Not only were the physics near-perfect and the handling hardy, it allowed for some very swish and enjoyably cinematic editing. Despite the now naff graphics and relatively thrifty features, it undoubtedly succeeded in bringing the heart-pounding chase film of the 1960s and 1970s (Bullitt, The Driver) to video game life.
Yet as the franchise expanded, its selling point stagnated.
So, five years on from its last next-gen incarnation, Ubisoft are back to reinvent the franchise with yet another gimmick – this time you can ‘shift’ between cars and vehicle hop at the touch of a button, all thanks to lead anti-hero Tanner’s newly induced coma.
It may sound the stupidest gaming conceit this side of the Dreamcast’s VMU (remember that?), but Driver: San Francisco takes its stupidity and runs with it with such style, panache and assured quality that you can’t help but be swept along for the ride.
With a USP like that, it’s unsurprising to find that gameplay errs more towards the Burnout/Grand Theft Auto mode of car handling than Gran Turismo, and while each vehicle obviously handles differently, there’s a vehicular variety that ensures you’ve a whole set of physics to get to handbrake-slamming grips with.
The inherent mechanic itself is also refreshingly polished, allowing you to ‘shift’ in and out of cars with a tap of a button that propels you skyward, hovering above the city and scoping out your next ride in a floaty out-of-body, perverted mechanic kind of way. Another tap and you’ve zoomed into the body of the driver, and a whole new scenario/dialogue/mission set to tinker around with.
Not only is it a flightily fun thing to play with, but it creates some genuinely innovative new gameplay dynamics – if you’re being chased by the cops, why not just hijack an 18-wheeler and block their path? It’s a simple but genuinely genre-game-changing add-on, and while it’s unlikely to revolutionise the racer as a whole, it’s impossible to deny it’s a fresh way to play.
Throw in some lovely smooth and polished visuals, an all-important (and consistent) 60fps and a story-led core, and you’ve got easily the most fun, frivolous and fast driving diversion this year.
Driver: San Francisco is on General Release now, and available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PC.