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Driver San Francisco review: A beautiful dream

Jordan Mallory
Jordan Mallory|September 6, 2011 12:00 PM
The Driver series has spent the majority of its twelve year lifespan in Grand Theft Auto's shadow. The original Driver may have hit consoles a full two years before Grand Theft Auto 3, but it was GTA that secured pole position in the minds of the public, and Driver has been struggling to keep up ever since. The franchise's desperate attempts to stay relevant culminated in 2006 with Driver: Parallel Lines, a game that unabashedly and haphazardly aped Grand Theft Auto in every appreciable and quantifiable way.

That was five years ago, however, and in the interim Ubisoft Reflections appears to have realized a very important and universal truth: The only way to win a game you're destined to lose is by not playing at all. Driver: San Francisco is the best Driver game there's ever been, because it is wholly and entirely true to itself.%Gallery-130909%Eschewing the darker, more violent and crime-oriented themes propagated by Driver: Parallel Lines, Driver: San Francisco returns to the life of John Tanner, ex-race car driver and undercover cop. Perennial series nemesis Jericho is behind bars after the events of Driver 3, and Tanner and his partner, Tobias Jones, have volunteered to escort the prison motorcade transporting Jericho to his trial.

"... engaging, surprising, and superbly acted, with a fantastic script that borrows more from magical realism than film noir."

Aided by a beautiful assassin who wields a rocket launcher, Jericho manages to hijack the prison truck transporting him, at which point a harrowing 1970s police chase ensues. During the course of the chase, Tanner's retro-chic Dodge Challenger is t-boned by an 18-wheeler, leaving him in a vegetative state. Conscious within his own mind, and yet unaware that he is trapped inside a coma dream, Tanner must use newly discovered psychic abilities to track down Jericho and save the city. Wait, what?

No joke, San Francisco's story arc goes from "zero" to "completely bonkers" in about 5 minutes. Tanner's ability to "shift" into and possess the body of any person driving any car, anywhere, makes for an experience that's a hell of a lot more cerebral than previous entries in the series, yet somehow still lighthearted and endearing enough to maintain the buddy-cop atmosphere. It's weird, but it's also engaging, surprising, and superbly acted, with a fantastic script that borrows more from magical realism than film noir.

The road to finding Jericho is long and arduous, however, and a lot of people scattered around San Francisco need your expertise behind the wheel. Running the gambit from Speed-esque bus-bomb blowouts, to hyper-car power-circuits that require you to finish in first and second place at the same time, Tanner's comatose journey continuously introduces new types of races and events that increase in ludicrousness as the story progresses.

Things are wildly different from the last two titles in the series when you're behind the wheel. It's still an open-world game, granted, and you can still drive any car you come across, but Tanner's method for commandeering new rides is more "out-of-body" than "get out of the car." Gone too are the superfluous weapons and building interiors ushered in by Driver 3 and Parallel Lines, which leaves San Francisco little choice but to concern itself with driving, of all things.

"If the words 'Countach,' 'Zonda,' or 'Stratos' really turn your crankshaft, you'll be in excellent company."

As it turns out, focusing on the driving aspect of your driving game results in an excellent, painstakingly polished experience. This won't mean much if you don't self-identify as a petrolhead, but the fact that the Murciélago LP640 is slightly slower than the LP670-4 SuperVeloce exemplifies an incredible and unexpected attention to detail found all throughout the game. All-wheel-drive vehicles perform better on rally stages than front and rear wheel drive vehicles, which understeer and oversteer respectively, just like in real life; even the gauges are true to their real world counterparts. The amount of effort put into minute details that will go mostly unnoticed is staggering.

People with fuel-pumps for hearts will also appreciate the massive and delightfully esoteric selection of cars available in San-Fran's many garages. Forget the fact that the Alfa Romeo 159 and Mito have never been sold stateside; car enthusiasts love Alfas, so Tanner's San Francisco is teeming with the little things. The included Fiat 500 isn't just any ol' 500 either, it's the Abarth 500, because they know that you know what that means. If the words "Countach," "Zonda," or "Stratos" really turn your crankshaft, you'll be in excellent company.

Non-petrolheads need not worry, however. The cars may be rare and immaculately represented, but San Francisco's difficulty curve is well tempered, and the actual act of driving resembles Split/Second more than it does Gran Turismo 5.

Practice and patience are required to completely master the art of car control, but achieving adequate proficiency behind the wheel takes little to no time at all. It's all correct, but not so correct that the experience sacrifices entertainment for the sake of being overly realistic.

That happy medium between realism and mysticism is what makes San Francisco feel so balanced, so polished and sophisticated. In terms of design and presentation, it is far and away the most mature game of the series, despite its lack of grit and guns. Driver feels like it finally knows what it is, and thanks to years of soul searching and experimentation, it also knows what it isn't: a Grand Theft Auto game.

Above all, the game takes being fun more seriously than it takes itself, and that attitude extends from the story mode all the way to the ridiculous, hectic and down-right wacky multiplayer modes. Vanilla racing is available online if that's your thing, and San Francisco's solid mechanical foundation translates to dramatically good vanilla racing, but nothing can really compare to the frantic joy of playing vehicular Tag with teleporting drivers.

The plot's surprising new direction and gameplay simplification measures have allowed Tanner to loose himself from the shackles of predictability and Johnny-come-lately game design that tarnished his prior escapades. Ubisoft Reflections has pruned the dead weight from Driver's branches, and the result is a pure, focused experience, unencumbered by redundant mechanics and "me too" design choices.

This review is based on retail copy of Driver: San Francisco provided by Ubisoft and played on an Xbox 360 console.