Driver is a franchise that has spawned games of every standard throughout its long – some say esteemed – history. From the dizzy heights of Driver and arguably Driver 2, all the way to the bottom of the barrel with Driv3r and again, arguably Driver: Parallel Lines. Instead of making the fatal mistake and going for a sequel called Driv5r – ha! – Ubisoft Reflections, formally known as Reflections Interactive who have worked on the franchise from game one, decided to reboot the series and not only drop the diabolical numbers game, but is taking the game back to its roots... and they sit in the city of San Francisco.
The US city is not only the only returning staple of the franchise, but so is fan-favourite, Detective Tanner, and Tanner’s Driver 2 & Driv3r golden gun wielding arch-nemesis, Jericho. When the game ships this fall, expect no more of the on-foot malarkey either, something that in my opinion spoiled the original franchise, and expect to hit 208 miles of varied San Francisco roads, fresh with faithfully recreated icons from the golden city, including the Golden Gate Park, the Palace of Fine Arts and so on.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, Driver: San Francisco will feature a whole host of licensed cars; 120 in fact, that range from Dodge Neons and Minis, to Porsche Carreras and Pagani Zondas. The main addition to the franchise though that is certainly a talking point, is the bizarre “Shift” mechanic.
The “Shift” mechanic is a simple mechanic that lets Tanner switch between cars by never getting out the car. According to Reflections, Shift acts like an outer body experience that allows Tanner to zoom out from the car to choose his next car, with an almost immediate transition. It isn’t a mechanic that is given freely though and Tanner must earn Shifts by driving well. Drive well enough and you can upgrade so that you can zoom out further, meaning a.) you can navigate the streets quicker, and b.) you can see more of a street view the further you zoom out.
The mechanic itself isn’t too hard to comprehend, but their reasoning behind it is a little far-fetched and I’m not sure Reflections have got off to the best start with it – Tanner’s in a coma and it’s essentially all part of some illusion that plays out in his mind... well there goes the chance of having a solid crime drama story to sink our teeth into, right? Well, we’ll reserve our judgement on that one as Creative Director, Martin Edmondson, assured us that it’ll make sense. Let’s hope so.
One interesting thing that does stem from the Shift mechanic though is Tanner’s ability to take on side missions and also, how it can be used to finish any specific mission he has chosen to attempt. Shifting from car to car can allow Tanner to take on the life of the car’s occupant and automatically absorbs their desires and their current focuses. For instance, one passenger can be late for an appointment on the other side of town, or you can jump into the car of a police officer who’s embroiled in a high speed chase. Conversely, you can jump into the viewpoint of the criminal trying to outrun the cops. The choice is ultimately yours. It did seem a little cheap though that in our demo, the Reflections rep – who took control of the police officer – jumped into a large truck about a minute into the pursuit and drove into the criminal head on to end the mission rather abruptly. It looked way too easy to exploit.
Aside from the presentation that talked us through the basics of Driver: SF, we also got to have a quick hands-on with a multiplayer mode: Trailblazer. The objective of the mode was simple: stay in the coloured tail stream of a computer AI controlled car. For every second you’re there, you get a point and the winner is the first person to get to 100. That’s about as complex as it gets. It did give us a good chance though to get a feel for the cars, the handling, the pace of the action, and more importantly, the Shift mechanic.
It’s a straightforward objective based race, but it does make for some intense battles and it’s here where the Shift mechanic actually does make sense. In a straight up race from point A to B, chances are people would Shift to the finishing line – although I’m sure there are safeguards against that if they have sprint races – but here, Shifting to and around the front guy was a barrel of fun. It definitely kept you on your toes whether you were first or last, because things could easily change with one quick Shift. No longer will it be possible to throw all your hard work out the window with one dodgy corner and gone are the days where you’re miles off first and racing for nothing more than pride. The pride of being man enough to stick around and not quit.
Handling wise, the controls are very responsive and the handling of the vehicles drastically changes from one car to the next. An early shift from our Porsche to a Mini and then into a Zonda proved to be enough to prove to that. Once in the Zonda though, the high speeds and big drifts were exhilarating, as was the hustling for first place behind the AI controlled car, especially when you have the downtown traffic of San Fran to contend with as well.
Frankly though, aside from our reservations with the whole Shift mechanic, Driver is shaping up very nicely indeed. The visuals aren’t really as awe-inspiring as the rest of the racers these days, but it’s been far too long since we’ve had a decent Driver title, that something as trivial as that won’t worry us at this stage. With the game out this fall, plenty of licensed cars and licensed tracks, intuitive handling, an attempt to add some innovation into the franchise and the return to the glorious city of San Francisco, who can’t be happy after this showing? Still, we’re not convinced by the whole Shift mechanic, so we’ll see how that one pans out. One thing is for certain, it works in multiplayer, well, the Trailblazer game type anyway.
Driver is scheduled for a holiday 2010 release.