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Driver: San Francisco
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 7.2
Sound: 7.9
Control: 7.4
Replay Value: 7.5
Rating: 7.6

The original Driver exploded onto the PlayStation scene in 1999; it garnered widespread critical acclaim and plenty of fans. Unfortunately, the series went downhill from there and actually, we haven’t even seen a new installment in quite some time. Enter Ubisoft Reflection’s Driver: San Francisco, a game that brings back undercover cop John Tanner and his enemy, the hardcore criminal, Jericho. It’s a driving adventure that sports plenty of variety, some impressive visual work, and a unique “shift” feature that separates this racer from the rest of the pack. It’s a really solid package, but the story is just plain ridiculous and the difficulty can really spike.

In many ways, this game’s graphics surprised me. The large amount of detail is most appreciated and during cut-scenes, you’ll see some beautiful character depiction. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into making the storyline segments shine, and the large, thriving city of San Francisco is nicely designed and always engaging. The effects are on point, too, because this pretty driving quest runs at a pleasing 60 frames per second. There are a lot of cars and each one of them is immensely well implemented (from bumper to bumper), and although I found some parts of the environment flat and unattractive, the new Driver definitely has plenty of flair.

If you’re familiar with my reviews, you know I always ask for a powerful soundtrack to accompany high-octane experiences like this one. Thankfully, I get just what I want: a kickin’, intense, and most importantly, fitting, music selection that continually enhances the action. The voice acting is good but some characters are inconsistent, and the audio effects are sharp without being invasive. Everything blends together nicely. The balance can be a little off during hectic situations and I still think some of the cars don’t sound quite right, but the soundtrack is a highlight, and one that definitely enriches. Don't ever underestimate the importance of great music.

I mentioned the absurd story above; let me elaborate now: Jericho busts out of prison and during ensuing events (no spoilers here), Tanner ends up in a coma. From that moment on, everything takes place in Tanner’s head, which explains that supernatural Shift ability. It also helps to explain the over-the-top scenarios that often seem like a cross between Stuntman and Burnout, and would certainly earn the ire of every cop in the area if the game was even remotely realistic. Now, I gotta say, the whole “story in your head” thing is a little goofy.

Get More:, Driver: San Francisco - Launch Trailer, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

On the other hand, it allows for plenty of great action and we don’t have to suspend belief; what happens in our brains when we’re in a coma is…well, complicated, I’m sure. Anyway, back to that Shifting skill that makes Driver: San Francisco singular. Basically, with a press of a button, you can jump between other drivers; this can be done automatically or manually. At first, it’s a little confusing. But then you start to realize that this is a game-changing feature, as a whole new level of strategy comes into play. You start looking ahead, seeing “jump” possibilities that will halt opponents in their tracks.

It also lets you get an overhead view of the map, which can be useful. The developers make tremendous use of Shifting, giving you multiple situations in which to test out the godlike ability. You can try it in chases, races, tailing, and various other missions, which usually remain fresh. This leads me to the other big positive in the game: the variety. You never really do the same thing twice; if you do, you did a ton of stuff in between. I don’t think anyone will complain about repetition in this game. On the downside, there are a few significant flaws that keep the title from rising into the upper echelon.

Firstly, despite the great potential – which is mostly realized – of the Shift function, I do feel we have to rely on it too heavily. Secondly, the actual driving mechanics are a tad strange; they’re mostly arcade-y with a tinge of simulation, but there’s too much of an emphasis on the hand brake and power slides. The control doesn’t necessarily let you down, but it takes some getting used to. Thirdly, certain missions can be mind-numbingly difficult and they’ll come out of nowhere; this is the epitome of “difficulty spike.” And I don’t think they’re simply challenging; I think the game throws too much crap at you at once, which becomes ultra-annoying.

And I really have to say, as much as this game isn’t as much about the storyline, the plot is just plain loopy. So loopy, in fact, I found myself rolling my eyes a few times. I won’t condemn it for this drawback but I do consider it a slight flaw. Back on the plus side, the online and split-screen multiplayer modes are tons of fun, and the Shift feature really takes center-stage. You can disable the function for certain missions, and overall, playing with friends is a great way to pass the time. The campaign will end after maybe 8-10 hours and honestly, I’m not sure they took full advantage of the city. It’s really big; we could've done more in it.

Driver: San Francisco shines brightly in some areas and comes up a little shy in others. It can be immensely frustrating, the story is insane, and the Shift feature really does feel overused in the campaign. At the same time, the inherent diversity and versatility is excellent, the graphics are pretty and presents great detail, the soundtrack is awesome, and the control is reliable (if a little weird). It’s one of those games that can really grab you and if it does, you’ll probably have to see it through to the end. Just bear in mind that beneath a glossy veneer and a continually entertaining experience could be a surprising challenge spike.

The Good: Impressive detail and character design. Fantastic soundtrack. Shift function makes the game feel unique. Great variety of missions. Top-notch presentation. Multiplayer is big fun.

The Bad: Story is too ridiculous. Shift feature feels overused at times. Massive difficulty spikes. Odd Control takes some getting used to.

The Ugly: “Something…is going…to get…broken.”

9/5/2011   Ben Dutka