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Driver San Francisco 360/PS3 celebrates great american chase cars but manages to do so while have plenty of TV-fuelled fun along the way.
You know those adverts for the supermarket where they tell you about every mouth-watering ingredient that goes into their food? Well the latest instalment in the Driver franchise could be summed up in a similar fashion: "Take the finest sand-box driving games and add in a broad selection of real-world cars, combine with TV's Life on Mars with Quantum Leap and simmer gentle over a copy of Bullitt, Vanishing Point and The French Connection. This isn't just any open world racer, this is Driver: San Francisco."
Now, if my description makes the game sound somewhat derivative, it's not intended too. Because while there are elements here lifted from other games and forms of media, the latest Driver is bloody good fun.
I've said in previous reviews that any racer lives and dies on the cars and its here where Driver starts to get it spot-on. There's a nice selection of modern metal, such as the Alfa Romeo's recent super-mini, the MiTo, through to fully fledged supercars, like the McLaren MP4-12C. However, it's with the classic stuff that the game really nails it. Given the games US setting, it's unsurprising that these classics are almost entirely American muscle cars of the 1960s and 70s. From the Dodge Challenger that's Tanner's car of choice there's loads of classics you'll know from famous car chases on the big and small screen. Like the legendary Ford Mustang from Bullitt (also shot in San Francisco) or the Gran Torino that became in Starsky and Hutch. You can even wish you had a Burt Reynolds moustache and pretend to be the Bandit in a Pontiac Trans-Am-there's so much here to make fans of those famous chase scenes squeal with joy.
Fig 1. Ford Mustang from Bullitt (image credit: flickr/wapster)
The cars themselves remain faithful to their silver-screen counterparts, as the game eschews realistic handling in favour of more stylised behaviour that sees plenty of tire-smoke and wheel-spins. Initially I found the handling a little jarring, my brain telling me that ‘real cars just don't behave like this', no doubt something of a hangover from too many roadtests and too much Forza and Gran Turismo, but before long I was chasing bad-guys and smoking tyres with the best of them.
Some cars can be downright awkward to drive, but on the whole they're a great laugh. The handling does a good job of delivering what you might expect from the car in question, for example the Fiat 500 in-game is nippy and direct, like its real-world counterpart, while the Dodge Challenger spins its wheels with ease. The result is a game that immediately lets you enjoy every car in the game, rather than building you up to more powerful cars as a sim racer might. Just don't expect abject realism and you won't be disappointed.
The handling does a good job of delivering what you might expect from the car.
The story at the heart Driver is the usual car-movie fodder. You play as Tanner, the hero cop, who is finally set to see his nemesis Charles Jericho being brought to justice. Until that is, Jericho makes a daring escape attempt. An attempt that leads to a car chase that reminded me of the beginning of The Rock and its during the ensuing chase Tanner is hospitalised and that's when things all go a bit Life On Mars.
The game is now taking place inside Tanner's coma, rather than in the real world. Sadly there's no Gene Hunt but it's a rather nifty way to introduce the shift mechanic. Tanner is able to shift from one person to another at will, meaning the game does away with the on foot sections all together, which rather neatly stops any comparisons to the likes of Grand Theft Auto, or Saints Row, for example. More importantly it keeps the action flowing behind the wheel without the monotony of having to run around on foot. The other characters don't see Tanner, but rather the person he is controlling, hence my reference to Quantum Leap.
It's an interesting idea and it works really well, especially as you play through the game and unlock further abilities, such as rapid shift, which allows you to jump between multiple vehicles very quickly. It may sound complex, but in practice it works really well and before you know it you'll be recreating some great best cop chases since TJ Hooker, complete with flashing lights and wailing sirens. The only thing missing is a bonnet surfing William Shatner. Shame.
The game leaves it to you if you want to follow the storyline from mission to mission, or if you want to drive around and cause automotive mayhem across the city, or help out the police with car chases and takedowns. Another area where Driver really impresses is its multiplayer mode, both on LIVE and split screen.
The best cop chases since TJ Hooker.
The split-screen modes are brilliantly balanced and superb fun. The ideas are relatively simple, but brilliantly addictive. Like Tag for example, which essentially is the kind of chase game you've played in the playground as a kid. One player carries the tag and the other has to chase them down. As you hold your tag you fill the bar, first to fill the bar wins. The shift mechanic allows things to get quite tactical and keeps you fighting to win right until the end of the race or challenge.
The thing that has surprised me most about Driver is the sense of fun that seems to run right through the game. I expected it to be a bit more po-faced, serious, but it's not. You've seen the story played out here a dozen times, but in this context, with these cars and the shift mechanic, it feels sufficiently different to its peers.
Clearly the developers have a lot of affection for the films the game so gleefully references and it's that sense of shared passion for the source material that helped draw me in. Anyone who's seen any of the films or shows I've talked about will find themselves caught up in Tanner's world too.
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