Driver San Francisco Is The Best Game No One Is Talking About

I should have been playing more Gears of War 3 Friday night. I had an early copy. But I tried Driver: San Francisco.

I should have been playing Gears of War 3 most of Saturday afternoon, but I felt the irrepressible urge to do something else: play more Driver: San Francisco.

I got some Gears in yesterday, but I was late to work this morning. My excuse? I was finishing the storyline campaign of Driver: San Francisco.

I never played a Driver before. I'm not even much of a racing game fan. Those are no hurdles for a fantastic game like this. Let me tell you about my favourite surprise game (so far) of 2011, the one I didn't think could be so much fun... my own personal Dead Island, Driver: San Francisco.

It feels like nothing else

My old writing buddy N'Gai Croal accuses me of having an "innovation bias". Well, yeah. I've been playing games for a couple of decades. If a new one can surprise me — if it can empower me to do something I don't feel like I've done before — I'm impressed.

Driver: SF has me doing something I haven't done in games before. Specifically: while racing through a virtual San Francisco in at Aston Martin at 240km/h, in pursuit of a criminal getaway car 10m ahead of me, I can tap a button and suddenly be watching this chase from the clouds above. I may then spot an SUV driving in the opposite direction, tag it with a tap of a controller button, suddenly be driving behind the wheel of that SUV…. then take this new vehicle, cross the median and smash it headlong into that criminal getaway car as my original car whizzes by behind it on some sort of ghostly cruise control.

You are possessing cars (like a ghost!)…

This is the wonder of Driver: San Francisco. The developers at Ubisoft Reflections have given gamers the kind of open world you'd find in a Grand Theft Auto, created dozens and dozens of missions, all car-based, in that city — races, chases, destruction derbies and more — and armed the player not just with driving controls but with this crazy ability to take immediate control of any car that you can see on the road. [Editor's note: I will add a video of this as soon as my work PS3 stops updating its firmware. Sigh.]

Let's say you're in a race… in Driver: SF, you don't just have to crawl from eighth place to first the old-fashioned way, with smart acceleration, power-sliding and high-speed avoidance of traffic. You can also keep hopping out of your car (while it keeps driving under some crazy cruise control), scan ahead through some sort of airborne spirit-walking flying camera mode to find some car in the other lane, take control of that new car, cross the median and smack it into the people ahead of you in the race… then with a single tap of the button be back in your own car and pass all of your crashed opponents.

You don't have to race the ghost way. That's just one more tactic to the standard ones you'd use in a racing game. The more grounded player might simply learn the roads better, purchase better cars with in-game money earned by finishing side missions. Me? I find a bus going in the wrong direction and try to get three racing rivals to T-bone it at once.

Sometimes you're not in a race. Sometimes you are parking a van that needs to be examined for evidence, but some criminals want to destroy it. This being a video game (and one that takes place in a man's coma dreams, which I'll explain in a few moments), the bad guys will try to destroy the truck by sending their henchmen in cars from all around the city with the intent to converge on the parked van and ram it. You, the hero who can float above the city and possess cars, can spot the red markers of enemy cars below and possess nearby cars to ram the bad guys' off the road. Now you're managing car crashes across several square blocks.

At other times, you need to get two cars past the finish line, first and second, and you'll need to hop from one car to the other to keep them both ahead of the pack. Sometimes you'll need to possess a certain kind of car to finish a mission. Maybe you'll need to grab a low one so you can drive it under a flatbed tractor trailer that is gunning down the highway. You need to get under that truck to defuse a bomb, of course.

Much of the time while you're playing Driver: SF, you won't possess another car not for the sake of any mission. You'll do it just because it's fun.

You are ruining marriages and cancelling music lessons…

The game's justification for your ghostly ability to "shift" from car to car is that your character, hero cop John Tanner, has been knocked into a coma by the fender of the game's main bad guy. In that coma you can dreamily stop crimes you're hearing about on the TV news that's playing in your hospital room.

Tanner's coma world functions similarly to the real world in that the cars in dream-San-Francisco are driven by people, people with personalities. If you possess a car, you're actually possessing the driver. Much to the game developers' credit, those Quantum Leap-style body-hops are played for plot-twists and comedy. In the game's story missions, you're possessing small-time criminals in the hopes of finding out what big-time ones are up to. Or you're possessing cops to help with an investigation. (Or, once, you're possessing a woman who has to get a guy who was bitten by a spider to a hospital before he died, the rougher the ride, the less likely he'll pass out.)

The game is at its funniest and most charming when you're possessing the cars of regular people. Every time you do this you get to hear a snippet of conversation. Think of the kinds of things people talk to each other about while in a car. That's what you hear. You'll take over a car just in time to hear the lady in the passenger's seat confess that she slept with your boyfriend. You'll hop in another and hear the passenger freak out that he is sure he is being followed. In another, the teenage girl in the car is complaining to her mum — who is now controlled by Tanner/you — that she doesn't want to take music lessons anymore (violin, if memory serves). The best part of this is how Tanner reacts. Sometimes he's befuddled. Other times, he wilfully screws with the person. Go ahead and quit those lessons, he tells the girl. Not what she expected to hear.

You are interrupting ordinary lives, visiting them just for a few seconds. You're doing the most unusual thing in video games: interacting with characters who seem like regular, ordinary people who have the regular, ordinary problems that make us grouchy one moment and happy the next. Saving the world or even stopping criminals has nothing to do with these mini-dramas which resemble the dramas of our lives.

Driver: SF seems like it's a crime game but the little dialogue moments that occur when you possess random cars on the roads of San Francisco turn it into this wonderful celebration of our quotidian experiences on the road. And yet how profound and emotional moments those are… it sounds so right, so jarring, so funny and sometimes so sad all at once to hear the rage, the hysteria, the raised blood pressure of people speaking in that weirdly private public place: the front two seats of a car. You're the ultimate eaves-dropper in some of the most ordinary, human moments ever captured in a game.

You are chasing yourself…

For all of these delightful reasons and because it's not a very long game, I did get through Driver: San Francisco in a weekend. At least, I got through the main story missions, of which there can't be more than 20 or so. There appear to be at least a hundred side missions and a raft of online options I didn't even start. Leave it to me, though, to be satisfied with a weekend of innovation. In those 20 or so main missions I didn't just do some of the things described above. I met new surprises at almost every turn. I drove through a nightmare. I drove toward a tide of cars barreling sideways toward me. I once had to chase myself. There are other mission shocks, too good to ruin for you.

The main game is over quickly. The rest of the game could last me a while. But back to what matters: This is a game that doesn't feel like the others, one built on that most old-school of gaming concepts: a new way to move through a virtual world. Let's add the-ghostly-possessing-of-any-car-visible-from-the-clouds-above-a-city to the Super Mario hop, the Bionic Commando swing, and the Katamari Damacy snowballing of scenery. It's a game mechanic you should try, wrapped up in a world full of such natural, human moments that it feels like a very special game.

Download the demo, at least, if you can get it. I recommend you get the full game and relish its celebration of driving and the people who drive cars.

In what other game will you hop into a speeding car to hear the words: "I slept with your boyfriend. There. I said it."

And in what other game will the hero bark back to this woman he has never met before and say: "Great. Are you buckled in?" Then, a second later, he's gone. Into the next car we go.


    I played the multiplayer demo a few weeks back and I have to say the hour or so spent with it was some of the most fun times I have had in a video game.
    Think games like open world car tag where you can possess random cars at will to try and take the leader out.
    Good times, maybe even worth picking it up now just so there is peeps to play it with.

    - Ubisoft realises Driver: San Francisco is not selling that well
    - Ubisoft pays Kotaku to write a piece trying to convince us why a cheap gimmick should reinvent a tired franchise
    - My cynical mind loses some respect for my favourite website
    - Don't p*ss on me and tell me it's raining...

      A: Don't forget Kotaku US (where this article originated from) and Kotaku AU are different.

      B: Did you play the demo? I hate driving games but even I thought this looked like a fun game. Give it a go, you might be surprised. :)

        A: I agree with you completely! AU rocks, US can sometimes be iffy
        B: Yeah I did play it, can't say I hated it, just thought it didn't deserve 1000 words trying to sell it :p

          no shenanigans here... i loved it. but i love all driver games for the handling. they fixed the game by removing the ability to get out of the car. this way you can focus on what the game is all about.

      >paying a site like kotaku for anything.

      Why not just remain sceptical of it till you actually try it rather than just assume everyone pays off everyone and every opinion is bought?

      Actually Yahtzee says pretty much the same thing, and we all know that if he gives a game praise then it's good.

    This is bugging me to no end. The game sounds so cool but I can't play racing games without a wheel. It feels wrong and for me it ruins a game so I'll have to continue with a "no thank you" to ubisoft.

      No wheel support??

        Last I heard Ubisoft decided against any and all wheel support because it would make the Shift mechanic too difficult even though people would have a mouse within arms reach for that very reason.

          i find arcade games better with a stick and the more sim-like games better with a wheel. this falls in the arcade category and is awesome. just last night i said to my GF i should try the wheel, now looks like that aint going to happen.

          I've liked every Driver up to this point for the handling model and the car chases. For the style and the mostly entertaining story.

          After playing the SF demo I can honestly say that I have absolutely no interest in the shift mechanic and will therefore wait until I can get it from a bargain bin somewhere.

          I understand that the feature is written itno the story and is meant to offer some variety and excitement to the game (and for many it will), but I'm just not feeling it...

          Owning a G27 myself, I would probably pick it up much sooner. If only to cruise and race around SF without using the shift mechanic. The apparent reasoning with with Ubi have approached wheel support is just stupid because whels have buttons too.

          After using the wheel and cockpit now for about 11 months, I struggle to enjoy racing or driving games with a pad. It would hold a lot more appeal if the support was there, but I'd play it the same way I play Midnight Club L.A. In the car.

          Oh well.

    just finished this last night... gotta say i loved every minute and i'm looking forward to polishing off the activities and dares :) fantastic game... not overly innovative but extremely fun!

    I love this game, well worth the money. Especially after the gigantic clusterfucks ever driver game Past 2 were.

    I think the best thing about the game for me is just the dialogue between tanner and the passengers in the car.

    Tanner: "Buckle up and hold on!"
    Woman: "Julian? What's got into you?"
    -Get into cop chase, shifting around cars and no doubt mentally scarring this woman-
    Woman: "Julian! why did you do this?!"
    Tanner: "Marry you? I don't know."

      I knew a Julian once, he was an enormous a-hole, having the opportunity to screw with the life of someone called Julian has just sold me on this game.

    I finished the story last night and can honestly say this was the most fun I've had playing a driving game since Burnout.

    The 2 Jap guys betting their college funds in street races were hilarious!

    Played the demo. Hated it.

    This game deserves to sell its fucking tits off. Loved it, and about to start a New Game Plus.

    I played the single player demo - which doesn't seem to have the fun game modes mp will have - but the handling of the cars was so bad - I couldn't be bothered getting the mp demo.

    It's great fun, but it just shouldn't be a Driver game.

    To me driver is about driving 70's muscle cars through cardboard boxes down backalleys, not listening to 'funny' dialogue whilst driving a skyline in a dream!

    oddly enough yahtzee seem to enjoy this game too so who knows

    This is a game I'm really interested in, but as a PC gamer I am not willing to put up with the god awful UbiDRM.

    What a shame.

    Played the demo, appears to contain 'off the rack' car models/code, nothing special done in this department to make most people recognize a screenshot as being from this game, they've got another 'could be any game' situation.

    The game in general has no flavour of it's own, of which Driver had all you needed, Driver lost a bit of it's soul in the sequel but still got across the line by having interesting locations and out of the car capability, which hadn't been done before.

    As part of the majority, who played driver 1 and 2, and have been appalled at every driver game since, I mused at the trend continuing in D:SF, Driver has really lost it's soul and unique look, plus there's been tons of driving games like burnout and stuntman that have used up the novelty that was a rag-tag fun driving game, so there goes the gameplay.

    I will give them credit for that hovering, dead-but-can-take-over-someone's-mind-to-get-that-car system, so there's at least one smart cookie left at Reflections.

    i thought the game went downhill after you had the ability to get out of the car. the game is called DRIVER. this new game catches the essence of this in my opinion right down to the pedestrians dodging your car when you go up on the sidewalk. once again, lets me concentrate on the core game mechanic. everyting in this game is about driving, not running around shooting people.


      I had to get out of the car "out of body" style only to zip into another. :P

    SO what's happening with their crappy DRM?

    The game plays fine, I guess.

    But I hate the characters and the setting. I'm just one of those people that needs a story that isn't totally stupid to be able to enjoy a game. Even if that game plays well.

    I get that the 70's Cop Buddy Show thing is deliberate. But it makes me wince when I play it.

    The game is ok, but nothing that special.... not worth leaving an early copy of GOW3 sitting around though!

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