It seems like every year there’s one racing game that captures my interest. Last year, it was the totally thrilling Split/Second. This year, somehow, it’s the latest Driver game. The Driver franchise has never been one that I cared about, save for when I heard Driv3r was starring Michael Madsen, Mickey Rourke and Ving Rhames. Even then, I didn’t really care about it, I was just confused. Why would you want Michael Madsen to star in a driving video game with a terrible title? But, by combining basic cable buddy cop antics with Quantum Leap, Driver: San Francisco demanded not just my attention, but a good chunk of my time too.
You play as Detective John Tanner, a cop who is obviously cool because he drives a Dodge Challenger modelled after the one in the movie Vanishing Point. Tanner, along with his partner Tobias Jones respond to a call that Jericho, the guy they put away in Driv3r is trying to escape prison by hijacking his prison transport truck. But Jericho gets the drop on Tanner, ramming into his car. Tanner awakens hours earlier, now with the power to leave his body and take over any driver on the road. Just like Quantum Leap, passengers don’t know that they’re drivers have been possessed, providing much of the game’s humor as Tanner tries to blend in. With his new powers, Tanner has to get to the bottom of Jericho’s evil plans and bring him in before he can get away for good.
It’s probably worth noting that Tanner, Jones and Jericho sound nothing like Madsen, Rhames and Rourke and I had no problem not knowing the plot of previous Driver games. The game makes it clear enough early on: Jericho’s bad, Tanner’s good, go play. The game’s written like a cheesy cop show and it works pretty well. It has a lot of fun with the weirdness of interacting with passengers and generally the game has a pretty light tone.
Being able to switch from car-to-car really changes the way you play a racing game. Having trouble catching up with a car you’re chasing? Just switch into an oncoming truck and smash into them. Need to be in a bunch of places at once? No problem, just pick the nearest cars to those locations. Need to find out information about a hired assassin? Just posses her driver. There’s a reasonable variety to the game, but its the innate fun of this mechanic that makes playing through Driver: San Francisco enjoyable.
This is an open world game, in the vein of Burnout Paradise. You’ve got more and more of San Francisco to drive around as the game’s story progresses and plenty of diversions if you don’t feel like spending time with Tanner and Jones. There are side missions that tell more amusing stories, like the dumb kids who end up getting involved in the street racing circuit or an angry agent who destroys the signs for the gig of a rival band. More substantially, there are tons of challenges and stunts to be completed around the city. These are simple activities, like “keep your car at 100 mph for 30 seconds” or “drift for 50 feet” but they reward you with precious income. You can use your earnings to buy cars to spawn or upgrades for yourself, like an enhanced boost ability or ramming.
There’s also mulitplayer, for what it’s worth.
Driver: San Francisco would not be much if it was a straight driving game. The driving mechanics of the game are solid, but not especially fun. The game looks all right, but it certainly doesn’t stand out. But the supernatural aspect of the game makes it unique and compelling. If I’m only going to play one racing game this year (and it looks like that will be the case) I’m glad it’s this one.