Life In Cars – I Played The Demo Of Driver: San Francisco

Recently, the demo for Driver: San Francisco was released on Xbox Live. In a fit of not having all that much to do on a Thursday evening, I decided to give it a bash. Here are my findings, in handy word format.

Before I start, I’ll be perfectly honest – I’m really not that interested in Driver: SF. I’ve never played any of the previous games, and I probably won’t buy this one. The only reason I’m writing this at all is because I think it’d be a crying shame to let a killer pun like “Life In Cars” go to waste*.

Anyway. Impressions ahoy!

Driver: San Francisco is the continuation of the story of John Tanner, or whatever his name is, who was presumably the protagonist for one or more of the previous Driver game(s). He is a policeman, chasing a criminal of some description, who is revealed in the intro cinematic to have Alien-esque acid in his mouth instead of regular human spit. At some point in the plot,everything goes a bit BBC, and Tanner has a car accident, waking up in 1973.

Sorry, not 1973. The other thing. A mediocre video game.

Tanner soon learns that the accident or crash or whatever has given him the power to control other people’s minds – so far, so Matt Parkman. The twist is, Tanner’s power is rubbish, because he can only control the minds of people who are driving cars.

In gameplay terms, this mind-switching power manifests itself as a ‘Shift’ button. This allows you to hop from the car you’re currently driving into any nearby car that takes your fancy. In the three short missions featured in the demo, Shift mode works reasonably well – time slows and the camera zooms out, allowing time to find your next ride. Once you’ve found a car you like the look of, you can look forward to driving it for up to four seconds before you crash into something, thanks to the apparent lack of any sort of steering wheel. Maybe it’s just because I don’t really play many driving games on the 360, but I can’t help but feel that a game called Driver should have cars that are actually fun to drive. Instead, these cars can barely turn a corner at any sort of speed, meaning the only way to escape the various police chases I found myself in over the course of the demo was to head straight down the longest stretch of road I could find and drive slightly faster than them for 10 seconds, at which point San Francisco’s finest clearly assume you’re far too good for them, and bugger off. Unless, of course, you run into one of the big, red ‘END OF DEMO’ walls first, in which case you’re teleported right back in front of them.

As my hopefully sarcastic tone might have told you, I have some issues with the whole thing. First, there’s already a game that allows you to hop between vehicles at will, and it’s much better than this – the greatest Complete Bastard Simulator ever made, Just Cause 2. Second, Shift mode is not nearly as good as it could be. The concept itself has a lot of potential, most of which has been entirely ignored by the developers. Tanner’s body-swapping is nowhere near as useful as it sounds, thanks to some annoying limitations that completely ruin the fun. For example, in one mission, during a car chase, I had the idea to shift over to one of the police cars behind me and force it to crash into the other, allowing me to escape. But when I tried to actually do this, I was presented with a big, red sign that made it very clear I was being far too clever, and that the developers would please like me to stop thinking so much and play the game properly.

Oh, sure, there’s clearly an argument to be made here. Simply being able to stop my pursuers whenever I like does ruin the point of a ‘chase’ sequence somewhat. But placing arbitrary restrictions on an otherwise interesting and potentially emergent new game mechanic, stifling player creativity in the process, is a fairly boring way of dealing with that issue.

Personally, I don’t think I’ll be buying this on release. To me, the Driver series has always been the poor man’s Grand Theft Auto (which itself is in danger of becoming the boring man’s Saint’s Row). But remember, this isn’t a review of the full game, this is just my impression of the demo. It’s entirely possible the game gets a lot better – I can imagine the Free Roam mode has a good few hours of mindless mind-swapping carnage to offer and, I do have to admit, there were a few good ideas on show, like a street race in which you control two participants simultaneously, and have to come both first and second.  If the full game can expand on that sort of concept, as well as tighten up the car handling and explain the bonkers plot to a reasonable degree, it might just pull through.

* My second choice was “Ashes To Crashes”.

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