I have very fond memories of playing the original Driver on the PS One years ago. As far as I know, it was one of the first racing games to have an actual story line, and that made it stand way above all others at the time. Never mind the fact that the fuzzy graphics made my eyes bleed, I couldn't put it down. There was something about the Starsky and Hutch-like approach to dialogue, stunt driving and 70's era Hollywood camera work that was really catchy. You can imagine my excitement when I first came across Driver: San Francisco at Ubisoft's E3 booth in 2010 and heard the promise for the franchise to return to its roots. I was a bit confused by that last part though, because as far as I'm concerned, there hadn't been any sequels since.
But what did Ubisoft mean by "returning to its roots"? For one, there's no guns or shooting of any kind. That means that all the GTA fanatics out there that only win by blowing up the competition can go back home (and/or offline) -- this one's for people who like the actual racing part of racing games. Second, and somewhat oddly, you can't step out of your car. The developers felt that this was already overdone in other games and would again detract from the racing, but we all know that being stuck in a single car the entire game, like Driver 1, wasn't going to work either.
The game needed a novel mechanic, and "shifting" is it. Not shifting gears, but shifting bodies. Detective John Tanner now has the ability to leave his meat suit, float above San Francisco, and temporarily take ownership of other drivers' bodies. All of this is explained away by stating that the game takes place in Tanner's mind while in reality he's in a coma. Sure, whatever..
The single player mode follows some fairly lame plot between Tanner and his archenemy Jericho, only the story bits occur at such large intervals that the game feels like it needs to recap the story every so often to make sure you're still paying attention. It's a shame that the story is so shallow given the franchise's origins.
Between story segments, Tanner must shift into other drivers to complete side activities, because stopping mass murderers apparently doesn't deserve his full attention. These activities often have their own mini-story and involve shifting into Keanu Reeves on a "Speeding" bus, disarming bombs on transport trucks, chasing down criminals, helping criminals evade police, and helping teens race mobsters to shortcut their way to a college fund. I can understand saving the city, but why would a police detective help petty thieves escape the cops? Some of the ensuing dialog is funny, some is cheesy, but most of it just doesn't make any sense for Tanner's character. Tanner also comes off as being really really thick, which makes one wonder how he manages to outsmart Jericho so often.
The game is especially good at spoon-feeding the unlockables, which is the only thing keeping the single player mode going. Players must complete "dares", quick objectives like driving over 160mph in oncoming traffic for 30 seconds straight, to earn "willpower". This is the currency in Tanner's bizarre brain-land, used to purchase various upgrades and cars, but only after you've unlocked them by completing the required dares and/or activities. Purchasing vehicles seems mostly pointless because better vehicles appear on the streets of San Fran as you get further through the story anyway. The only use is in buying a really good one, for your default car for dares and activities started while you're having another out of body experience.
The only time the shifting ability actually gets interesting is to shift into oncoming cars during a chase and slamming other cars head-on. It's really best not to think about the whole rationale and just enjoy it for what it is. There's plenty else to focus on, including over 200 miles of roadways, recreated San Francisco landmarks and neighbourhoods, and 120+ licensed cars with full damage models. The graphics are dated, reminiscent of Midnight Club: LA, but still very pretty. Most importantly, the racing is very good and very fun, but Midnight Club offered largely the same experience three years ago, albeit with even less of a story and no humour whatsoever. Driver has another slight leg up in that there are many dirt trails that successfully capture a rally racing feel.
What saves this game in my mind is the multiplayer, where the shifting takes on a whole new persona. There are roughly 15 game modes, most of which you might find in other racing games, but the shifting redefines how they're played. Take the Tag mode, for instance. In other racing games, you steal the tag by smacking into the tag holder's car, and then you drive away. Drive fast enough and other players have no hope of catching you. Boring as hell when you're losing. In Driver: SF, you can shift into an oncoming car and smack the smug bastard in the face. As the tag holder, you then become very aware of all other cars on the road, because any of them could become a rival. It's like the highway scene in The Matrix: Reloaded and everybody's an agent (that's actually the storyline I use in my mind to replace the awful one in the game). Thankfully, a shift is seen from other players' perspectives as a bolt of lightning striking the target car, and possessed cars have a coloured glow (blue for friendlies, red for enemies), so it's not a complete guessing game.
In addition, the mechanics of the lobby work incredibly well compared to, oh, GTA IV for instance. There's no waiting for people to be ready, and no arbitrarily selected host to select options everybody else hates. Instead, game rooms are split into categories and will alternate between game types for that category. Options like maps and vehicles are completely random, and starting positions are determined by "qualifying rounds", which are quick point grabs via such things as drift competitions, excessive speeding, stunt jumps, etc. It's also more difficult for griefers to piss off players because there are no points to be gained that way, in stark comparison to a GTA Race where you'd actually get much more points for being a dick than for driving. On that note, the fact that races end 15 seconds after someone crosses the finish line is much appreciated.
Since I think the vast majority of players will find most enjoyment out of the multiplayer, it's worth pointing out some of the other innovative game modes.
* Trailblazer: Earn points by driving in the exhaust fumes of a golden Delorean. Hilarity ensues as everybody jostles for position directly behind it.
* Classic Race: No shifting here, it's all about driving and not screwing up.
* Sprint GP: Five much faster races, where points are given based on finishing position and tallied tournament style.
* Takedown: Players take turns being the "robber" as they are chased by all other players in cop vehicles. Robbers earn points for reaching markers scattered across the map; cops earn points by smashing the robber's car. Only cops can shift, making the robber's play pretty intense.
* Checkpoint rush: Drive through checkpoints to gain points; checkpoints disappear shortly after someone reaches them so shifting is key when falling behind.
* Shift race: A race where shifting is allowed and all cars are purposely weakened to encourage it, but crossing checkpoints must be done in corporeal form (i.e. in a car).
There's also a different racing+shifting take on such familiar modes as defend the base, capture the flag, relay racing and a team-based checkpoint rush. The variety of modes plus, yet again, spoon-fed multiplayer unlockables keep the replay value decent (or high for achievement junkies). There's also an offline split-screen mode that features some of the competitive modes above and three other neat co-op game types that require both shifting and cooperation.
Ultimately, I like this game because of the open world driving, and because of the strong focus on the actual driving more than anything else. The shift mechanic is really cool in multiplayer and offers an experience you're not going to find elsewhere. Even the single player is ok; it's just very disappointing that they couldn't tie the main plot into all the other activities. Still, Driver: San Francisco is a solid and very enjoyable racing experience, and the scenery is unmatched in the racing genre.