THE LITTLE CAR GAME THAT COULD

You know what? To hell with E3 for now, I have something I really want to talk about. A game from 2011, one that you almost certainly didn’t play. I don’t think anybody played it, because I’ve never met anybody who has, and I know more than four people. And it wasn’t like this was some minor indie game, it was made by Ubisoft, it was enjoyed by critics and the few who tried it. But somehow this great title slipped under the world’s collective radar. How did that happen? Surely when a goose lays a golden egg, people should appreciate that, not just roll it to one side and look again under the bird again to see if a platinum one shows up.

The golden egg in question is Driver: San Francisco, and I love it because it’s a racing game for people who don’t like racing games. Everything seems to be making the effort to shed the dull, overused mechanics of regular driving games for a more unique approach.

Race

Cars! They’re like airplanes, but less interesting.

D:SF is an open world game in which you play as John Tanner, a man who has never left a car seat in his life. I assume so, anyway. I only say that because I’m several hours into the game, and Tanner hasn’t been pictured out of a vehicle’s driving seat yet. Even when he went to get coffee, the game just quickly cut to a scene of him and his buddy back in the car with their drinks in plastic cups, like it was terrified that the idea of Tanner using his legs for anything other than pedals might freak us out completely.

It might sound like I’m railing on the story, but I’m actually not. The whole thing has kind of a 70’s cop show feel, in fact it reminds in particular of two shows. The first is Starsky and Hutch, for obvious reasons. Two police investigators driving around in an iconic-looking race car and performing insane stunts to catch a man who is almost as evil as an EA marketing executive. It’s so light-hearted and goofy, it’s hard to dislike it. Even if you drive down the street or head-on into traffic, nobody even gets killed, they just throw themselves unfailingly out of the way or shout angrily from their crumpled cars, which I like. It keeps the tone light and fun.

The other show it reminds me of is Life On Mars, because one of the first thing that happens in the game is that the hero gets mashed by a truck and is put into a coma. Whilst the real Tanner lies drooling in bed with his partner sitting next to him, we play as Tanner within his dream world, and it’s from that aspect that the most interesting part of the game comes up. See, clearly John read one or two comics as a kid, because the second he gets shoved into the land of nod he gains the power to astrally project himself, leaving his body to float above the city, before possessing other drivers and taking control of their cars.

This is probably my favourite part of the story, when Tanner gets over the shock of gaining this power and loses himself in the joy of living life with no long-term consequences. He bounces from person to person, enjoying the momentary flashes of other people’s lives, and the game manages to get some fun ideas for missions from that fact. The best bit is where we take over the body of a teenager who’s learning to drive for the first time, being mercilessly bullied by his instructor whilst he cowers in fear. At which point Tanner, the offspring of Michael Schumacher and Evel Knieval, takes over the kid and decides to freak out the mean ol’ teacher by performing the kind of tricks that get your vehicle classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

Duo

I think he’s chewing me out for having crashed into an old lady’s hatchback again. Not that I’d know, my mind is about six miles away by now and looking for more cars to break.

The “shift mechanic” is one of the best things I’ve played all year. Chasing a runaway car? Just take over a civilian vehicle ahead and smash into it from the front. Crashed the car you were driving? Just warp to the next one along with no loss of flow. It’s such a simple idea, so beautifully executed. I spent a couple of hours with a seventies mix on my iPod, just driving around and performing side missions, cackling every time some punk went straight into the front of a fire truck that “mysteriously” swerved to meet it.

It does have flaws – buying cars seems pointless when you’ll have dumped it for a new one a little way down the road, and vehicles tend to slide out of control a lot, but these are minor issues. Driver: San Francisco is currently in the Steam Summer Sale for less than three pounds, but even at the full price of ten quid it would be worth the money.

I guess there’s a lesson to be learnt here, that we must give everything a chance to surprise us. I never expected D:SF to be this awesome, but I’m glad it is. Maybe there is something in every genre to delight us, even if we don’t expect it to, something that we can appreciate and –

Whoa! I continue this train of thought and I’m going to have to play MOBAs without bias. Yeah, time for me to stop.

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