.
But the impact of the shifting mechanic doesn’t stop there. Because you can do it at almost any time (a few missions prevent you from shifting) it opens up a whole world of options to the player that allow them to get a little creative with their driving. In a race for instance, rather than simply concentrating on your driving, why not make things a little difficult for your competitors? Perhaps you could take control of some oncoming traffic and try to take them out of the race, or maybe you could find yourself a whopping great truck and park it across the road, hit the rearview button and watch the carnage?
It’s a wonderfully subtle and inventive system and you sometimes forget that you have it at your disposal, only to think things through for a second and have a “Eureka!” moment. Reflections is clearly quite proud of the mechanic too, showcasing it in a number of shift-crucial missions. While some may bemoan the game’s lack of on-foot sections, I’d argue that the shift mechanic offers so much more to the player and is a genuinely impressive addition to the series. And, let’s face it, it’s not as if the on-foot sections in previous Driver games were any good, is it?
But, of course, all of this praise for the shifting would be for nought if the driving gameplay wasn’t up to scratch. Luckily, Reflections has managed to craft a driving model that is both solid and will feel distinctly familiar to fans of the series. Car handling in driving games tends to be the boniest of contentions and, gauging response to recently-released demos, opinion seems to be divided. Some may argue that the cars are too geared towards oversteer and drifting, and that it’s all a little forgiving (allowing you to pull off some ridiculous manoeuvres), but this is a Driver game after all. This isn’t about hitting apexes and shaving milliseconds off lap times – this is about weaving through oncoming traffic at 100+ mph, sliding sideways through corners and enacting your 70s cop show fantasies. And Reflections has done a bang-up job with the handling in this writer’s opinion. When you consider that this is all happening at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, you have an adrenaline-fuelled driving experience to deal with.
If this is all sounding a little too positive for you fans of disappointment (read “British gamers”) there are some annoyances to be found in the game. Some of the mission checkpointing seems a little inconsistent and you’ll frequently have to replay sections of missions so many times that you can memorise the dialogue. Also, while it’s nice to see licensed vehicles in a Driver game for the first time, you get the feeling that a little more work could have gone into making their respective handling models unique. You might also find yourself thinking that San Francisco ought to look a little prettier than the soft focus, hazy offering that Reflections has crafted (well, I suppose it could be the famous SF fog). But it’s safe to say that the good dramatically outweighs the bad in this latest Driver and perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game is its longevity. In the single-player game, as well as the story and city missions, the game map is also littered with driving challenges (or Dares) which will test your skills even further. And there are the collectibles which unlock a series of film-inspired challenges like the Mustang chase in Bullitt, for instance. And, of course, Director Mode returns allowing you to craft some tasty replays of your driving prowess. Or, in my case, lack thereof.
But it’s the game’s multiplayer modes that will keep you coming back to San Francisco and it’s all credit to the developer that it has ensured the game’s USP – the shift mechanic – remains central to the fun in multiplayer. With a wide variety of game modes on offer (we were sadly only able to try Tag and Trailblazer) there’s a lot to appeal to the online driving fan and shifting adds a new dimension of chaos to the standard competitive driving experience. Creativity is the name of the game and, from just a few minutes online with the game, you’ll witness some fiendish attempts to ruin your race and an awful lot of crunching metal.
Somehow, it seems as if Reflections has managed to achieve the impossible with San Francisco – it has taken the Driver franchise back to its roots whilst also pushing it forward into new territory and the result is undoubtedly the most complete, polished offering in the series to date. Tearing through the streets of San Francisco, forcing your car into manoeuvres that it probably shouldn’t be able to do with the knowledge that you can hit X and take control of another car at any time is just as fun as it sounds.
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