careening at breakneck speed through downtown San Francisco, and things are
getting a bit hairy. At the moment, we’re in the driver’s seat of a ZR1
Corvette, in hot pursuit of a criminal on the loose. Traffic is heavy and
pedestrians are everywhere, which makes this high-speed chase pretty
complicated. Despite our best efforts to weave through oncoming vehicles at 105
mph, we smash headfirst into a fire truck, sending glass and metal flying
across the boulevard. Normally, our hopes would be dashed, and we’d simply hit
the “reset” button and give it another go. Instead, though, we shift
immediately into a Google Earth-style view of the entire Bay Area, spotting our
prey moving on the map. The press of a button zips out of our mangled wreck and
into an eighteen wheeler about 250 feet in front of our target. Quickly
steering hard right, a massive barrier now blocks most of the street in front
of our enemy. In another instant, we teleport out of the rig into a sweet Audi
S5 Coupe trailing our baffled combatant, and crash into him a moment after he
hits the truck head-on. Bad guy vanquished, mission accomplished.
entertaining chains of events are common in Driver: San Francisco. It’s one
thing to combine the best parts of games like Burnout, Need for Speed, and
Grand Theft Auto; it’s another to invent a new way to play a game in the tired
driving-action genre. Frankly, we thought it was impossible to come up with
something new, but the ability to “Shift” – the term Driver uses for being able
to instantly teleport from the vehicle you’re in to any other one anywhere in
the city at any time – is the sexiest new game mechanic we’ve seen in forever.
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t sound great on paper but makes perfect
sense once you actually try it. It’s also a bit disconcerting, because we’ve
been trained for so many years that there’s only one way to play driving games.
Once it stuck in our minds, though, we started to wonder if we’d ever want to
play a similar game any other way. We’re still not sure.
Francisco is like a great summer blockbuster movie (remember those?). It’s got
tons of action, an over-the-top story that manages to keep your attention even
as you roll your eyes, painfully cheeky banter between characters you learn to
like and hate, and, oh yeah, tons of action. If you’re a longtime fan of the
franchise, you already know our hero John Tanner and his arch-enemy Jericho;
these two dudes were last seen battling it out in Driv3r several years back. If
you’re new to the series, though, you can jump right in to the story without
missing a beat. Characters are quickly introduced and the plot established, and
from the word “go” it’s clear what’s happening.
broken up into eight chapters, takes place in and around a gorgeously realized
San Francisco. The city is alive, teeming with traffic and pedestrians, and
full of all the landmarks people familiar with the town will recognize. Each
chapter charges you with accomplishing several missions, in whichever order you
choose, as well as a bevy of side jobs that help earn extra cars and power-ups.
The main storyline take place as Tanner and his sidekick piece together a
mystery about Jericho. Of course, that many of these moments take place while
Tanner is deep in a coma explains how the whole “Shift” concept gets
conveniently established. You get to inhabit the bodies of cops, vigilantes,
street racers, and other assorted San Francisco characters as they go on dozens
of mayhem-producing escapades across the Bay Area. A nice variety of goals and
objectives keeps the action fresh, and thanks to Shifting, there are plenty of
ways to solve the same problem.
As the story
progresses, the real estate expands and the weirdness grows. We were never able
to get too comfortable, as the tables got turned on us several times – another
brilliant move that kept us guessing all the way to the end. There are a few
incongruities, to be sure; Tanner is a good cop who’s bent on protecting the
city, yet has no problem inhabiting the body of an innocent driver and ramming
their vehicle into an enemy he’s chasing. That’s weird. Also, no matter how
badly our Dodge Challenger got busted up, it was always bright, shiny, and in
perfect working order at the start of every new mission. These are mere quibbles,
though, with an otherwise dynamite single-player effort.
multiplayer modes are no mere afterthought, either – in fact, they’re arguably
the most entertaining online driving we’ve done in ages. There are a dozen or
so to choose from, but you have to unlock modes and options by leveling up.
Whether we were playing “Tag” (whichever driver that can remain “it” for a
pre-determined time wins, and whoever smashes into “it” gets to be “it”)
or “trailblazer” (whichever driver can
remain behind the pace car for the longest while driving at insanely high
speeds in heavy traffic), we were shocked at how well the Shift mechanic worked
in these races. Not only does it allow for an all-new level of strategy, it
completely rewrites the rules of racing online – a wreck at an inopportune time
no longer automatically relegates you to last place. Yes, there are a few
regular racing modes too, but they feel tame compared to the Shift-powered
ones. Even better, each mode (online and off) features over 100 real-world
cars. While they don’t all exactly perform as they would in Gran Turismo,
they’re different enough to get excited about.
Francisco blows our minds; it’s 100% more fun than we expected and immediately
re-establishes the franchise front and center in the marketplace. It’s not
often that a single new mechanic can reinvigorate an entire genre, but this one
does. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the wave of fall releases that’s
already upon us – it deserves your attention. You won’t be sorry.
Sep 7, 2011