I rented Driver: San Francisco after seeing it show up on a number of best of 2011 lists, and I have to say, I just don’t quite get it. For the most part, the game is a competent open-world driving game. There are two unusual aspects to it: the shifting mechanic that allows for taking over different cars on the fly, and that it’s a driving game that actually makes an attempt at having a story. And while the core gameplay is solid and both these ideas are implemented pretty well, the whole thing never really clicked with me.
The biggest benefits of the shifting are that it enables diversity, both within and between missions, and that it greatly simplifies the act of taking down enemy vehicles. The second of these I greatly appreciate. In other open-world driving games like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (which, apparently, I never did a full write-up of) I had considerable trouble when enemies weren’t following set courses. It’s just to easy to get turned around in the wrong direction, or to just miss colliding with the enemy and spin out, and then lose the chase. With the power of shifting, it’s quick, easy and satisfying to hijack a car from the opposite lane and slam it into the oncoming enemy, and then just jump back to the primary car and keep on moving. And it’s not just useful in chases. It’s also a tremendous fun to use it to slam into the leader of a race when you’re behind.
Shifting is also used in a lot of smart ways in missions and challenges. It allows a single mission to hop around from location to location and situation to situation. Instead of one long chase we can have four different chase-vignettes, each involving a different vehicle and setting. It also sets up some pretty interesting, unique challenges, like jumping so many cars off ramp-trucks in so much time, or trying to keep two cars in the top two spots in a race at the same time.
Structurally, the Driver plays a dangerous game. While there’s lots of side-content, and there’s flexibility in what order to beat main-story missions, to actually progress the main story requires beating every main-mission. This is not at all unusual for story-based games, but it’s a little unusual for a driving game. The reason I say this is dangerous is because there’s a single point of failure. Any mission that is too hard stalls out progress on the entire game. And in any mission that’s a race against the clock (of which there are always lots in driving games) there’s an awfully thin line between a par-time that’s challenging and one that feels unfair. And sure enough, there were a couple of missions, one of which went on for five whole minutes, that I had a lot of trouble with, and where I felt like everything had to go absolutely perfectly in order for me to beat them. And some of them involved a lot of pretty technical stuff with a lot of randomness to it, like reaching a destination while being attacked by aggressive AI cars or while driving in a car with almost no health. So there were a lot of necessary restarts when one little thing went wrong. And that also meant hearing the same in-mission dialogue again and again. It was grating, and frustrating, and it just killed any sense of momentum.
To solve this problem in races against AI cars, the game employs the old standby of rubber-banding. I don’t mind a little bit of catch-up functionality in a game, but here it’s just so heavy-handed. There’s no way to open up a lead of more than a few dozen metres, even by causing competitors to crash, so any little mistake (or, even, not using boost as aggressively as possible) will knock you out of the lead. On the other hand, get in a horrendous crash, and you’ll still be able to catch up most of the way pretty quickly. It’s particularly frustrating in races where you have to jump back and forth between controlling two different cars. The car you’re not in will have an AI driver that’s rigged so that it will constantly lose pace to the AI competitors until it drops into last place. So the only way to finish top-two (always the goal for this sort of mission) is to constantly jump back and forth between the two cars. But the AI drives very differently from a human. It will often slow down, so that there were a lot of times where I’d shift from the first place car to the second, and then immediately rear-end the car I’d just vacated. The AI also has a pretty strict racing line it likes to follow, and shifting out of a car while off this invisible line (say, while cutting a corner or driving in the oncoming line) will cause the AI to swerve aggressively, lose speed, and probably crash. Trying to play cooperatively with a partner that you can’t communicate with is always frustrating, and this is worse than usual since the entity that you’re trying to co-operate with has a different agenda than you do.
And then there’s the story. Like I said, it’s nice that it’s got one, and it’s pretty well told. It’s competently written and easy to follow. But it’s not without its flaws. To begin with, there’s Tanner, our hero. For the story to work, he has to be tremendously slow on the uptake about what’s going on. It’s so obvious that I don’t even consider it a spoiler to say that for the majority of the game takes place within Tanner’s head while he’s in a coma. But Tanner doesn’t realize this until nearly the end of the game. Having a main character who is so tremendously slow on the uptake is inherently bad, but in this case it’s even worse since it drastically lowers the stakes and eliminates any dramatic tension the story might have.
In addition to not being very bright, there’s also the issue that Tanner is a horrible person. On the one hand, he thinks the game is real, and within this reality he doesn’t have any sort of moral quandary about hijacking other people’s bodies, let alone messing with their lives and causing them to get into horrific car accidents. To top it off, this is Tanner’s fantasy world. He’s in a coma and his unconscious desire is to steal and wreck other people’s lives, and to get praised as a hero for it.
Then there’s the side-stories. There’s a lot of narrative potential to being able to drop into a character’s life for just a few minutes, tell a quick little story, drop back out, and then return to those characters in a later chapter and do it again. But this potential is largely squandered. There’s only one set of characters that recurs more than twice, and while their story is entertaining, it never really goes anywhere. Because the game takes place in Tanner’s head and, of course, he eventually wakes up, there’s inherently an inability to resolve them, but it feels like the game never even tries to give an arc (let alone a satisfying one) to the side-stories.
So, on the whole, we’re left with a fun driving game with a clever mechanical hook, but one that had me generally feeling cold and empty.