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Interracial one-liners and burnt rubber: why Driver: San Francisco was the best thing in 2011
by Chris Hawke

Late to the party, you say? 2011 may be dead and buried old news, but forgive me; I've only just built up the courage to say what I'm going to say.

You see, I'm not a man with splitting opinions, a vicious tongue or a mind for devil's advocacy. I like what I like, and generally that tends to be what everyone else likes. You'll find no 'Homefront was the bestest game evar!' antics from me. But in a year that granted me the gift of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the cherished delight of Portal 2 and the unforgettable, unconquerable, unbelievable Skyrim, amongst a glittering sea of celebrated gems, it was a coma-fuelled carmageddon that gave me the greatest joy.

Driver: San Francisco is a throwback in pretty much every way possible. The story itself harks back to the vibrant, garish and funky, beat-heavy 1970s, where everyone was either pushing coke or doing dope or being a dirty cop or doing something illegal and slightly hilarious. There's also the gameplay, which doesn't burden the player with muddy motion control, sloppy shooting mechanics or faulty free-roam. You drive, and occasionally you'll press a button, move the camera over another car, and press a button. Then you drive again. It's pure, clean and fresh. Whilst most modern titles cram the back of their game boxes with trademarked UltraCrap™ features ("now with 50% more green-brown textures!"), Driver had you, a car and a beautiful city. To top it all off, this is Ubisoft Reflections' last attempt at reviving the lifeless and much spat-on corpse of the Driver series; from the golden age of the ultimate PS1 cop-chase emulator, Driver has fallen hard, shooting itself in the foot with the awkwardly-titled Driv3r and then proceeding to maul its own limbs off in desperation with Parallel Lines and 76. When it was announced that the latest Driver would be a retro throwback to San Fran's heyday, all coddled up in the mind of coma patient John Tanner, eyebrows raised. When the game released, jaws dropped.

Well, mine did at least. See, 2011 was a wonderful year. Not if you were a dictator, or a Middle Eastern rebel, or near an earthquake hotspot, or Amy Winehouse, or pretty much anyone else in this sickening world slowly trudging to your inevitable anti-climactic demise. But, for videogames at least, it was damn exciting. Needles plunged into eyes in Dead Space 2, robots plunged into fiery pits in Portal 2, elbow-daggers plunged into cyborg motherboards in Deus Ex, and Skyrim plunged the world into a fury of 'Fus Ro Dah'-ing and wishing their cats could dual-wield. There was fierce competition, no doubt about it. But Driver: San Fransisco stole my heart and drifted across the Golden Gate bridge with it. And I'll tell you why.

You knew what Dead Space 2 was all about. If you had hands, or even eyes, well before your clammy palms had caressed your controller of choice you knew Dead Space 2 was about kicking alien ass and taking alien names. Maybe you'd completed Dead Space (2008), or just played the demo, or even caught a fleeting glance of a trailer, but any semblance of surprise had been squandered long before you ever played it. You knew how it would feel to decapitate an otherworldly head, and fly about in zero-gravity, and what Issac would say, do, think, whisper, murmur, smell like; the corpse of Dead Space 2 was examined and pored over long before its release into the big wide world. All the grand games of 2011 had the same issue: hyped beyond excess, with endless trailers, walkthroughs and interviews to feast upon, your appetite was spoiled before the main meal. I'm a huge Skyrim fan, and the game itself is unconquerable colossus of scale, and yet killing my first dragon didn't feel all that special. Because only a few months ago, I'd watched Todd Howard do the very same.

Driver: San Fransisco didn't have that problem. I'll choose my words carefully so I don't offend any hardworking Ubisoft employees, but... how do I put this? The game was shoved into a grimy corner to die a lonely death. Advertising was basic; no grand statements spilled from Martin Edmondson's - creative director - mouth; there wasn't a new trailer every thirty seconds. I knew a bit about the game, but I certainly hadn't followed it with the same wide-eyed vigour as I had with the better-endowed releases that came before it. It was brilliant.

When I got the game, seamlessly swinging sideways around San Francisco's sunbathed streets was an absolute thrill. Leaping from car to car in comatic fury was a real joy, whilst the good-cop/bad-cop (or in this case, white-coma-cop/black-sassy-cop) relationship - filled with sharp one-liners and just enough homoerotic tension to emulate all those 70s buddy movies - was riotous fun. With no expectation or preconceived notions, Driver: San Fransisco had an empty stage on which to wow the player, and it did so with all the tricks it could stuff up its sleeve.

The crux of the game had to be the side-missions. The main plot was tongue-in-cheek, bizarre, over-the-top brilliance, with interweaving threads of stolen ammonia and hospital beds. But to keep you interested, there had to be stuff to do, and I'll happily hold my hands in the air and claim that Driver: San Fransisco had the best side missions of any game I've played for a long, long time. Whilst Skyrim had you traversing endless load screens as you fast travel, enter a building, talk for a bit, leave a building, fast travel, find some treasure, fast travel, speak to a guy, and so on and so forth, Driver makes every side mission an attention-grabbing, emotionally-involving rollercoster. Who could forget Jun and Ayumu, clumsy Korean kids who accidentally get themselves embroiled in vicious street-races? An ageing truck driver nearing retirement who is caught up in a Speed-style bomb threat? An unfortunate husband unwittingly driving an adulterous wife to a lesion with her lover?

They each had spirit. They each had flair. They each had soul. Every single one of them felt crafted, sculpted and born out of love, and you find yourself becoming more and more involved in these characters with every lightning-fast second. I shouldn't care about these people! Whole games devote themselves to creating sympathy with a block of pixels, yet fail with a fizzle; Driver: San Fransisco, with a sharp script and colourful characters, grabs you and doesn't let go.

That's without retracing the fleet-footed main plotline, that's so brilliantly tongue-in-cheek yet straight-faced that you can't help but admire Ubisoft's gumption. Going from the meandering countryside roads of automobile shifting fun, through narrow back-alleys of genuinely disturbing plot twists ("Christ - he's everywhere!"), hurtling down the open highway of one of the most thrilling climaxes of the year - Driver was an utter joy to behold.

There are hundreds of honestly superb games out there. Games with blockbuster budgets, Spartan-sized teams and the community's eyes focussed dead on their every move; these types of games are wonderful to play and technically proficient. But when was the last time a game rocketed out of the blue and knocked your socks off? When was the last time you were properly, genuinely excited by the game you were playing, full of wonder and possibility and brimming with the unknown? Nowadays, those games are harder to come by. And all the more incredible for it.

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- Chris Hawke

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