Extra! Extra! Idiot crashes into news stand!

San Francisco. It’s a city that stirs up different feelings in different people. Last bastion of radical liberalism in an increasingly conservative USA; historic home to the largest Chinese and Japanese communities in the country; birthplace of the hippie movement and Silicon Valley. Oh, and the hilly and scenic setting for a million and one awesome car chases.

In fact, I’d go so far to say that when they think of car chases, most people imagine 70’s cars flying off bumps in the road and catching huge air down one of SF’s famously steep streets. Dirty Harry, Bullitt and Herbie Rides Again (which still counts!) have all taken advantage of San Francisco’s car-chase friendly layout. So too, actually, has Driver, way back in the first game. Things are pretty different this time around though.

Releasing a car chase game based around the city of San Francisco is all well and good, but if it’s the much-maligned Driver series and you don’t do anything to freshen things up a little, there’s trouble ahead. Fortunately, this isn’t a fact that’s wasted on the developers, Ubisoft Reflections. For one thing, Driver: San Francisco takes place almost entirely in detective Tanner’s mind.

There’s been a crash, you see. Hardly surprising when you look at the way Tanner usually drives. Anyway, he’s in a coma. In his mind, however, he’s chasing his arch-nemesis Jericho through the streets of San Francisco. If you’ve ever seen the successful UK TV show ‘Life on Mars’, you’ll be in the right kind of ball park.

Actually, cross that with Quantum Leap. Because it’s all going on in Tanner’s mind, he’s capable of doing stuff that’s not really… well… usual. Or, for that matter, possible. This extends to things like boosting your cars’ speed for short times and scoring resource points for dangerous stunts, pretty standard stuff for an arcade driving game, but beyond this it gets really mental. You see, you can ‘shift’ out of your body at any time and cruise around the city as a disembodied spirit until you find a car you like the look of, then possess the body of the driver of that car.

I told you it was mental. But mechanically, it’s a pretty clever solution to an old problem. See, in some of the previous Driver games, you’ve been able to get out of the car and leg it around the city on foot. These ‘on foot’ bits have been universally loathed, so much so that they spawned an entire mission in GTA III just to ridicule them. But how to allow the ‘go anywhere, drive anything’ open world feel of a game like GTA without allowing the player to run around the city on foot? Well, here’s your answer.

And there’s more. While this out-of-body experience system allows you to hijack any vehicle at practically any time, it also allows for some interesting and novel approaches to gameplay. Chasing down a villain’s car? Just jump into the evildoer’s body, stack his car into a lamppost, jump back to your own car – and the job’s a good’un. With the addition of the ‘quick shift’, you can hop back and forth between a couple of cars instantly, allowing you to, for example, use two police cars to double-team an enemy. If you take a wrong turn or hit a wall, just jump to the other car and get back into the thick of the action while the AI catches up with the other car, in time for you to switch back if needs be. It works surprisingly well, and you always seem to be able to keep a grasp on where everyone is at any given time.

Of course, all of this body-hopping creates some unusual and occasionally hilarious sub-missions. Jumping into the body of a useless learner driver who’s getting a telling off from his overbearing driving instructor, and flooring it until the bully needs a change of trousers, for example. Sometimes, however, Tanner seems to be a little amoral in his choices for a died-in-the-wool crimefighter. One early mission sees you performing insane stunts for the benefit of an “America’s Nuttiest Drivers”-type TV show, playing fast and loose with the cars (and bodies) of innocent passers-by.

It’s all good, arcadey fun. There are a ton of cut-scenes which play well to the 70’s cop show style, and Tanner’s partner Tobias Jones is an excellent foil. My own faithful partner, Lieutenant Chillaxe, naturally made short work of Driver San Francisco’s system requirements, but even with everything maxed out I have to say that I wasn’t really blown away with what the game itself offered visually. There are some pretty clever moments, however, to remind you that you’re in a coma: creepy billboards with stark messages such as “WAKE UP”, and a police case board with pictures pinned to it to outline the hunt for Jericho, shown not on a cork board but on a cranial x-ray.  

Driver: San Francisco does a great job of capturing the look and feel of old cop TV shows and movie car chases. The cops are tenacious, the stunts ridiculous and, thanks to the shift system, the options to create unusual situations are way more open than in most games of its type. As a straight up and down driving game, it’s not particularly interesting, but it’s certainly a worthy successor to previous Diver games, keeping in the spirit of the original and elegantly sidestepping the usual ‘on-foot’ problem.

There’s a ton of dialogue too – regardless of whose body you’ve jumped into, anyone else in the car seems to have a quip or an outburst for every eventuality, which adds tons of character to the game and enhances that movie quality. Driver San Francisco is a game I think I’d enjoy watching almost as much as I’d enjoy playing.

This time all of the cars are licenced.