This week, Zero Punctuation is pleasantly surprised by Driver: San Francisco.
Do you wanna hear something crazy? Titty fuck Labrador swimming up the Nile.
Do you wanna hear something crazy but also coherent? Julia Roberts was once hospitalised for swallowing an entire vole.
Do you wanna hear something crazy but also coherent and true? Driver: San Francisco may end up being in my top five of the year!
And no one is more suprised by this than I, I assure you. I mean, as much as this may cause me to forfeit my rights to a scrotum, I've never found cars particularly engaging. Motor racing as a sport has none of the celebration of physical ability that makes, say, women's gymnastics fun to watch. It's basically just a bunch of dudes sittin' in heavily sponsored armchairs for two hours. And while I'll play driving games, they have been seeming a wee bit redundant lately when a game like Grand Theft Auto can have all the features of a driving game but also lets you get out of your car and kick elderly women to death. And yet, there's just no getting away from it. Driver as a series has generally left me lukewarm but I really like Driver: San Francisco, so I guess that means I am gay, after all.
You are detective John Tanner. Oh, wait, no. You're not. You're some nerdy jackoff whose probably procrastinating too much. You play as detective John Tanner, a maverick cop with a sassy black partner, a death wish, and a fondness for cars that make him look like a dick. From the outset, the game has this goofy Starsky & Hutch daytime cop show sort of vibe that works because no one ever seems to die. Seatbelts are made from magical titanium and pedestrians always leap out of the way of your car like their spidey sense bit them in the taint. So the game's able to keep a lightness of tone without also seeming incredibly psychotic. He's in pursuit of an escaped crimelord whose on a quest to steal Christmas from the orphans or something. It's not important - he's bad, you're good, all right?
But you know what's missing from this formula? A bit of magical realism. So Tanner has a near-death experience, after which he acquires the mystical ability to astrally project and possess anyone in the city who's driving a car. It's no more out of place than that one episode of Columbo where they discover the entrance to Narnia.
Switching instantly to any car anywhere is the main gameplay gimmick that's woven nicely into the storyline. John Tanner, cut as he is from the generic white bread wisecracky douche hero template, starts getting pretty likeable when he has the Groundhog Day revelation that he can now live life without consequence, immediately possessing a driving student and speeding through the oncoming lane just to make the dick instructor mess his corduroys. "Serve and protect," ladies and gentlemen!
The characters John quantum leaps into for the various missions all have unique personalities and struggles and there's a lot of quite witty dialogue, which is attentive considering all you see of most people are the backs of their heads and a tailpipe. Yes, it kind of is so fucking goofy that Disney would file a restraining order, but it's okay - Tanner can't really possess people, he's just in a coma dream. That might sound like a spoiler, but it really isn't. They establish it very early on, and if you astrally project as high above the city as you can you can actually hear the hospital heart monitor, which I think is a really nice touch. It's probably for the best to lay down the It's All A Dream card right at the start, because as ending twists go it's on the same level as Rocks Fall And Everyone Dies.
The quantum leap thing is a gimmick, but it's the right kind of gimmick that actually adds something to a tired concept. 'Cause really, once you've done "drive really fast bumping into things" and "drive really fast not bumping into things," there aren't many places for a driving game to go. But bodyswapping lends itself to all kinds of things, from remotely controlling a car from the car behind it to possessing civilians in the oncoming lane in order to plow head-on into someone you're pursuing. Again, "serve and protect," ladies and gentlemen!
It lends the game a really good sense of flow. Drive straight into a big wall in a daring experiment to crossbreed mailboxes and radiators, and in two quick button presses you can be back on the road, leaving a hapless geography teacher to take the bus to work for a few months. Of course, astrally projecting is so easy that you have to be careful not to get confused and press what you think is the handbrake button only to be ghost catapulted into a tree to watch yourself spin out into a cattery.
Not usually given to drop my trousers for driving games, I couldn't tell you how the actual driving compares in the competitive market. Vehicles do seem to spin out very easily, but it could be that I only notice because it happens every single fucking impalas time I'm about to win at something. There's also a weird tendency to surround roads with invisible walls marked by two-foot fences, so if you're airborne as you pass over the fence you'll bounce off some kind of indestructible butterfly and crash to the ground. Perhaps this is warranted to stop people launching cars into birdbaths when they're supposed to be racing, but in a game where every other car on the road is a ramp truck and in which Sweet Jumps is practically the local currency, it seems weird that they thought no one would notice this.
It's yet another sign of modern games trying to bash us into line. You may notice that when you exit your body the A.I. takes control of your vacated car, so it keeps chasing the baddies while you look for civilians to sacrifice to the god of head-on collisions. "Serve and protect," etc. It's hard not to look at that sort of thing and say "Hey, I'm not entirely convinced you guys really need me here. I'm just gonna go get a sandwich, you want anything?"
There's also rather obnoxious rubberbanding at times - ha-HA! yes, I can swing the driving game lingo now! - to the point that most of what you do during a race doesn't amount to shit until the last few checkpoints. Once, I was in last place and spun out two checkpoints before the end, so I decided to wait sulkily by the side of the road until the mission failed and I could restart. But it didn't fail. All my fucking opponents parked around the next bend waiting for me to catch up for a halfway exciting finish, the condescending gits.
So there's that, and the story campaign can get a bit cutsceney at times, but by intercutting smoothly between cinematics and gameplay without too much obvious loading, it doesn't sacrifice flow. And the flow is what it's all about. Flying high above the city with my mate Dave the Seagull before instantly plunging into a highway street race just as my favorite song comes on the radio: those are the moments that make it all worthwhile. I had fun with Driver: San Francisco, and you can take that for whatever it's worth. Although considering I don't drive or am particularly into driving games, it's probably only worth about enough for the bus ride home.
Should get around to passing his test: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Starsky and Hutch could only have been improved by an evil lightning wizard who throws cars around like it's a fight scene from a Star Wars prequel
Sweet Jump currently trading favourably against the Euro