If you’ve been following my work for a while, you may already know that my enjoyment of a video game is often largely dependent on how much Tokyo Drifting one is allowed to do in it. Up to now, the reigning champion in that regard has been EA’s Burnout Paradise, and while there’s plenty of sideways driving fun to be had there, it’s a little lacking in one of my other favorite elements, a truly insane storyline. Fortunately, Ubisoft’s Driver: San Francisco has stepped up to take its place.
I never played any of the previous Driver games, but a reader suggested this one to me (and bought it as a gift!), telling me I’d probably get a kick out of the storyline. He was absolutely correct on that front, and I ended up having so much fun going into it completely cold that I almost don’t want to spoil it for anyone and take that experience away. But at the same time, the plot of this game and the mechanics that come out of it are too darn weird and amazing to not talk about.
In terms of the basic gameplay structure, it actually is a lot like Burnout Paradise. The free-roaming city is there (no prizes will be awarded for guessing which Driver‘s is based on), and there’s the same general mechanic of having races and events tied to particular points on the map, although not to the extent of Burnout having one at every single intersection. The controls are the same, and both games feature a pretty impressive roster of cars, about a dozen of which are actually useful in the game. But while Burnout is completely devoid of a story — unless you buy into the theory that DJ Atomika is fighting a one-man war against a post-apocalyptic world of sentient cars through the medium of radio sarcasm — Driver has one that’s not only hilariously bizarre and engaging, but actually adds a really interesting element to the gameplay.
The plot is as follows: You are the generically named and generically handsome John Tanner, a loose cannon cop with an awesome 1970 Dodge Challenger and an equally awesome set of driving skills. Your nemesis, the cartoonishly evil Jericho, has been convicted for his crimes, but on his way to prison, he stages a daring escape and a car chase ensues. Surprisingly, it doesn’t end well for Tanner. He gets t-boned by an 18-wheeler, but then wakes up with the ability to astrally project himself into the body of anyone driving a car in the city of San Francisco.
Seriously: That is this racing game’s core mechanic. Astral projection. Oh, and the whole game may or may not be taking place inside Tanner’s head while he’s in a coma.
It’s honestly a pretty brilliant gameplay mechanic. Beyond just the appealing quirkiness, it’s a really great way to match that open-world setting by giving you the ability to jump into any of the 120+ different cars that the game’s stocked with to try them all out. Even more than that, though, it adds an interesting technique for all the game’s challenges. Races, for instance, can be contested the old fashioned way, but if you find yourself lagging behind, you can pop out of your body, zoom down the highway, possess the driver of an oncoming truck and ram head-on into cars ahead of you, ruining their day and giving you a quick win once all the other racers are “retired.” That’s actually the goal of a lot of levels, in fact, with the hilarious reasoning being that ramming into street racers at 130 miles per hour is a better solution than just letting them have a five-minute checkpoint race.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that for all its car-crash fetishization (another element it shares with Burnout), Driver: SF is almost completely devoid of actual violence or bloodshed. Everyone stays belted right into their seats with mildly annoyed expressions when their cars careen headlong into each other, and the good people of San Francisco are an incredibly nimble bunch that can make ten-foot broad jumps at the drop of a hat whenever you veer onto the sidewalk.
The body-hopping mechanic is one of those rare perfect elements that adds to both the gameplay and the story in equal measure. You’re often directed to possess a member of Jericho’s organization in order to get information on him, and even when you’re just free-roaming around, you’ll occasionally drop into a car with a passenger and show up in mid-conversation with Tanner trying to fill in the gaps. It’s actually pretty solidly plotted, with some genuinely great voice work by Demetri Goritsas, and best of all, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While a lot of games skew to the overly self-important style of cinema, Driver is content to liken itself to a TV show, opening up each chapter with a montage of past cutscenes and the honest-to-God intro, “Previously, on Driver: San Francisco…”
The only real problem with the plot is, as I hinted above, that it turns out that it actually is all just a weird dream that Tanner’s experiencing in his coma, and that 95% of the game doesn’t “really” happen. That does a lot to undermine the illusion that what you’re doing is important — which you may remember as huge complaints from my reviews of Skyrim and LA Noire — but it’s pulled off in a way that’s clever enough that I don’t really mind. It’s actually pretty interesting, since Jericho’s Sinister Plot continues even through Tanner’s “victories” in the dream, allowing the story to progress in a way that frustrates the characters without doing so for the player. The one major flaw is that so many of the missions are built around helping people rather than advancing the main plot, and while it’s never addressed, the subtext is that all those people were pretty much screwed without Tanner around. There’s one ongoing storyline about two brothers who get involved in street racing that has a really nice arc, but it’s never revealed what “really” happened to them, or if they were just figments of Tanner’s imagination rather than pieces of the real world that were bleeding through to his dream.
On the other hand, the fact that it is all a dream goes a long way to explaining why Tanner will occasionally find himself re-enacting the chase scenes from famous ’70s and ’80s car movies like Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds and, in the most welcome surprise, The Blues Brothers. And if you want to, you can even use Tanner’s skewed, concussed POV to explain the peculiarities of the licensing deal. Otherwise, Ubisoft is asking me to believe that a major American city has a truly ridiculous amount of Alfa Romeos driving around, and absolutely zero Toyotas.
Either way, it’s a great game, and they really did go all-out in getting all the cool, distinctive muscle cars that a movie fan like me wants to see in a game like that — I went ahead and stopped buying new cars once I’d unlocked the Mustang Mach 1, the Duke boys’ ’69 Charger and the Shelby Cobra GT, because really, why would I drive anything else? It’s a game so solid that I didn’t mind when I accidentally erased my save file halfway through and had to play the start again, and since it’s been out since last year, it’s dropped down to a ridiculously low price. It’s definitely worth picking up.