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Friday, September 21, 2012

Backlog Review: Driver San Francisco

Ridiculous arcade driving insanity.

I picked up Driver: San Francisco during Ubisoft's $1 Gamescom promotion about a month ago. I've been itching to play a decent driving game for a while now, and for a buck the decision to pick up Driver SF was a no-brainer. Obviously the price more than justified the purchase, but was the playthrough enjoyable?

The Setup

The protagonist of Driver: San Francisco (henceforth referred to as "Driver SF" because I'm not typing that 30 times) is undercover detective John Tanner. Detective Tanner, along with his partner Tobias Jones, is tasked with hunting down an escaped convict named Charles Jericho. I haven't played any of the other Driver games (3 main titles and a couple of spinoffs) so I didn't really know any of the background coming into the game, but the story is simple enough that I was able to jump in pretty easily.

While in pursuit of Jericho, Tanner and Jones are in an accident that leaves Tanner in a coma. The next time the player is given control of Tanner it's apparent that things seem a little "off," and you soon learn that Tanner is still in a coma. In his dreamlike state Tanner discovers that he has the ability to "shift" into the bodies of other people and assume control of their actions while onlookers remain oblivious to the change.

Driver SF has a 70's feel to it and is set up like a detective show or retro car chase movie. Every time you load up the story mode you're greeted with a cutscene recap of the game's storyline--complete with "Previously on Driver: San Francisco" voiceover--which I found a fitting and pretty cool addition.

Release Info, System Requirements, and Installation

This edition of the Driver series was released on September 6th, 2011 for consoles; it made its way to PC a couple of weeks later on the 27th. Ubisoft has a history of bringing games to PC a few weeks after they're released on the console. If this means we're going to get a game that is a bit more polished and with fewer bugs than your everyday console port I'm all for the continuation of this practice. Still, it's kind of like seeing a movie 3 weeks after it comes out - you're forced to do your best to avoid spoilers and by the time the game is in your hands some of the "newness" has worn off.

The game's system requirements are pretty basic as is the case with most console ports. The installation folder on my PC is 9.63GB in size.

  Minimum Recommended My System
CPU Pentium D 3.0 Ghz
Athlon64 X2 4400+
Q6600 2.4Ghz
Athlon II X4 620
4.0 GHz i5-2500K
GPU 256 MB DX9.0c 512 MB DX9.0c 1 GB 560 Ti DX11
RAM 1 GB 2 GB 8 GB
HDD 10 GB -- --

According to the game's Steam store page, Driver SF supports the following peripherals:

Windows-compliant keyboard, mouse, wired and wireless X360 controller, Logitech Momo Racing Force Feedback steering wheel, Thrustmaster Rally GT Force Feedback Pro Clutch Edition steering wheel, Thrustmaster Ferrari GT 2-in-1 Force Feedback steering wheel, Thrustmaster Ferrari GT Experience 3-in-1 steering wheel, Thrustmaster Ferrari F430 Force Feedback steering wheel, Thrustmaster Universal Challenge 5-in-1 steering wheel.

I installed and ran the game through Ubisoft's Uplay client. Aside from the annoyance involved in using yet another game management platform, the setup didn't cause any specific problems.

Cars and Driving

If you're going to name your driving series Driver, you better make sure that the controls and car handling in the game are solid all around. I found the overall experience to be fun, but certain aspects were hit or miss.

The control setup itself is a little weird since you're managing Tanner's Shift ability alongside the traditional car controls. I played the game with a gamepad and found customization to be somewhat difficult. Driver SF is one of a handful of games that doesn't support my Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2, so I was forced to use an Xbox360 controller emulator. The game features separate button mappings for driving and Shift mode gameplay, so adjusting the settings to my liking took a little bit longer than usual.

One side effect of this setup was completely bizarre and almost had me quitting the game before I got started. I had mapped one of my controller's buttons to the "X" button of an X360 controller, and the game prompted me to press this "X" button to enter an event. Unfortunately, none of the buttons on my controller seemed to trigger the event's start. After pounding literally every button on my controller and keyboard I found out that the tilde (~) key on my keyboard allowed me to enter events and progress in the game. That one had me completely baffled for a while, and I'm still confused.

The game features full-on arcade driving complete with turbo boosting and automatic gear shifting. It always bothers me when games don't give me a manual transmission option, but there's so much else going on in Driver SF that I didn't mind the omission after a while. Cars are relatively easy to control and weaving through traffic at 200mph is satisfying.

Car handling seems a bit "floaty" and cars sometimes seem like they're rotating from a center point rather than actually turning via the wheels. Drifting is easy to pull off and at times I found myself accidentally flying sideways in turns. If you're looking for an authentic driving experience, you're playing the wrong game.

One aspect of the game that does bring some realism is the cars themselves. Driver SF features 140 purchasable cars with a heavy emphasis on North American and European manufacturers. Vehicles themselves are varied and realistic-looking complete with damage models that look pretty solid. The game's collision physics definitely lean towards the arcade, and you'll be bouncing off of walls and other cars without taking too much damage or slowing down all that much.

I generally drive in a third-person "chase cam" view, but Driver SF's first-person view almost had me reconsidering that choice. Ubisoft Reflections clearly put some effort into the in-car views as they feature vehicle interiors and gear shifting animations that match up pretty well with their real-life counterparts. I took the above picture of the Pagani Zonda Cinque's interior and brightened/cropped the picture to show the dash. Below you'll find the doctored image alongside a picture of the Zonda Cinque's actual interior. Not too shabby.

Top: Zonda Cinque in-game
Bottom: actual Zonda Cinque (source)

I don't consider myself a "car guy" in any way, but this type of stuff nice to see.

Story Mode

The plot of Driver SF is somewhat ridiculous, but the storytellers run with it. For the most part, it works. The game throws a couple of wild twists at you and justifies them by saying "lol you're in a coma," but the game's tone keeps things light. It's important to remember that this is a game about a guy who can possess other people and as a result hops around the city from body to body trying to apprehend a fugitive.

Driver SF's in-game currency is named "willpower," a name which befits Tanner's comatose struggles. Willpower is earned passively every few minutes and is also awarded for completing events and stunts. You can also earn extra willpower outside of scripted events by Shifting into a car and escaping from the cops, or conversely, Shifting into a police vehicle and apprehending a fleeing suspect. Willpower is used to purchase cars, unlock garages, and equip upgrades to your cars and abilities.

The game's Shift mechanic is fun, albeit a little clunky at times.

The aforementioned Shifting mechanic is central to Driver SF and provides a lot of unique gameplay. At the beginning of the campaign the ability is pretty limited and annoying; you're restricted to a zoomed-in overhead view of San Francisco and it takes a while to slowly pan your camera around. Thankfully, Shifting is upgraded throughout the game with several zoom levels that give you a broader view of the action. The mechanic can feel a little bit clunky at times and has a tendency to interrupt the action, but overall it works.

Story Mode features several different event types: standard races, pursuits, stunt challenges, item-smashing events, and more. Throughout the game you're tasked with tracking down Jericho and bringing him to justice, and you accomplish this by completing investigation missions that unlock a couple of story missions in each of the game's chapters.

One of a variety of different events using all kinds of vehicles.

Events are pretty varied and fun, keeping the game interesting for the long haul. Unfortunately, a lot of them are pre-scripted to include a certain type of vehicle, and your opponents don't seem to scale with whatever Tanner is driving at the time. One race saw me dueling a bunch of large trucks with a Lamborghini - one guess as to how that one turned out. With that being said, there is some ramp-up of difficulty through the campaign. Stunts are increasingly difficult to perform and objectives are either harder to execute or require performing several actions in rapid succession.

Opponent AI is pretty decent and the city of San Francisco is filled with traffic. NPC drivers have the tendency to swerve into your path or ram you on occasion, but for the most part the action is pretty fluid. One thing that disappointed me was the effect (or lack thereof) of emergency sirens on other cars. For a game produced in 2011 I was hoping to see AI cars slow down or pull over for a cop or firetruck. No dice.

"Movie Challenges" are unlocked via collectible tokens that are located throughout the game world. Most of these involve a car chase of some sort and all of them feature period cars from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I recognized a few of the references, but my knowledge of 70s cinema isn't the greatest. Thankfully, I was able to find a full list of challenges and their corresponding movies here.

Tanner is able to unlock and purchase a DeLorean during the campaign. A challenge is unlocked by hitting 88mph. I'm sold.

Sounds, Visuals, and Atmosphere

Driver SF has a pretty impressive track listing with 70-something songs in total. Most of them are pretty good and fit with the overall feel of the game. The way tracks are introduced is a little weird though: a small handful are available at the start and more are added as you progress further. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice you end up hearing the original songs about 10 times as often as some of the later ones.

In addition to the solid soundtrack, Driver SF is fully voiced and features a ton of dialogue. The acting is pretty good for the most part and some of the cutscenes and random dialogue are hilarious. You'll meet passengers that encourage you to crash so that they can cash in on their insurance. You'll be berated by girlfriends and get dumped by a cheating lover. A couple of recurring scenarios involve some kids who turn to street racing to pay off their college tuition and some vigilante ex-cops who throw the rulebook out the window in an effort to take drugs off the streets. The overall dialogue and random banter between Tanner and his passengers is pretty spot-on.

Events usually start with a mini-cutscene.

Cutscenes are pretty ubiquitous, though as I said they're pretty entertaining. The full-screen, movie style scenes that show Tanner and Jones trying to plan their next move are well done and look fluid. Additionally, the game features mini-cutscenes introducing each event that usually show a couple of talking heads in the upper corners of the screen. I wasn't bothered by any of the cutscenes for the most part as all of them were entertaining enough to keep me engaged. However, the game does throw a couple of random scenes at you that simply show Tanner driving around - there's no dialogue or any explanation. Kinda weird.

Ubisoft Reflections threw in a bunch of little touches that add to the game's immersion and authenticity. For example, as in the picture above, if you slowly drive up behind a random tow truck within the city you can hitch up and go for a ride. I was hoping to see the truck drive me to a garage for repairs, but unfortunately it looks like they just go around in circles.

The Driver version of San Francisco seems a little flat compared to the real thing, but that's probably for the best. Granted, the last time I was in San Francisco I was 8 or 9 years old, but I remember it being pretty hilly. I can't imagine it'd be very fun to be airborne 90% of the time when you're trying to drive around the city, so this is probably for the best. The game includes some recognizable names and locations from around the city--the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, a curvy street similar to Lombard Street, etc--again, more things that add authenticity. There are apparently 208 miles of drivable roadway in Driver San Francisco, so there's a lot to explore.

The game doesn't really include any passage of time or weather, which was a little disappointing. Where's the trademark San Francisco fog?

Those gas prices definitely aren't from 2011.

Graphics and Performance

This is a console port, and as shown above the system requirements are pretty minimal. The game runs decently enough though I did run into a few issues with crashing. As far as I know support for the Uplay client was added in after the game's release, so that might have attributed to some of the stability problems I had. Driver SF crashed on me 2 or 3 times at the very start while I was adjusting settings and crashed another 4 or 5 times throughout the campaign, including one complete system freeze that required a restart.

Don't expect anything ground-breaking graphics-wise. Cars look pretty good and the buildings and road surfaces look alright when you're whizzing by at 150mph, but some textures are decidedly blocky and low-res when you look at them up close. The screenshot of the gas station above shows some of the painfully pixellated textures that really shouldn't ever see the light of day.

This is a DirectX 9.0c game and it definitely looks and feels like one. With that being said, the graphics don't detract from the experience in any way.

There's a good variety of vehicles in the game, but it's weird seeing 5 of these on one street.

Value, Replayability, and Final Thoughts

To be honest, after picking this game up for a dollar I wasn't expecting much. I figured that getting an hour or two out of the game would be enough to justify the experience. As it turns out, I got about 17 hours out of it.

I don't normally finish games to 100% completion, but Driver SF was fun and kept me engaged until the end. It's probably possible to rush through the story and finish the game within 6 or 8 hours, so the campaign might be a little short, but I wasn't bothered. The 17 hours I played felt pretty substantial; I would have guessed my playtime to be more in the 20-25 hour range.

The game offers a huge variety of cars to purchase and there's lots to do and unlock within San Francisco. The hidden movie tokens tucked into random corners of the city offer the chance to unlock extra content, and the game actually assists you in locating these by showing them on the map. Everything about this game was entertaining; nothing felt like a chore.

One feature of the game that I thought was pretty cool is "New Game Plus." If you'd like to replay the campaign after completing it, you have the option of starting fresh or restarting all of the missions but keeping your Willpower, garages, and cars in tact. It's possible to replay all of the game's challenges from a completed save, but all of the random stunt "dares" scattered throughout the city aren't available once they're completed. New Game Plus offers a chance to re-experience the game without wasting all of your previous effort.

Driver SF's multiplayer features a separate experience bar and a bunch of fun-sounding gametypes. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a match after sitting in queue for a minute or so. I don't exactly enjoy sitting in a lobby by myself aimlessly driving around the city, and it looks like there isn't much multiplayer action to be had.

I would have gladly paid a lot more for Driver SF. That should sum up my feelings about the game right there. If it weren't for some of the stability and controller compatibility issues I experience I would have given this game a score of 4.5. If you're looking for an arcade driving game that doesn't take itself too seriously, consider picking up Driver San Francisco.

Score: 4.0 / 5.0

4.0 out of 5.0

  • The Good: Lots of cars, ridiculous yet interesting plot, pretty good music, good sense of humor, entertaining cutscenes, New Game Plus
  • The So-so: "Floaty" driving, graphics aren't anything to write home about
  • The Bad: Stability issues, didn't work with my generally widely-supported gamepad

Verdict: Buy it.


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