‘Driver: San Francisco’: The Best Game of 2011 that No One Played

[18 September 2012]

By Eric Swain

Driver: San Francisco is so out of the normal wheelhouse of what we consider driving games to be, I hesitate to classify it as such. It goes beyond mere genre classification and entered the realm of a true masterpiece. Do not be fooled, though, for Driver’s surface is deceiving.

Driver: San Francisco begins with a by-the-numbers cops and robbers set up. There’s a prison transfer of a dangerous convict named Charles Jericho. He escapes, takes control of the prison van, and runs the game’s protagonist, Detective John Tanner, straight into the path of an oncoming truck. You, as Tanner, are down for the count, and this is when the game really begins. The premise is that you are in a coma and the events that take place for nearly the entire game are the product of Tanner’s imagination, as his subconscious tries to make sense of the news reports he hears from a television in his hospital room. Jericho goes on a crime spree stealing tanker trucks, precious metals, and kidnapping a chemist. In an effort to satisfy his own desire for justice, Tanner inserts himself into these events as his mind tried to come to grips with his own trauma.

As such, everything in the game world is slightly off. The open world has the ghostly kind of feel despite being a real place, a bright shimmering superimposition of verisimilitude. Mechanically this takes the form of the game’s shifting system. The entire game soon revolves around Tanner’s newfound power. You can leave your corporeal body with a push of a button to float above the city and then posses the driver of any car on the road. It’s a perfect way to get right back into the action, as well as allowing the game to stretch the very limits of Tanner’s reality.

Driver: San Francisco, then, creates a new and varied gaming experience by not introducing no bloat, but instead, by exploring what its the possibilities of its central concept. Shifting to crash oncoming cars into the car that you’re chasing or helping hapless street racers is one thing, but soon you are racing two cars at once, showing off for a reality television crew by pulling off dangerous stunts, disarming bombs beneath 18 wheelers, and much more—not to mention dozens of additional challenges that push both Tanner’s abilities and the player’s skills as far as they can go. However, the missions aren’t perfect. There are a few hiccups thanks to a handful of random difficulty spikes and the rubber banding can get occasionally annoying, but if you push through these faults, you’ll find a game that expresses a broad imagining of all the things that one can do with when driving a car—beyond just racing and chasing.

Yes, the game spends most of the its time focusing on the ludicrous cops and robbers scheme and the characters’ firm resolves to solve the mystery, but despite the superficial nature of that plot, the game does go places much deeper than an episode of Starsky & Hutch might go. Driver: San Francisco may have those elements, but it is not about them.  Instead, it is an exploration of Tanner’s psyche. Everything is filtered through his perception, everything from the game mechanics to the investigation to the passengers in the cars that he takes over. The very driving itself is loose enough to give it the same Hollywood vibe that Tanner emulates. Nothing is real and yet all of it is true. Whereas John McClane was the product of the cowboy culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s, so is John Tanner the product of the cop shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He sees himself as the image of a lone policeman hero in a fight between good and evil whose duty it is to protect his city. But that image slowly degrades as the reality of the television news keeps intervening. After all, he isn’t changing anything. We play through both Tanner’s martyred sense of purpose and the reality that has been twisted into knots that his mind has created to keep the illusions going. Thus, we encounter literal mental blocks—the slowing of reality and little breaks in perception that make you question what is happening.

In the end, the game is about the metaphysical, the id and ego, the mirror by which we view ourselves and by which we view the world around us in turn. It is a glorification of the pumped ridiculous action of the genre and a critique of it. The game is both realist and surrealist as the world is built up before us before being torn apart piece by piece atop its faulty foundations. Whether by design or accident, Ubisoft has taken the avant garde sensibilities of Bergman and Felini and turned it into something that an audience perhaps more attuned of action can digest and appreciate by aping the style of 70s cop show. Driver has gamified internal struggle and even with all of the other praise I have for the game, for that alone it deserves your attention.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/163268-driver/