Driver: San Fracisco (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC)
Developer: Robot Entertainment, Gas Powered Games
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release: September 6, 2011
Price: $59.99 (360, PS3) $49.99 (PC, Wii)  

In a genre as saturated as racing, it takes something remarkable to make a game stand out. It seems these days it’s impossible to have a successful release without some sort of gimmick highlighting the game. Be it Split/Second’s collapsible world or Blur’s car-to-car combat, if simulation isn’t the intent there’s got to be something extra to spice it up. Driver: San Francisco doesn’t break tradition – it too is a gimmicky arcade racer – but its gimmick is well thought out, it’s the most original idea since Burnout.

COMA CAR CHASE

Driver: San Francisco tells the tale of John Tanner, a former race car driver turned undercover cop. In pursuit of escaping serial convict, Jericho, he hits his head and enters a coma, sending him into his own mental automotive odyssey. In his dreamscape, John quickly learns that he has the ability to leave his body and take control of anyone else behind the wheel of a car.

Because of his latent god complex, this leads to him becoming a patron saint of burning rubber, taking control of the wheel for all sorts of troubled citizens. Players get a scenario snapshot of the in-car conversation leading up to John’s possession, giving just enough context for the events but never enough to spin off into its own involving narrative.

It’s a simple device that allows players to experience a wide variety of racing challenges from trailing cars and escaping cops, to winning races and wrecking racers. There’s personality to each mission and that’s what makes the formula really shine, that little bit of exposition goes a long way to creating emotional investment in the quest.

THE INVASIVE CO-PILOT

Where the Quantum Leap mechanic gets really interesting is when players get an opportunity to use it to alter more traditional races. With the ability to hop between vehicles, the game brings a whole new meaning to police commandeering as civilian vehicles are taken over and thrown into the race as crash ammunition to stop your opponents before hopping back into your own racer to speed past the wreck.

There’s a quest in the game where you take over a family of drivers trying to place first and second in the same race. It’s up to John to pilot both vehicles at the same time with a series of rapid swaps to ensure they both win. At points you’ll have to steer out of your own way and let yourself pass, before switching cars and overtaking yourself again. It’s this sort of multi-car mindset that makes Driver: San Francisco one of the cleverest racing games released this generation; what other game lets you drive 6 cars at the same time?

What’s even cooler is that unlike most gimmicky racers, the online component carries the hook just as well as its single player. Where other games would forfeit the spiritual possession for fear of unbalancing the game, Driver: San Francisco is content to just let players have fun and doesn’t worry about the implications of letting players have full access to all their single player abilities.

Racing with your friends, steering civilian cars into theirs, dodging rogue vehicles they throw at you, even stealing their car when they’re out possessing someone else are all events that make Driver: San Francisco  an absolute blast in multiplayer. Naturally traditional races are available, letting you use cars collected in the garage, but who the heck cares when you’ve got all this fun at your disposal?

MAKE IT QUICK, I’M IN A GOD-DAMN HURRY

Artistically the game owes a lot to classic 60’s and 70’s flicks like Vanishing Point, Smokey & The Bandit, and Bullit. It’s full of angular muscle cars, carries a soft haze, and occasionally features scratches and burn marks like it was rendered on a vintage film reel.

Adding to the motif are several film challenge levels that recreate – at least in spirit – famous moments from the muscle car era. For example, the mission ‘Gone!’ thrusts players in a Mustang Mach with a time limit to escape over the Bay Bridge, similar to the iconic scene in Gone in 60 Seconds. It’s one part film history, and one part replay value that adds up to worthwhile extension once the game’s core story is complete.

THE CITY THAT KNOWS HOW

Naturally, San Francisco lends itself to the aesthetic and offers plenty of natural twists, turns and jumps for players to earn their stuntman license on. From the infamously winding Lombard St. to ups and downs of Nob Hill and Russian Hill, there’s plenty of interesting terrain for players to maneuver around.

It’s a point to note that the actual driving in the game is smooth and fun, but only slightly better than any given arcade racer. It’s forgiving and easy to handle, but the way the camera pulls back when you hit breakneck speeds and the ease of return from a well-timed drift add a level of artificial excitement. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s better than solid.

There’s a decent offering of choice vehicles to explore the city with too. Whether you’ve got a taste for premium autos like the Lamborghini Diablo or more classic rides like the Chevy Camaro ZS8, there’s plenty of expensive vehicles for you to drive at dangerously fast speeds.

If there’s one drawback to all the cool cars in the game it’s that the garage system the game uses to unlock them seems a bit worthless at times. In a game where you can take control of any vehicle on the road at any time, it makes the collection aspect a bit pointless. There really isn’t much point to saving up your hard earned Willpower points – that’s the really oddly named in-game currency you earn for driving cool – on new cars when you can just snap one up off the road. Points are almost always better spent on upgrades that allow you to boost and charge with any vehicle because in this game, it’s very unlikely you’ll stick with any ride for longer than a few minutes.

Still, it’s a minor complaint in an absolute sea of greatness. Driver: San Francisco is a gimmicky arcade racer, but one taken to its maximum potential. The quests are engaging, the atmosphere is spot-on and things just feel right. Add to that a ground-breaking mechanic that carries the single player and makes the multiplayer, and you’ve got the best Driver game ever released.

Sometimes it pays to break all the rules, and Driver: San Francisco is content to do that. If you walk into this one with an open mind and remove expectations of what a racing game should be then it will deliver one of the most surprisingly great experiences so far this year.

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Score: 9/10