As a game with possibly the most ridiculous and difficult-to-explain premise of any driving game in history, Driver: San Francisco has a lot to prove. It's difficult to see how a racer in which you can zoom out of your own body and temporarily inhabit any car in the road like a thrill-seeking poltergeist is actually going to work. Happily, Driver: SF brings you around to its way of thinking within minutes of picking up the controller. After spending half an hour or so playing around with the Shift system, you completely understand it – and you begin to see just how many new possibilities it opens up.
Driver: SF sees the return of undercover cop John Tanner and his incarcerated arch-nemesis Jericho, who breaks out of prison and puts Tanner into a coma at the very beginning of the game. From then on, events take place inside Tanner's head, which explains how he's suddenly able to possess innocent denizens of San Francisco on their daily commute to work. Tanner himself initially finds this newfound ability – Shifting, as he calls it – as ridiculous and improbable as anyone, sending boy racers leaping off transporter trucks and careening around the city with six cop cars in pursuit just for fun.
After an hour or two of that, though, it becomes apparent that there's more to Shifting than meets the eye, and it completely changes how you think about racing. Instead of concentrating purely on driving fast and cornering smartly, you can suddenly send oncoming traffic zooming into opponents to take them out, or block routes with a truck, or traverse the entire city in seconds. As the game goes on, your Shift abilities improve and more of the city unlocks, until you can zoom right out for a bird's-eye view of the whole Bay Area.
Driver takes full advantage of its premise, never holding back from ridiculous set pieces. There are chase missions where you're inside cop cars, escort or tailing missions where you have to stick with the same vehicle, missions where you have to contrive insane crashes to help out a camera crew for America's Most Insane Car Chases 4, missions where you're helping earnest Japanese boys to become street-racing heroes and fund their college education, and much more. It has more variety than any other racer I can name.
The point is proven by the unexpectedly brilliant selection of online and split-screen multiplayer modes, which show off Shift at its most entertaining and versatile. There are co-op survival missions where the aim is to escape cops or take down street racers as a team, games of competitive tag where your opponents are continually Shifting into different cars and attempting to veer into you, straightforward technical races where Shift is disabled, and modes where you have to tail a target car as closely as possible to score points, Shifting into another car when you drive head-on into a truck.
At the heart of it all is an OTT chase-racer, one that revels in damage, crashes, handbrake-heavy handling, wild spins and fishtailing, and high-energy Seventies-style funk music. Every model of car, of which there are a over a hundred, handles differently, meaning that every mission feels different. There's a lot of fun to be had just driving around the city trying out different cars, taking on driving side-missions and earning yourself currency to unlock new ones in garages. There's a vaguely GTA element of larcenous desire to things, too – drive past a nice fast sports car, and you can immediately hop into it and take it for a spin.
Driver: SF is actually at its worst when it's trying to be a straightforward racing game. The handling is pretty hand-brake heavy and over the top and there are plenty of things to crash into, and though that's great fun when you're in a chase, it's not so fun when you're trying to beat a time. Fall to the back in a street race and the cops will hassle you so insistently that you've no chance of winning. Also, when you temporarily shift out of a vehicle and into another one, the AI takes over and sometimes sends the car in completely the wrong direction whilst you're away, or gets it stuck up against a wall behind three cop cars, ruining your chances of success.
These frustrations are at the heart of some tremendously, fist-eatingly frustrating difficulty spikes that come close to ruining the experience from time to time. I got stuck on a single chase mission near the end of the game for a full hour and a half, getting continually unlucky with the driver AI until one fortuitous run enabled me to dodge my pursuers in time to finish with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. It's a chaotic crash-simulator more than a technical racer, and there is too much random chance inherent in the game for ten-minute long races to be enjoyable.
Setting a racing game inside someone's mind also leaves plenty of room for strange and supernatural goings-on. It starts with Tanner hearing disorientating snatches of real-life TV news in his car and seeing cryptic messages on billboards, and only gets madder from there. Driver: SF actually gets more crazy, not less, as time goes on, throwing in one-shot driving gimmicks for the sheer fun of it. One memorable scene has you driving the car from a top-down view with the whole city frozen in time around you. At another point near the end – potential spoiler alert – you find yourself literally flinging cars through the air along the freeway to block an opponent's path.
It's difficult to say too much about the game's best story missions without spoiling the plot, which actually isn't half-bad. It's a high-octane, improbable and comfortably ridiculous tale of terrorism and intrigue that carries the game along at a nice pace. It's novel to play a racing game whose primary concern is telling a story. You can tell how serious Driver is about its plot by looking at the amount of effort that has gone into things like facial animation and voice-acting, which are totally irrelevant concerns for most other racers. Characters look great in the cutscenes, right down to the pores on their skin; it's almost Heavy Rain standard, and really adds to the movie-like feel.
Outside of the cutscenes, when characters inside the car are having a conversation, you see their faces in the top left and right of the screen, which really helps you to connect with them. Aside from the main plot thread about Tanner's search for Jericho and his struggle with his rebellious subconscious, individual missions tell their own mini-stories too, following rogue undercover cops as they smash illegal meds to bits.
The sad thing is that the story comes to an end quickly. The game's impressively detailed recreation of San Francisco is a big place, and one that I would happily have spent more time in, but the story rushes prematurely towards its climax after around ten hours. There are plenty of side-challenges and collectibles that you can busy yourself with to pad things out, but fun as they are, they're nowhere near as compelling as the actual missions. After the story ends, you're deposited straight back into the city as a faceless Shifting entity to mop up all those loose ends, but it all feels a bit hollow without Tanner's pursuit of Jericho pulling you along. There's a lot of potential in the Shift system that isn't fully explored.
On the plus side, though, it means that no given mission type is overused, and that the story is defined by several great missions rather than endless mediocre ones shovelled in for padding. It certainly doesn't outstay its welcome, leaving you wanting more rather than wearied by endless chases or escort driving missions.