Surprise of 2011
If you told me that a game whose main mechanic is the ability to jump Quantum Leap style into the body of any driver and carries the Driver name would all but guarantee a spot on my top 10 games of 2011 list, I'd think 2011 was a pretty crappy year for games. But, in one of the biggest surprises of the year, Reflections has done just that. Dismissing Driver: San Francisco because of it's fairly out there premise or because of bad memories from the franchise's previous efforts is understandable, but they have brought the car into the shop and have done the right amount of tune-ups and bodywork to present a game that breathes new life into both a franchise on the brink of irrelevancy and a genre in need of new ideas.
The game picks up with criminal mastermind Charles Jericho on his way to jail after being captured by series hero John Tanner. However, thanks to a hot chick with an RPG and a capsule of acid, Jericho escapes. The resulting car chase wreaks havoc on the streets of SF and puts Tanner in the hospital in a coma. Tanner, meanwhile, somehow wakes up back in his own car and discovers he has the ability to "Shift" himself into the body of any driver in the world and he uses this new-found skill to piece together what Jericho is planning next. The fact that the game sets this up right from the start allows the story to evolve and make sense; you don't suddenly find out 5 hours in that it is all taking place in Tanner's head. The main story is surprisingly interesting and gripping as Tanner not only tries to figure out Jericho's next moves, but also just what is going on with his new powers. It builds to quite the conclusion and a highly entertaining final chase.
The Shift mechanic, in a word, is genius. There is no meter, no story contrivance to restrict you from using it whenever you want. With the push of a button, you find yourself floating high above San Fran and searching for a new ride. Shifting allows a bit of strategic thinking in most of the missions; bad guy getting away from you? Shift into a bus coming in the opposite direction and smash into him head-on. Need to take down a bunch of racers? Block the road with a fuel tanker to slow them down. There are a wealth of officially licensed vehicles to choose from, from speedy Aston Martin roadsters, to Chevy Volts each with their own speed, strength, and drift ratings. The driving is a bit looser than you would find from a game like NFS:Hot Pursuit and takes a little time to adjust to; expect to find yourself weaving onto the sidewalks full of invincible pedestrians a lot.
Shifting into the citizens of SF lets the game tell some mini-stories that expand the game world and puts Tanner into different situations, from a producer who wants to film reckless driving to a pair of brothers that take to street racing in order to pay for college, or a kid that just wants to scare the piss out of his driving instructor to get a discount on lessons. Tanner must complete these missions to unlock ones that furthers the main story. Many of these are one-offs, but the voice acting is strong and offer a good variety, from races where you must finish 1st AND 2nd to driving under big rigs to disarm bombs.
Reflections seemed to go back to its roots with the atmosphere of the game, giving it the "Rockford Files" look and feel of the first Driver. The soundtrack is full of 70's funk which lends itself nicely to high speed chases and smashing steel. The game also looks fantastic, running at a full 60fps which gives the game a great sense of speed, though crashes feel a tad underwhelming.
After finishing the main story, there is still a wealth of optional races and activities to do in the city, all which earn you Willpower Points that you can spend for upgrades and vehicles. There are also Movie Tokens to collect which unlock challenges that borrow from films such as Gone in 60 Seconds and Bullit. Taking the game online gives you even more opportunity for carnage in Tag, Takedown and straight racing modes. A standard leveling system that seems to be in every online game nowadays lets you unlock upgrades and new modes to play.
Overall, I can't help but to be completely (but pleasantly) surprised at how Driver: San Francisco turned out. Sometimes it takes thinking way outside the box to produce a quality product in a crowded genre and Reflections should be applauded for not only pulling it off, but pulling it off so well.