Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview – San Francisco Short Stories
Written Sunday, May 01, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Ever since seeing Ryan O'Neal systematically disassemble an orange Mercedes in The Driver and ever since watching Barry Newman tearing through the desert in a 1970 Dodge Challenger as Kowalski, we've been hooked on car chase movies. Two Lane Blacktop, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, The French Connection and Bullitt have all showed how great car chases should be done and the Driver franchise has always carved its own niche in open-world wheel-spinning speed. With recent Driver games failing to live up to expectation however, Driver: San Francisco has a lot riding on it, but following our latest hands-on, it looks like the series might be back on track, despite its somewhat hokey set-up.
You're John Tanner once again, on the trail of Jericho, who having been sentenced for shooting Tanner in the back at the end of Driver 3, manages to break free from his shackles using an acid pellet while being transported in a prison wagon. Chasing Jericho in the game's signature yellow and black Challenger, Tanner finds himself bearing the brunt of an impact in a nasty crash, leaving him in a coma. That's where your suspension of disbelief really gets stretched to near-breaking point, as you soon find that Tanner is blissfully unaware that he's in hospital and having an out of body experience that enables him to 'shift' between any car he likes, doing a 'Quantum Leap' of sorts, where he inhabits the body of various drivers.
If you can swallow that, then there's a lot of fun to be had in seamlessly zooming out with a tap of A and floating around San Francisco looking for a car to swoop into and possess. Each vehicle has satisfying, robust handling in this current build too, which bodes well for the finished product and there's a whole variety of different tasks to complete within its open-world San Francisco setting, based upon an accurately mapped recreation of the city, meaning you can live out your Dirty Harry and Bullitt fantasies, should you so wish. There's a fantastic selection of licensed vehicles on offer too, from iconic 70s muscle cars to modern saloons, vans, trucks, supercars and much more.
The game's central 'shift' conceit enables Driver: San Francisco to tell a whole range of stories, as we soon find out. As soon as Tanner enters his coma, he finds himself taking the role of Ray the ambulance driver, chattering with his buddy in the cab while Tanner is in the back. Don't think about it too much... It'll make your head hurt. Anyway, these conversations are played out as neat little talking heads superimposed onto the HUD, with Tanner on one side and your passenger on the other. Driver: SF does a lot of this, combining CG cut scenes and its film grain infused in-game footage to great effect, with split-screen edits and other stylish touches. So much so, that it's impossible to see the joins making for some brilliantly cinematic moments. Driver: SF seems to have its own line in tongue-in-cheek humour with its in-car chats, and some of the situations you'll find yourself randomly horning in on are a bit silly. Examples include Tanner assuming the role of a mother driving her whiny teenage son around or a guy taking a new car for a test drive.
These are just vignettes from around the city of course, and there's real story to be found if you look hard enough. One such instance involves jumping into the driver's seat of one of Jericho's goons on the way to a meeting, being chased by cops. If you fail to shake the cops and turn up late to the meet, there are dire consequences for the stupid lackeys, and Tanner won't discover the essential information he needs to find Jericho. Or rather, the coma version of Jericho... We're as confused as you are. Forget all that for a second though. There are other activities to engage in dotted around San Fran, including performing stunts for the local KEOC news, completing Dares like speeding for a certain distance before time elapses to gain unlockable upgrades, like a ram move performed by holding the left bumper to charge before releasing it, or the enticingly named 'Thrill Cam'. You could even conceivably lose hours just engaging in police chases, shifting between pursuing cop cars to nail the fleeing crook.
Completing activities like these also grants willpower (WP) points, which enable you to purchase garages where you can store your acquired cars and fast travel from garage to garage. The more cars, garages and other assets you own, the more you earn too, so spending is its own reward. WP points are given out quite generously in our demo, so we manage to buy ourselves a Dodge Challenger SRT8 and an unmarked Gran Torino with a cherry siren on the top (Harry Callahan, eat your heart out). A cursory look through the other vehicles on offer reveal that you'll eventually have access to an extensive selection of vehicles, from buses to garbage trucks, classic 70s muscle and even contemporary greats like the Pagani Zonda or McLaren F1. Other marques include AMC, Audi, Ford, Maserati, Lamborghini, Nissan, Volkswagen and Lancia, which shows you'll have a decent variety of cars to keep you going.
Driver: San Francisco seems to be quite a departure from the series' more tightly structured story and action, but it also looks as though it'll be a positive step in the right direction, even if that direction is markedly different from what's gone before. With it's recreation of San Francisco running at a super-smooth 60 frames per-second and some smart tricks under the hood, Reflections should be looking at a return to form for its wayward franchise, even if the shift stuff does take some getting used to as an idea. Leave your reservations about the game taking place within Tanner's comatose mind at the door however and Driver: San Francisco ought to be both a fun and refreshing driving experience. Lets just hope that all that shift and coma nonsense eventually makes sense by the end...
Driver: San Francisco is shifting towards an August 30th, 2011 release.