Driver: San Francisco review

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A plea to creators of driving games: please, please, please lay off the narrative sauce. Stories in racers are always crap, or silly, or  both. And in this case it’s a real shame, because everything other than the story here is largely excellent: from the beautifully detailed open world of San Francisco to the much-touted ‘shift’ mechanic, whereby series mainstay John Tanner can force his expert wheelman brain cogs inside any driver in the city. But for a game that’s about roaring across the tarmac with engines purring, it doesn’t half splutter its way through an opening hour choked with clumsy narrative guff.

This isn’t a brain-jarring Christopher Nolan masterpiece. You don’t need to know how Tanner can do what he can do. You certainly don’t need the first 60 minutes taken up with hammy scripting and clunky attempts at justifying the plot. But it happens anyway.

So, deep breath: Tanner is in a coma after a near fatal accident involving long-time nemesis, Jericho, meaning the majority of the game takes place in Tanner’s head. Here his car stereo blurts out snippets of speech from real-world friends as he continues to track Jericho down put paid to a nasty plot involving vast quantities of cyanide gas. And, er, this is all happening in the real world too, by the way.

As first impressions go it’s like being asked on a date by someone misquoting Sigmund Freud as a chat-up line. “I… I… was inside someone else’s body!?” Yes, Tanner, yes you were. Now just shut up and drive. Manoeuvre your way through the splintered opening and you’ll find the game you paid for – a lovingly detailed open world expanse rammed to bursting with tasty nuggets of automotive pleasure.

‘Shifting’ makes getting about the place an absolute breeze – simply push X and you’ll pop out of Tanner’s body and hover above the street. From here it’s a simple case of gliding over bustling streets, picking whichever vehicle you fancy, and whoosh, you’re in. Progress through the single-player campaign and you’ll gradually unlock San Fran in its entirety (and it’s freakin’ massive by the way), which also allows you to pull higher and higher into the sky with your shift powers, allowing you to plummet from thousands of feet into a car at street level, like a turbo-charged Google Earth.

The best thing about shift though is that it gives you options when completing missions. Pursuing an enemy in a clocked-out police car? Try shifting into a bus that’s coming in the opposite direction and driving head-on into the sucker, mashing his bumper into the tarmac. You can be similarly cheaty when it comes to street races – find yourself lagging behind and you can easily take out the race leaders with a well-aimed dumper truck.

Some missions even revolve around this concept: one example sees you guarding an armoured-van by annihilating robbers using oncoming traffic. Like Burnout (its closest cousin), Driver savours its destruction by framing each collision in voyeuristic slo-mo. The game revels in showing every shard of glass, every sliver of shredded paintwork, every burst tyre. And bloody brilliant it looks too. Each vehicle has been lovingly crafted and the ‘70s muscle cars in particular are essentially virtual sex machines.

The one gripe we have with shift is that it can allow you to complete missions without actually driving – ironic considering the name of the game. The result is that even the most cack-handed motor virgins should be able to zoom through the campaign. I did it in seven hours, which is unrealistically impressive considering my greatest automotive achievement to date has been reversing my mum’s Fiesta into a lamppost.

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