Skip to main content

Driver: San Francisco

Tanner the best.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Games are full of excuses, whether they're telling you that a terrorist strike has closed off half the city you're exploring or that swimming is a bad idea when you have electricity coursing through your veins. As excuses go though, Driver: San Francisco throws up one of the more outrageous.

You're John Tanner, undercover cop, wheelman and faded gaming icon, and after one high-speed altercation with your nemesis Jericho within the opening 10 minutes, you're also in a coma.

What that preposterous set-up excuses, however, is something quite brilliant. Drifting through the fog of San Francisco in the haze of a dream, Tanner can shift from car to car, possessing citizens in a mechanic that's as inspired as it is bizarre.

At first, shifting just feels like a neat and snappy way to move from car to car. You'll be stalking the skies like an automotive magpie, waiting for a set of wheels that take your fancy before, at the press of a button, landing in the driver's seat.

The lure of XP - or, in Driver: San Francisco's parlance, Willpower - provides a gentle tug down from the heavens, generously doling out points for dodging traffic, catching air or holding onto a drift. It's a currency that also unlocks new cars and garages as well as expanding the boundaries of some of Tanner's special powers.

But shift soon becomes much, much more, and it's a pleasure to watch developer Reflections wrangle mileage out of the feature. Taking down cars quickly becomes an artful juggling act as an entire swarm of rush hour traffic is placed at your disposal, and snapping from one side of the city to another in a swift manoeuvre is central to many missions. There are smarter applications too: winning a race is one thing, but how about coming first, second and third?

It's a mechanic that's explored even further in a multiplayer suite that has a whiff of Midtown Madness in the chaos it provokes. Generous playlists are bundled together, and while point-to-point races play a part it tends towards the more boisterous as games of tag and follow-the-leader descend into heady carnage.

Driver's mini-map deserves praise, expanding at the touch of a button and proving more useful than most.

Shift's real achievement, however, is in placing the focus of the game firmly behind the steering wheel. This particular Driver, funnily enough, is all about driving, and given how the series has previously faltered as soon as it stepped outside of the car, that's a very smart move.

If it's all a little flimsily framed, Newcastle developer Reflections at least plays it for laughs. Driver: San Francisco, when it's got its story face on, often feels like a Carry On film directed by Christopher Nolan.

This is a city that's dense with characters, and leaping from car to car throws up a seemingly never-ending succession of skits; finding yourself in charge of a school run, leaping into the midst of a lover's tiff or between two sparring work colleagues and, at one brilliant juncture, between two policemen having an illicit affair (unfortunately Tanner never mutters "Oh boy" when doing so - an opportunity sadly missed).

For each moment of ticklesome slapstick there's another of striking dreamlike imagery - a city deserted, or one that's been dramatically put on pause. Driver: San Francisco's core storyline exploits such moments to full effect, managing to gingerly toe a line that means, while it's never exactly credible or plausible, it's at the very least enjoyable.