The term “wheelman” takes on a new meaning in Driver: San Francisco

Cyanide gas bombs, Dodge Challengers, comas, Google maps, unpaid college fees, driving instructors and fake medication; these are just some of the seemingly unrelated things that await you in Driver: San Francisco, an interactive experience that can only loosely be described as a “driving game”. Driver: SF is the latest in a confused series of games that over the course of its last few outings, seemed to lack direction and thought, no doubt as a result of the inability to cope with the large number of GTA clones that made their way to the market. But the team behind Driver: San Francisco at Ubisoft Reflections has managed to produce something unique this time around, all the while returning to the roots of the series. Driver: SF is a game about driving, and, well, other stuff. But it's mostly about driving.

The wisest creative decision taken by the developers was scrapping the system that allowed players to get out of their vehicles (Driver: SF successfully un-GTA-ed itself as a result). The development team recognised that merely aping the on-foot system in Rockstar's flagship title or its various clones would not help Driver: SF's cause. This ‘return to the roots' was well and good, but an innovation was needed and this came in the way of the ‘shift' mechanic, a system which would allow players to magically transport themselves into the bodies of drivers of other vehicles. Often, key gameplay mechanics are found to be overused (third-person shooters and cover, anyone?) but the fact that there's so much shifting in Driver: San Francisco makes the game better simply because there's so much driving to do as a result of it. For instance, the game will at times ask you to finish first and second in a race; a feat that can only be achieved through frantic shifting. Similarly, you will be expected to take down street racers by controlling two separate police vehicles. And when making a getaway, the system allows you to shift into an oncoming truck and ram into your pursuers. The game opens up a whole host of possibilities, while the system itself works well as a result of a quick zoomed-out camera (akin to Google maps) that gives you a bird's eye view of the action while allowing you to hop into a vehicle of your choice. It could be argued that the game does a poor job of justifying the system (a large portion of the game takes place in protagonist Tanner's mind when he is in a coma), but that would be missing the point entirely. You drive more vehicles more often in Driver: San Francisco than any other game that involves driving only because of the shifting system. Also, for the first time in the series, Driver: San Francisco features fully licensed vehicles from manufacturers such as Dodge, Pagani, Lamborghini, Bentley and more.

Driver: San Francisco's plot might be ridiculous, but the ‘shift' mechanic is the best innovation in a driving game since Grid's ‘rewind'. The game also manages to remain interesting throughout the length of its story mode by thrusting you into one ridiculous situation after another, while an incredible 19 different multiplayer modes will keep you occupied when you have company (local or online). It might look visually dated on the face of things, but driving from the cockpit of a car has never felt more right thanks to some slick animation and fast-paced chases. The writing is often funny and never serious — a tone echoed by the game itself. Despite the odd difficulty spike and occasionally dumb AI (which can work in tandem to create awkward sections of play), Driver: San Francisco does enough right to make it one of the most fun and unique driving games you'll ever play. Driver: San Francisco is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.