Driver: San Francisco is a brilliant game - that much I'm certain of. Nailing down exactly why it's brilliant is proving to be hard, but not for the usual reasons; there's just too damn many interesting things going on in this game, and I'm not sure what to talk about first! The poor, unfortunate souls who follow me on Twitter have been made to endure my incessant tweets about the game these past couple of days. To be fair, there's a lot to talk about: the writing is clever and genuinely funny, the story is remarkably strange for a mainstream tentpole release in an established franchise and the title song is the best video game theme in years (actually, the whole soundtrack is great). This is a game heavy with smart ideas, but I figure it'd be best to focus on one for now: the shift mechanic.
And showing is always better than telling, right?
For those unfamiliar, the shift mechanic allows you to (through a brilliantly bizarre story contrivance) effectively teleport out of your car and into any other vehicle on the road virtually anytime. It's an exhilarating ability, doubly so when you combine it with Ubisoft Reflections' proprietary game engine that allows you to zoom out far enough to see practically all of San Francisco at once. The consequences of shift are extreme and often amazing. Not a lot of games have the chutzpah to equip the player with a game-breakingly potent superpower right off the bat, and even fewer will pull it off with as much balance and finesse as is seen here.
Just to give you an example of what shift can do for you, here's a video I made earlier today. I'm in the middle of an off-road buggy race, doing poorly, when suddenly I bungle a corner and end up flipping my car onto its side. Suddenly, I'm in fourth place! Out of four drivers! What to do?
In most racing games, I'd have to either restart, or keep racing and pray that the rubber banding was severe enough to give me a fighting chance. In Driver: SF, however, I was able to do this:
Why, yes, I totally did just leave my body, float a quarter mile away, retrieve a goddamn city bus, swerve it onto the dirt course and use it as a makeshift barricade to hold every racer but myself back. How fucking awesome is that?!
The answer you're looking for is "pretty fucking awesome." And for those of you concerned about whether or not this is unfair: I wound up winning the race, but it was a close one. One of the many ingenious things about shift is that once as you leave a victim's body, they resume control of the vehicle - so the bus driver unstuck himself and resumed his route, giving the other racers a chance to catch up with me.
Tactics like this are never explicitly taught to you by the game - it's simply a beautiful consequence of what happens when developers give you godlike powers and let you roam free. They're what you'd call examples of emergent gameplay(a wiki page Jeff soullessly deleted), and they are one of my favorite things in video games.
Polished, open-world-y games whose possibilities feel endless are, without a doubt, my favorite type of game. That's why Just Cause 2 made me happier than almost any other game last year: you could connect a decapitated statue head to the back of a car with rope and use it as a makeshift flail to take out enemies. I played the original Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction for dozens (maybe hundreds) of hours, and my 12-year-old brother just finished playing through the game for the third time earlier this year. Like, he played it on Xbox 360! How crazy is that?
Not that crazy, actually. These games that actively cultivate emergent gameplay are truly special, because every time you pick them up, you're guaranteed at least a couple of completely unique experiences that you've never had before. They're weird, explosion-laden storytelling engines. And I think they're great! Which is why, three years later, I still catch myself occasionally playing fucking Saints Row 2.
Back to my point, though: shift is awesome. It irreversibly alters every single mission type you encounter. Car chases, races, escort missions: every type of basic variant an open-world car-drivin' game can throw at you plays completely differently with the power of every car in San Francisco on your side. Each mission turns into a kind of puzzle, and they're super rewarding to solve. I'm only a few hours in, but the game has done a great job of throwing a variety of shift-incorporating gametypes at me faster than I can outsmart them.
And that's without even mentioning the multiplayer.
Basically, what I'm getting at is this: fucking play Driver: San Francisco. It's fun / polished / unique as shit, and absolutely worthy of your attention.