One could argue that fans of the Driver series have had something of a roller coaster ride over the last 13 years. From the ground breaking highs and critical acclaim received for the first Driver instalment on PS1, to the embarrassing and broken mess that was 'driv3rgate', via the opinion splitting Driver 2 and the entirely forgettable Driver: Parallel lines. It's fair to say, that ardent fans of Driver games are true fans indeed. It's been a while since the series' enthusiasts have had a chance to grab central protagonist 'Tanner' by the shoulders and in recent years you could be forgiven for having had your head turned. After all, the variety and quality of racing games available across the current-gen formats is surely more impressive and expansive than ever.
So when Ubisoft announced that they would be wading back into the murky water of Driver's lineage by taking it back to where it (partly) all began it's fair to say that, not unlike San Francisco weather, the reception was slightly foggy.
You play as detective John Tanner, covering San Francisco's slanted gradient. Arch nemesis (and old foe) 'Jericho' is behind bars but he's not sticking around. An elaborate prison break, with the help of a few friends means that San Francisco's streets are going to need saving once again. Jericho, it emerges, has his sights set firmly on turning the inhabitants of the bay area into toast, if he is afforded the chance.
It's eminently clear from the outset that Driver presents itself well. The cut scenes are delicious to look at, even though a rocket-propelled grenade from a news helicopter to engineer the afore mentioned prison break is a little far fetched. It doesn't matter though, the rhythmic, energetic yet soulful soundtrack steers you coolly into the rustic, grainy San Francisco Bay area.
There are few flaws here. FMV sequences and in-game play interchange like snow on ice and the learning curve is just as smooth. After a chaotic opening, we burn rubber hand in hand with John Tanner, learning the tools of his trade, with a few welcome surprises. Driver is keen to engage your nostalgia, which is no bad thing, we should be glad to come back to San Francisco after so long away. The City is bustling as always and its peaks and troughs make for a pleasant back drop. Driver does a great job of reminding you that it is still Driver but is just as quick to pull rabbits out of it's hat.
Driver: San Francisco, unlike any of it's predecessors, allows you to jump from car to car with just a quick button combo. Pressing 'a' (360) or 'x' (PS3) will fly you free from your motorised shackles and float your view high above the sprawling metropolis. Pointing the left analogue and re applying said button will bullet you into an adjacent vehicle of your choosing. As events unfold further, you're required to make better use of John's new found abilities by exploiting higher heights, jumping you streets, rather than feet away. The theme grows with the game, by the time the story reaches it's hyperactive peak, you'll be able to negotiate the entire bay area in seconds from mile high club altitudes.
Behind the wheel there's plenty more neat new features, pushing up the left analogue will give you a speed boost and holding down the left modifier will charge a ramming meter, designed to take out your nearest nemeses. These skills can all be upgraded by completing missions, whether central to the story or sub missions. Generally they are non-essential but hugely beneficial, not only will they unlock new vehicles but they grant access to further upgrades to your new found skills. You can also fund your purchases through in game currency. Every near miss, drift or completed mission will fatten up your bankroll, the top right hand corner of the screen tracks your cash clock and there's no upper limit.
It's one of the many great incentives Driver provides you to just keep playing. As one mission ends, you're left floating above the city with San Francisco as your oyster. To scroll to the next story based mission across the landscape can be laboured at times but, oddly, this serves the experience well. More often than not, you'll find yourself sidetracked from the main event to waste a few minutes nailing a cheeky jump or burning off the local constabulary.
The map is dotted with assorted blue icons wherever you look. It feels as though, if a detour to take you away from the central plot thread was needed, one can be found effortlessly. There are challenging missions aplenty, it's not to say Driver: SF is an easy game but if it's ever getting too much you can change up your experience with a quick handbrake turn and speed boost down another street.
Driver: San Francisco's game modes are truly expansive; chases and mass chases, involving running from the Feds. Dare, encouraging completion of high speed challenges or jumps. Races, from point to point, via a set path or through your own chosen route, as well as 'shift races' where you command the destiny of two vehicles alternately, with a view to finishing first and second in your given race.
There are unlockable 'movie challenges' too. These are a gem in an already glowing game, collecting ten movie icons, dotted around the map at random, will unlock a specific challenge. Upon entering this mode, all mod cons are removed and it's time to get old school. Everything is strictly 'Seventies' from the car you drive to the boys in blue that chase you in their nostalgic, periodically accurate fuzzmobiles. The funky 70's backing music and the faux film grain on screen are lovely, but stripping away the frenetic car hopping and speed boosting does just as much to tip it's hat in acknowledgement of where Driver began. Scores are logged instantly with online leader boards in what proves a nice bridge for the reluctant on-liner.
Driver: SF is so well presented it hurts, every car we drive is fully licensed and there is no generic handling model present. Every car has it's own way of behaving while not being so niche that the more arcade oriented elements , such as boosting, ever feel misplaced. An Aston Martin DB9, for example, will feel no more relevant than it's rustic sibling the DB5, it may handle better and feel a touch speedier though.
We are treated to flashy cut-scenes too. At intermittent points throughout, Driver: SF will throw stylish '24' style recaps of key character and plot developments, set to yet another slick seventies groove.
The story recaps are very well done indeed. It's a shame though that the story is such a bizarre and convoluted affair. Post prison break, Tanner's world is thrown into internal combustion. The off shoot for you, faithful Driver lovers, is that we slip between fantasy and reality in a way that makes itself apparent almost immediately but never commits. Frustratingly, it takes John Tanner nearly the whole game to figure out what was apparent to everyone else from the start.
To be more fair the story is flashy, funky and fun yet delirious and draconian. “Madman intends to gas San Francisco” was done some time back.
Shaky story aside, there are few reasons to gripe at an otherwise fulfilling and challenging game. Driver: SF supports local split screen play with a friend as well. It's the only mode that seems to experience slight slowdown, however it should be praised for its inclusion nonetheless. The online play in Driver: SF is another pleasantry, a genuinely varied and enthusing selection. Trailblazer, where we follow behind a careening vehicle while shovelling other players out of our way. Tag, essentially an automotive capture the flag with no bases. Jump, where we jump stuff, and you can race an free roam too. If you find a group online you like, you won't be booted after each race or 'best of' series. We got to hang in there for instant shots at revenge after yet another second place finish until we were, voluntarily, ushered back to single player amid feelings of tedium and inadequacy.
Never mind though, online progression is every bit as rewarding as single player. You level up with every race or challenge you finish, and you're rewarded with further game modes to tackle as you climb that well greased, online levelling ladder.
Driver is most definitely back and San Francisco is the place to be. It's fast and ferocious yet stylised and sentimental. You should sweep aside the brevity and insanity of the story and instead contemplate the sheer scale of the awaiting world. Hours of replay value lie ahead with a wide range of licensed vehicles and upgradable abilities that cast you on asphalt streets, extensive as you dare to make them. Driver: SF is a faithful, gas guzzling, nostalgic cruise that should be experienced by fans both old and new.