Backlog Reviews: Driver – San Francisco

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4 months between completing games, after setting myself a strict game finishing regime, might seem like a long period of time. Because, well, it is a long time. In my defense I can point to two very good excuses:

  • The Witcher 3. It’s bloody huge.
  • Rocket League. It’s bloody addictive.

Those two behemoths have taken up most of my time. It didn’t help that second my backlog schedule would bring me face-to-face with UPlay, something PC gamers have informed me would be about as enjoyable as teabagging a wasps nest. Being a console player for many years my Ubisoft gaming experience would involve 2 steps:

1) place game in DVD tray

2) take back out a few hours later after getting bored of the same few game systems they’ve been relying on since the first Assassin’s Creed game.

It was a good system that worked nicely. But I’m a PC man now, so when I finally tried to have a stab at Driver: San Francisco one drunken evening I discovered I’d have to make a UPlay account, try to sign in with said account, not receive my email to confirm, start over, eventually get past the UPlay part to the game, realise I hadn’t copied the unlock key (Steam asks me to do this all the time but had only ever been bluffing until now), unlock it, find out the game needed patching etcetera etcetera et-bloody-cetera.

I can see why PC folk got mad at this. It is a bad system designed by malevolent beings. And it meant I just plain gave up on that first booze addled attempt. But eventually I got through the needless guff and got to the game.

And to cut a long story short: I’m glad I did.

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Driver was always an odd series. It traded on the ideal of participating in the ultimate car chase – putting you behind the wheel in your own private Bullit or The French Connection. The selling point was not in the original chase as you play it but the ability to hack together a film of your exploits for your viewing pleasure. The trouble with this was a) the actual driving was so janky it was impossible to look good in, so you’d usually be watching a highlight real that was more You’ve Been Framed than Starsky and Hutch and b) although the graphics weren’t bad for their day no passer by would mistake them for the fantastically cool look of the 60s and 70s flicks they sought to emulate.

It was never the biggest selling franchise and was pretty much dead by the time the last-roll-of-the-dice weirdo gambit that is San Francisco came around. It’s a bizarre left turn that may have been the final nail in the series’ coffin. But for all it’s flaws San Francisco made good on the original’s promise, though it took a decidedly strange route to do so.

The first weird choice is to go heavy on the plot. The central game mechanic – being able to switch between any vehicle on the road on the fly – is so out there it might have made more sense to eschew a story altogether. But instead they go in big with a beautifully rendered opening cinematic depicting the escape of a convicted criminal boss (Jericho, the closest thing the series has to a main villain) and in the ensuing chaos the car crash that puts our protagonist – John Tanner, returning to the series after being sidelined since Driv3r – in a coma. It doubles down on the 70s aping aesthetic of the earlier games – all stylish comic-book-esque screen panels, buddy cop dialogue and a brilliantly rampant funk soundtrack. But it’s hampered by the in game graphics being a significant step down in fidelity from the cut scenes – there are moments where it cuts back and forth between the two which shows up just how rough it looks. It feels like playing a PS2 game at times.

By the end of this intro-come-tutorial we’re introduced to the games main gimmick. Following the accident Tanner finds himself back behind the wheel as if nothing happened and being haunted by eerie billboards and the murder of crows that follow him around. Eventually he discovers he can jump into people’s bodies and take control of them. But only while they’re in a car. This rather awkward set up is actually perfect for the open world driving game – while Tanner is shifting between bodies in his coma dream it allows us to switch to side missions, the sub-plots of the other San Francisco residents, without having to shoehorn in extra curricular stuff for Tanner to do. It allows it to elegantly sidestep the Grand Theft Auto problem of having the protagonist have to spend quite so long doing errands for random people rather than getting on with the central plot. Instead you have a whole city of stories to play with.

Ubisoft Reflections don’t deal with the other open world problem of an excess of extraneous, pointless and downright not fun extras being littered across the game worldThere are more stunts, races, collectibles and other side guff than any sane person would ever go through. I’ve often wonder if Ubisoft actually hate completists and enjoy putting up endless elaborate hoops for them to jump through in their quest for that pointless 100%. But then again maybe it’;s churlish to complain about extra content, as perfunctory as the majority of it is, especially as the main quest can be played through without having to pay attention to any of it.

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In the main action the game is a great deal of fun. The ‘shifting’ mechanic accentuates the best part of driving – which is, lets face it, crashing – while eliminating the boring moments where you have to sort yourself out afterwards. Take the race missions for example. If you botch a corner and find yourself facing the wrong way you can leave the AI to correct your mistake while ‘shifting’ into cars among oncoming traffic to try and take down the race leaders with head on collisions, or slide buses sideways into their path, blocking the road to slow down the whole pack and give you a chance to get back into the race. When you’re losing badly this can lead to frantic moments of switching to any likely vehicle in front of the other racers and trying to destroy them or at least disrupt them long enough to take the lead. Whenever you mess up that’s fine – there’s always more traffic.

It takes a while for the game to sell this idea to you though, while in the meantime bending over backwards to make it fit the plot. Which it just about does, but by the time the game says, “ok, we cool?” and lets you really have fun some might have given up on it. And whilst some parts just about make sense if you squint and tilt your head a bit – I’ll just about buy that Tanner is ‘levelling up’ by gaining control over his new found powers – it struggles to explain a lot of the usual gamey filler on display. You can buy and upgrade cars, for instance. In a game where you can control any car. While the protagonist is dreaming in a coma. I’ve no idea.

But it at least knows it’s silly and plays it fairly camp. The opening suggests it might be aiming for dark and gritty but it quickly doubles down on it’s 70s buddy cop aesthetic, complete with, “previously on Driver: San Francisco” between chapter recaps and some decent back and forth between Tanner and partner Jones. And despite the central crazy coma dream conceit it’s a well written and enjoyable plot – it twists and turns nicely towards the inevitable bravura car chase sequence finish. However, despite having history in the series. Jericho is a disappointingly under-cooked villain for all the time you spend chasing him – there are some showdown sequences towards the end that could have developed the Tanner/Jericho enmity into something interesting but it never quite happens. And there are a few too many shoddily thrown together ‘one-off new mechanic’ missions towards the end to try and ramp things up.

But it at least has strength in it’s core conviction not to sell out it’s ending and let the finale play out as a pure car chase with a suitably rousing climax. The sampled Thin Red Line speech (that some may know better from Explosions in the Sky’s “Have You Passed Through This Night?“) that accompanies the final moments might have seemed a bit OTT but I went with it – it had done enough to rope me into it’s comic book world – in which a cop who is decent at driving fast can save a city from a criminal mastermind with no skills of particular note – that a ridiculously overwrought coup de grace seemed apt.

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It helps that the use of music is spectacular throughout – feeling good while driving requires well chosen tunes and Driver: San Francisco does not disappoint. Powersliding to The Dirtbomb’s Chains of Love is something everybody should experience. And it’s self aware enough to question itself when it gets too silly. Tanner’s coma dreams of chasing down the big bad criminal may be a power fantasy but the game knows it and calls him on it frequently. And Jones acts as moral conscience when his myopic obsession with Jericho leads to people getting killed. Though it must be said the central conceit of using other people’s cars (and indeed other people) as weapons is never questioned. It might all be a dream but this seems like a pretty monstrous way to conduct police work. Even if in in the ludicrous world of Driver it’s not only fun – it’s kind of funny.

Driver: San Francisco was a bold ‘shift,’ as it were, for the franchise that created, despite it’s bloat and it only just holding together at times, the best Driver and probably the best narrative driven driving game there’s ever been. Not that there’s a great deal of competition for that title. But I could definitely stand to see some more of Tanner and Jones, even if it would take some serious narrative bending to get the shifting deal working again. At the very least I’d love to see more of these AA left turns in gaming. But then for most people games like Driver: San Francisco are the definition of a ‘pick it up on sale’ game – or a rental game back in the day – a model which is sadly not really viable for any publisher in the long run. If even your fans aren’t willing to stump up full price then you’re in trouble. I’m as guilty as anyone: I picked this up for some obscenely low price in a Steam sale myself. So perhaps I can’t complain too loudly that curios like this don’t come around too often anymore, and that Jericho is likely to stay behind bars this time and won’t need me to complete another set of barely coherent, funk-powered, crash-heavy driving missions to be brought to justice again.

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