Driver: San Francisco (2011)

I’ve just finished the main story mode of Driver: San Francisco on the PS3. I’d originally bought it as part of a Playstation Plus discount deal – I think it cost me about six bucks? – and it had sat on my hard drive for months, unplayed. Which, given how stupidly great it turned out to be, was something of a mistake.

If you imagine any cop buddy movie, then change the setting to San Francisco, while adding in car-swapping superpowers resulting from a coma then you’re getting close. There’s prison breaks, terrorism, tourism and an ungodly amount of film tributes all fleshed out through the undeniably enjoyable experience of pushing a range of expensive cars to their limits with no regard for pedestrian safety.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had this much fun with a driving game outside the crashtacular Burnout series. It’s certainly not a realistic driving model (despite the wealth of licensed, detailed cars on offer) but it is amenable to all those cop-chase clichés you just want to try. Get some mad air over the SF hills? Fishtail along the Embarcadero? Pull a handbrake turn and go after some Bad Guys? All of it and more, especially when driving along the footpath is involved. You know, like this:

Damnit, Tanner. We talked about this.

(A nice touch: you never actually run over pedestrians: they leap out of the way like they’ve been neck-hooked by a variety show manager.)

The San Francisco in the game is, by necessity, pretty truncated. It’s an idealised version of the place. (Though I must admit, I did go looking for the Fog City Diner and was pretty bummed when it wasn’t there.) There’s lots of places missing, but as you can see from the map below, there’s still a wealth of roads to prang your car on.

Oh, the places you’ll go. Oh, the cars you’ll wreck.

The things that non-natives associate with the place are all there, waiting to be found. I found myself doing a lot of non-mission driving while playing, just seeing what I could see. Though it lacks a real-time weather system – you’re stuck at the time of day the current chapter says it is – it’s a pretty well-fleshed environment.

The game also – as rewards, mostly – features a bunch of iconic cop scenes. Yes, this means if you want to try to mimic Steve McQueen’s driving in Bullitt, you can. (I’m not sure about losing the six hubcaps, but it wouldn’t surprise me.) Like the rest of the game, there’s a feeling this part was built with great affection, rather than as busywork.

And then, there’s the soundtrack. Which I must give bonus points for having this:

Here’s a playlist featuring most of it. It’s a mixture of newish stuff – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beck, QOTSA, Elbow, the Cure – and some excellent older cuts. Who knew Robert Palmer was that awesome? Not me, and I like him. There’s enough throwback tunes to support the vibe the game’s mining – almost-blaxploitation, funky cop buddy petrolfest – that I found myself thinking “YEAH!” when I jumped into a car and they were playing.

Are there flaws with the game? Are there, fuck. Like the rest of the franchise, driving is all you do. There’s cut-scenes, sure, which tell the story pretty well – but there’s no jumping out of the car yourself. It’s all foot-to-the-floor, break-stuff-or-do-timed-stuff events in order to complete mission parameters. The timing in particular is a bit of an irritant – in a lot of challenges, if you deviate by even a tiny amount you’ll be shafted by the clock. It’s very difficult – though obviously not impossible – to complete the tasks required, but you should expect a fair amount of replays before you’ll be able to do so. When it comes down to one second of difference, that’s deeply irritating.

The story, too, seems to fall apart at the end – I suppose when “drive to X” is your sole input, there’s not much they can do. Though it’s weird – I found the conclusion came up very quickly, and seemed a bit pat. Perhaps it’s expecting a bit much from a game marketed solely at buddy-movie-lovin’ revheads, but I wish it’d done more. The acting, also, is cheesy as hell – but I expect that’s completely intentional.

(There’s also been criticism this game is less cinematic than its predecessors. I’ve bought the first (PS1) game for bugger-all, so when I get around to it I’ll address it.)

However, these flaws can’t cripple the overwhelming amount of stupid fun you can have. I suppose I’m used to playing first-person stuff (hence playing the game in first-person dash view most of the time) but I didn’t actually miss having to jump out of the car and bop people. I guess (for me, at least) there’s enough novelty in the premise to be going on with.

And to be honest, wiping out opponents with an oncoming semi before ejector-seating back into your car just as Aretha Franklin kicks into ‘Rock Steady’ while you fishtail around a corner is pretty fucking great. 

I’ve completed the main story, and about half the optional missions. I’ve still another 20 cars I have to unlock, and though I’m not normally a stickler for sidemission stuff, I’m feeling drawn towards it in this case. It’s just fun to play. There’s a New Game Plus mode, which also seems to prolong the enjoyment… but with the backlog I have, it might have to wait.

At least until I’ve gone for one more cruise.

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