Thursday 17 January 2013

Driver: San Francisco

Well isn't this a staple of originality.

Driver: San Francisco, built up the road by Ubisoft Reflections and released back in 2011. The most imaginative city in the world plays host to a super successful video game franchise - it's sarcasm overload, but could it secretly be a great game?

Growing up in the late 90s put you on a collision course with Driver or its sequel on the PlayStation. Considered to be fantastic from a technical perspective, both sought refuge in UK households across the country back in the day, enjoying a few months of praise before the dark cloud of indifference drifted inland. Then, out of the blue, Grand Theft Auto appeared, and we've had no reason to look back.

Driver isn't a bad game but its legacy is perhaps unjustified. Driver 2 was inevitable and Driv-three-arr should have closed the deal, but Reflections continued to keep this franchise running for over a decade, hoping to one day reclaim lost ground. For ten years it seemed like a lost cause, and not too long ago you'd be right to ignore John Tanner's latest adventure in favour of something more substantial, but now... I'm not so sure.

I journeyed to the land of Driver: San Francisco not only to acquaint myself with local video game produce, but because I was reliably informed of its brilliance. A series usually comprised of half-baked experiments and questionable design choices sees its fortunes unexpectedly reversed, with DSF not only being the greatest Driver ever made, but perhaps even a contender for the greatest game of this generation. I guess it's something to check out then!

Yes, Driver is here to right the wrongs of the past. No longer are we extending a pre-existing template with unnecessary garbage, but instead are actively scrapping core features which held the series back for ten years. It's a radical overhaul - rather than trying to out-Rockstar Rockstar, focus is directed onto... "driving", with hints taken from the brilliant TV series, Life on Mars.

Series protagonist John Tanner finds himself unconscious after a mission goes wrong, but rather than wake up in 1973 dealing with the trauma of old-school policing, he obtains the ability to "shift" into the roles of other drivers, controlling virtually any car in the city at any point in time. Guns (and legs) are no longer a stable of the experience - everything is solved by driving fast or manipulating passers-by, with head-on collisions aplenty.

And with surprisingly strong writing as well as elements of real time strategy being fed into play, there is very little to dislike about Driver: San Francisco. For the most part it stands as open-world sandbox game done right, and so is very much worthy of its price tag... yet there are perhaps a few areas of concern which are worth raising.

In Driver: San Francisco, daily life is dictated by blue and yellow markers dotted across a map of... San Francisco. Yellow markers progress the story (i.e. the crux of the game), while blue markers offer diversions for the completionists among us. Usually you're drawn towards the main quest for obvious reasons, and that'll force Tanner to take part in races, "takedowns" and escapes involving various colourful members of society. Multiple stories are hence featured throughout the experience, and it puts an interesting twist on what would normally be an emotionless city.

But should you take note of the blue markers... you'll find the side-missions consist of exactly the same types of tasks, minus any dialogue. At first glance there's nothing out of the ordinary, but invest some time into these sections and you'll begin to notice some serious design flaws. The situation highlights blatant padding - not to the point where frustration emerges, but where you question what the developers were thinking - it's a very strange setup, and one difficult to arrive at on purpose.

John Tanner's core adventure consists of roughly a dozen missions - a great deal less than your average GTA game which usually tries to make every task unique, but long enough to tell a decent story. However, to extend the distance between the opening cutscene and the ending one, a number of side missions were "upgraded", forcing Tanner to partake in irrelevant tasks for reasons not fully explained. If you only cared about the story, you'd find that two thirds of this game is optional, but armed with this knowledge you can see that much of that remaining third could have been tossed aside too.

And then things begin to deteriorate. You realise that because John Tanner's mental troubles aren't as fleshed out as Life on Mars, the once compelling story may have been a last minute addition, tagged on towards the end of the development cycle to mask the lack of game direction. You notice that not only do side quests greatly outnumber the "main" missions, but they are also often more challenging and rewarding than Reflections' chosen path, disrupting the balance of play.

What about the redundant features? There are six garages and hundreds of vehicles to unlock and buy - none of which have any practical in-game purpose than sheer novelty value (and to help with the novelty side quests). There's an upgrade system as well as unlockable extra missions, offering nothing but the promise of Xbox achievements, and hence Driver: San Francisco feels very much like a "game within a game". Many could describe it as a senseless and incoherent release awash with missed opportunities, and it really shouldn't be like this.

Scope hurts Driver: San Francisco in more ways then I dare imagine. Despite taking place in a dream world, John Tanner's mind is very conservative - it's not as wacky or thought provoking of Life on Mars' Sam Tyler - no test card girls haunting you as you sleep or strange calls from the other side. Time and weather are constants and the city is boring and predictable, and although we occasionally play tribute to the 70s and 80s, never is the series taken in crazy or bold new directions like one might hope.

Does this really matter? Perhaps not, but when Grand Theft Auto V, set to take place in (effectively) the same city in the same time period, lurks around the corner, you begin to question Driver: San Francisco's future. Exploration is kept unusually tight by invisible walls, and although many great things can be said for the studio's decision to work these boundaries into the narrative, it all solidifies the risk of being crushed by more modern competition. GTA V will be the timeless classic, DSF will be the forgettable underdog - it doesn't seem right to me.

But although Driver: San Francisco may be set to lose battles in the near future, one major feature could keep it fighting - the inclusion of licensed cars, or more specifically, the inclusion of a Squirrel favourite, the Lancia Stratos, which is just as undrivable as ever. But don't get your hopes up for a Sega Rally reunion - there are no other Lancia rally cars to fall back on - no Delta Integrales and no O37s, and big wigs like Ferarri aren't represented here at all.

Sadly the choice of cars may be an awkward one if you're not keen on American brands. British, German, Italian and Japanese (aka Nissan) manufacturers make an appearance, but are treated as second-class citizens in favour of US produce, highlighting again John Tanner's lack of imagination (and taste in motors). Likewise if you were expecting a sandbox game to break the mould and emphasise the precise and complex sciences behind driving, you'll be as displeased as ever here - each car is reduced solely to raw speed, strength and "drift", and you generally pick those with the highest values.

In a sense this is all understandable as it's a game which takes place in the United States, but that itself is an issue - with much of the history of motors (including the invention of the car and the invention of the Driver series) being situated in Europe, it's difficult to understand why we're mirroring Grand Theft Auto's (tired) settings instead of coming up with something unique. Maybe they should finish that Newcastle stage they started in 1999 - what Reflections have here doesn't differentiate itself enough from the competition, and that could make life even more brutal in the coming months.

Sadly the only conclusion I can come to is that Driver: San Francisco is afraid to venture too far out of its comfort zone. For sure it delivers far more than any Driver game before it, but the basic concepts in play were outlined by GTA, Google Maps and a variety of television shows, not by Ubisoft Reflections as it should be. Unfortunately this was prominent in previous Driver outings too which may suggest a shake-up in design teams is needed - let's hope these problems don't spill into Watch Dogs.

However, much of what I've just written is predicated on spending a great deal of time with the game. The flaws in design don't tend to be unmasked until the number of hours played reaches the double-digits, and if you've been kept busy for that long, it's perhaps not fair to complain. Regardless, this is by far one of the best games of 2011, and although Drover: San Francisco certainly isn't perfect, it's a thoroughly entertaining adventure which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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