Ah yes! Driver San Francisco.
A game that got lukewarm reviews during release that somehow turned into a cult classic over the years, the history of this series is wild, to say the least. So what made the latest entry in the series so unique? To understand that we need to know the state of modern racing games and the series’ history. So let’s start from the beginning, wheelmen.
The first game in the series was developed by Reflections Interactive and initially released for the Playstation in 1999. This game was a small glimpse into the potential of 3D Open World games as a medium. The game had, for the first time in a Playstation game, a fully realized Open World with a very detailed vehicle physics model that still holds up when compared to more modern driving games. The story was gritty police crime thriller , with the usage of 90’s standard CGI that seems rough nowadays…to say the least.
The game went on to become a hit, and a system seller, for obvious reasons. It was GTA3 before GTA3! A truly innovative title that was soon followed by a subpar sequel, Driver 2 (2000). Things took a dark turn in the 6th Generation of games, when the extremely hyped release of Driver 3, or to be more accurate ‘Driv3r’, flopped hard and got itself caught red-handed in a scandal involving paying a gaming magazine for stellar reviews! You can read more about the juicy incident here.
The disastrous release of the third game led to a relatively underwhelming low budget sequel called Driver Parallel Lines in 2006. Suffice to say it turned out to be just another GTA clone stripped away of the unique charm the series was known for and a new bland main protagonist. The series was believed to be pretty much dead by then. Which turned out to be very wrong in 2011, with the release of one of the most unique games ever made, Driver San Francisco!
Underrated is a very popular term in the gaming community nowadays. But no other games deserve it much more than Driver San Francisco. To understand why this game is special, first we need to understand the state of the declining genre that is the ‘Racing Games’ genre. You may ask “How can this be? There are loads of racing games being released nowadays!” and to that I say, quality over quantity. Ninety percent of the releases nowadays are simulators or sim-cade racers, with zero sense of progression and copy-pasted maps, repackaged and released again and again with a very thin new coat of paint (Looking at you, Forza Horizon series!).
There is no innovation in the genre. We know exactly what to expect when a new game releases. Granted there is only so much you can do with the racing genre, but that’s where Driver San Francisco subverted expectations! Let’s start with the most important aspect of the game , which is uh…the game part itself.
Switching Cars. Arguably the most fun part in a GTA game, aped by tons of similarly open world games to emulate Rockstar’s success. Most of them failed, including the Driver series’ own Driv3r and Parallel Games. They were mocked for copying GTA, and were not taken seriously at release, often ignored as another bland clone. The devs of San Francisco needed a way to circumvent this situation for their game. Tanner, the main protagonist of the series, should not get out of his car during gameplay. ‘This will make the game more similar to Driver 1, easy fix’, or so they thought! The reality was that switching cars was something necessary and basic in modern games with an open world formula, yet they still wanted to distance themselves as far away from the GTA series. So how do they do that? This dilemma led to the creation of one of the most unique features in any racing game ever , the ‘Shift’ mechanic.
What is ‘Shift’ and why is it so innovative?
‘Shift’ allows the player to float as a ghost in the open world and shift into any car they encounter on the street. Oh you are tired of driving a lambo? Let’s shift into a bus and roleplay as a bus driver! It’s quick, smooth and satisfying. As you progress through the game, you gain even more freedom with the mechanic, to the point you can zoom out and see the entire open world from the sky, and shift into another car an entire district apart! It was a technological marvel on the weak hardware of the PS3 and Xbox 360. This is where the gameplay uses become obvious. This is not a glorified hijacking mechanic from GTA. This mechanic allows your creativity muscles to flex and completely changes how you approach a mission! To give an example, you are doing a racing mission; you need to win but you suck at weaving through traffic. There are two ways to complete this; either replay the mission until you get first position OR shift into an oncoming semi truck and wreck your opponents! You won the race before you even reached the finish line!
The mission design is extremely well done, taking full advantage of the Shift mechanic and providing the player with enough room to apply to their own approach to completing it. But this is just scratching the surface on how well the mechanic is used, because the narrative of the game is entirely built on it!
Yep! The series known for its gritty crime stories decided to go the wacky route and implemented the Shift mechanic into the story. This was the prime reason why fans of the old games panned this release back in 2011. There are games which try to emulate a film, such as most Sony first party titles.. There are games which try to emulate reading books, such as Visual Novels. But very few games use the gaming medium uniquely.
Driver San Francisco tells a story only a game could tell.
The basic premise of the story is that our main protagonist, a detective named Tanner, gets into an accident while chasing his arch nemesis and goes into a coma dream. In his dream, he gains this new found power called ‘Shift’ that allows him to possess basically anybody. This is a masterful way of integrating a game mechanic into the narrative! In the real world, at the hospital he is admitted to, a news channel is regularly broadcasting the activities of his nemesis.These information penetrates into Tanner’s dream and allows him to solve the mystery in his imaginary world.
The narrative has a heavy emphasis on psychological elements. The way the game world distorts as Tanner’s real life health worsens , or the way they show Tanner’s obsession and its consequences, it’s all beautifully done. I won’t spoil the peak moments of the game but I’ll bet you the final mission in the game is one of the most extraordinary levels ever made in gaming history. It’s like a very awesome acid trip in game format, to say the least.
Aside from the narrative, other aspects that deserve appreciation are the amazing OST and writing in the game! The OST is a combination of 70s music, edgy 2000s tracks and some original tracks remixed from the original Driver(1999). It includes bangers such as ‘UNKLE- Eye for an Eye’ and ‘22-20s Devil in Me’. It is a nice introduction to many new bands and genres of music. As for the writing for the game, it’s smart, witty, funny and full of dark humor taken to the limits. Shift into a random car with a passenger and you will be rewarded with Tanner going full loco mode with the person. It’s small moments like that elevate the game from a great game to a true classic.
For the final entry in the series, it ended on a high note. It is saddening to see uniqueness and innovation being sacrificed in favor of dishing out the same thing over and over again until the fatigue hits. It’s the sad reality of modern gaming and I’m not sure it will get better anytime soon. So to conclude, before dumping in ridiculous amounts of money for the next copy-pasted Forza Horizon game , consider giving this game a chance for a fraction of the cost. It will be an experience you won’t forget and I don’t say that lightly! It’s time to wake up from the monotonous dream of playing the same games!