It's all in the presentation: Why I let Driver: San Francisco get away with poor driving
Gran Turismo 5 and Need for Speed: Shift were messes in my eyes for a number of reasons, but a big sticking point was how the results of my driving felt disconnected from the game’s feedback. The cars would look like they were moving relatively slow and upon getting to a corner, while hitting the breaks I would find myself flying off the track sideways and crashing into the wall. Upon which I’d lose 1st or 2nd place and never be able to catch up for the rest of the race. It wasn’t that my skill weren’t enough to pull off the maneuvering necessary, but that I felt I was and the game said otherwise.
This same story happened over and over in Driver: San Francisco, and this time in crowded city streets. However, instead of wanting to break something I found myself thinking “totally freaking sweet.” Why? It’s all in the presentation.
The driving sims were serious affairs. With regards to modeling their cars and the exactness of the driving it put the player into a serious and disciplined mindset. When there is a break between what we are expecting and what happens it infuriates the player. I can accept crashing or flying out of control if the game gives me that agency so I understand that it was my fault. Driver: San Francisco from the very beginning sets itself up not only as a very different type of experience, but one where driving like a maniac and spinning out of control before getting back on the road is borderline expected. Despite taking place in the modern day, Driver’s style is all 70s. It’s basically Starsky and Hutch the video game.
The aesthetics of the game are all about portraying a style reminiscent of the cop shows of the ear. Maybe cribbing a little from the 80s Miami Vice along the way. They way the characters dress, with open shirts and loose jackets are not any contemporary style I’m aware of. It helps that your partner throughout the game has an afro that could only be acceptable in an era of disco. There also seems to be a filter placed over the game camera to mimic the lighting of 1970s television. The yellows, oranges and greens particularly stand out as your flying down the streets. That same filter seems to add the appropriate grain at times as well. Plus, halfway through every chapter it give a quick montage recap of the “previous episodes” so you don’t lose the story. Helpful for when you come back the next day after having to turn the game off for the night. The game from the very beginning is putting you into the mindset that you are taking part in a 1970s cop show.
Given this, blistering fast, borderline unhinged car chases are the standard. The driving is straight from that era to the point one can’t help but feel something is off in the opening cutscene when Tanner drives around the ramp truck instead of over it. It’s practically the law! So when I’m flying into a wall and have to back up to get back into the chase I’m perfectly okay with being thrown off course.
All three games have very little weight to their cars. They feel like boxes with wheels rather than two to three tons of speeding metallic death. But again that’s okay, because Driver: San Francisco constructs the different elements that combine together to present style the game is trying to evoke. This is an era before grit and cheesy moralizing had entered our police dramas, when fighting crime was fun and done by people with good tans and who smiled more than once a year, while cracking an occasional joke. Yes, looking back we understand how ludicrous that sentiment is given the crimes police actually have to deal with, but it’s no more unrealistic than modern day cop shows outside The Wire and given a choice between fictional representations, I’m going to go with the one where it’s appropriate to fly 50 feet through the air over a ramp truck and land on top of my street-racing opponent.
See choosing the 1970s as the well to draw from does more than allow the game to get away with having slightly looser controls. It allows the game to present a personality, something that both Gran Turismo 5 and Need for Speed: Shift lacked. They were both sterile affairs, acting more like car porn than driving games. Being meticulously accurate is no excuse for not smiling. Driver: San Francisco is allowed to stretch its figurative muscles with the type of driving it can get away with and the goals it can set for itself. Yes there are street races, but there are also escape missions, takedown missions, team races, tailing missions, stealth missions, time trials, stunt challenges, timed stunt challenges etc. I’m pretty sure Driver came up with every concept of what you could do with just driving and included them all. The sheer variety the game with just verb of drive is astounding. Where as in the driving sims it’s go around in a circle over and over.
They do offer a large variety of real world tracks, but even there Driver has them beat. Some of the tracks in Gran Turismo 5 are interesting and some tracks in Need for Speed: Shift are passable, but Driver gives you the city of San Francisco. The city streets are your playground. The choice of city is key, however. This is a 1970s aesthetic so San Francisco provides the right amount of cheese key to the era and the right geography to fully take advantage of what a 20 hour game in the guise of a 70s cop show needs: hills, tight corners and lots of back streets.
The obvious comparison is to Burnout: Paradise, but the main thrust of each game’s driving is different. While both can and do evoke moments that can only be described as “totally freaking sweet” they are there for different purposes. In Burnout it is to have the most radically awesome time before fretting out a quick guitar solo and punching out a rabid bobcat. In Driver they are there to evoke an ethos of a slightly unhinged driver in pursuit of justice. Burnout: Paradise exists in some world where the people have disappeared and the cars have become sentient so that nothing gets in the way of a good time. Driver on the other hand has pedestrians all over the place and the cars are populated with people that have their own quirks, problems and lives. When you jump the curb in Driver: San Francisco people are diving out of the way to avoid being run over. They are desperate not to be hit and you can’t slow down to worry about it. Luckily it doesn’t go to Grand Theft Auto territory so as to keep the tone of the serious but lighthearted cop show.
Driver: San Francisco has particular vision it wants to put into your hands. By focusing on it the game understands what it can do and what it should avoid. From the particular limitations of the ethos and style it wants to portray Driver: San Francisco opens itself up in other aspects that other driving games couldn’t go. It is allowed to get specific and from there structure emerges and from that structure details etched in to flesh everything out. That is my main problem with both Gran Turismo and Need for Speed: Shift: they have no vision. They start with the details that don’t serve any purpose and end up like the dull, humorless accountant still working during the annual office party. By slaving to get everything portrayed accurately to the finest detail they lost the greater picture. Driver: San Francisco wants to be a fun and rocking experience, but not to Burnout’s degree. It settles into this nice segment of the scale where it can also stretch its storytelling legs with a defined direction. Everything was built from there. It determined what they could allow and what they could get away with. And that is why I let Driver get away with crashing me into the wall.