Driver: San Francisco’s central conceit is a hard sell, on paper. No wait, that’s being too kind. It’s a completely stupid idea on paper. Perhaps the most stupid idea for a racing game I’ve ever heard. “Shift”-ing Quantum Leap-style from body-to-body and car-to-car, justified through some wonky narrative fluff about your central protagonist being in a coma? Urgh.
A chat with the Ubisoft Reflections, the developers of the game, is hardly reassuring either. Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Source Code - body-jumping possession is so hot right now, they say. Well, yeah, for a sci-fi themed drama maybe, but for a series that’s primarily about racing around a city, driving through windows, chasing other cars and generally pretending to be Steve McQueen? Not so much.
I even casually dismissed Rich’s positive single-player preview of Driver: SF because of my incredulity towards the Shift mechanic. Rich watches Snog Marry Avoid, for God’s sake. What the hell does he know about anything? (You're talking rubbish - Rich).
Well, um, yes. This is the part where I have to execute a stylish U-turn. Hopefully all the tyre smoke will mask my embarrassment. In multiplayer, Shift is really rather good. Indeed, it transforms Driver:SF into something entirely fresh. On paper it remains a stupid bloody idea; but in-game it’s fantastic. Sorry Ubisoft Reflections. And Rich, for that matter. (I forgive you - Rich) Snog Marry Avoid is still shit though.
There’s an impressively broad selection of 11 multiplayer modes in Driver: SF, not all of which make use of Shift. Some are just straight-up racing. Sprint GP falls neatly into this category; it’s a set of very short 8v8 races through the city, with illuminated checkpoint gates indicating your route. Arranged in a league format, with none of the races taking more than a couple of minutes, it’s a nicely executed, short-form blast.
Being the first mode we tested, it also offered us the perfect opportunity to get to grips with the game’s handling. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be “screechy.” Driver: SF is all about the handbrake turns, the type of dramatic, squealing, burnt rubber cornering you find in the very best (and worst) of 60s and 70s cop movies. It throws verisimilitude out of the window for drama. Driver: San Francisco is all about the drama.
This means that aggression is the best way to bend the game’s cars to your will. Forget politely slowing down as you approach the corners before gently accelerating out of them. Throw the damn thing in, slam on the handbrake, chuck the car around 90-degrees, then slam your foot on the accelerator to launch yourself back out again. Like I said, screechy.
This works a little better with the American muscle cars, who were made for this kind of driving. The smaller, sleeker European supercars meanwhile, proved to be a little more skittish and hard to control. The handling model has a tendency to throw the back of the car out going into turns, which felt easier to handle in the Mustangs and Corvettes. In tiny little sports cars however, it usually saw us snaking around all over the place. There’s a learning curve to navigate.
In addition to all this, each car has a turbo meter that builds up in the bottom left-hand-side of the screen, to be executed at will. What makes it a little tricky is that you use the left thumb stick to engage it, the same stick you use to steer. Accelerating therefore means slamming the stick perfectly forwards and holding it there without letting it slide to the left or right and loosing control. There’s a element of risk and reward to using it in anything but short bursts.
Anyway, the handling model is fine, so you needn’t worry. If you liked the way the cars handled in the early Driver games, you’ll be fine here. So instead, let’s talk about the main event, the feature that lifts Driver: SF’s multiplayer away from the norm. Let’s talk about Shift.
Of the modes we tested, Takedown is probably the more pedestrian implementation of Shift. A relatively gentle introduction. In each game of Takedown a player is designated as the getaway driver and a team of other players are tasked with hunting them down in police cars. Except they’re not always police cars. Sometimes they’re just normal cars that transform into police cars in a fizz of lightning.
Let me explain. The aim of the game is for a team to hunt down the getaway driver and bash into his car to nibble away at his energy bar. Each player gets points for successfully damaging the getaway driver, until the bar is depleted and he is run off the road. The getaway driver, meanwhile, gets points for every moment that he survives, with a big chunk of points added for surviving until the end of the clock. It’s Chase HQ or Need for Speed: Hot pursuit, basically.
But what makes Takedown interesting is the fact that the pursuing cars are able to Shift. A tap of the A button and the camera jumps to a three-quarter aerial view, another click offers a birds-eye-view and yet another sends the camera soaring way up over San Francisco. This allows you to identify any NPC vehicle in the game and jump into it, a move indicated to every player in the vicinity by a crack of lightening and the flashing transformation of the car into a sirens blasting cop-mobile.
What this means is that the getaway driver is never safe. Ever. No matter how good, or fast you are, there’s literally nowhere to hide. Bombing down one of San Francisco’s wide main streets is a sight to behold. Littered with NPC vehicles, you’ll watch as one car after another after another cracks with lightning, transforms into a police car and then comes charging straight for you. It’s chaos.
But nothing compared to Tag. This is the mode that really sold me on the inclusion of Shift powers. It takes everything that’s good about Takedown and super-injects it with breathless, outrageous, exhilarating carnage.
The aim of the game is to remain “it” for as long as possible, slowly earning enough points to hit the 100 mark and win the round. However, if you get barged by another player you immediately lose “it” status. This isn’t like Takedown, you can’t survive sustained damage. One sturdy whack and that’s it. As a result, a single player rarely remains “it” for very long. There’s often great big messy pile-ups as cars come roaring in from every angle, pedestrians fly this way and that (you can’t kill them, no matter how hard you try) and “it” status jumps from person to person in a dizzying squall of exhaust fumes.
Which isn’t to say it’s lacking in tactical depth. When you are not “it”, you are tasked with attempting to guess the route of your prey as they hurtle along the road, at the same time as identifying an NPC close enough to Shift to, before ramming into them. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Often, you’ll Shift into a car only to see your target zip by and it’s too late to respond. Conversely, if you pick a car that’s too far away you risk your target slipping off down a side road. It’s tricky, but getting it just right is incredibly satisfying.
At one point in our demo, I Shifted into a car heading straight for the tagged player. Obviously recognising that I was just a few yards in front of him, he immediately turned into a narrow alleyway, smashing into a wall as he went and loosing considerable speed. Meanwhile, I somehow managed to pull of a perfectly screechy handbrake turn and headed into the alleyway with my engine still roaring. Other players piled in behind me.
At the end of the alleyway was a ramp. As the tagged driver listlessly flopped off the end of it, I hit it at full speed, clipped my prey’s tail just enough to take “it” status, flew into the air and landed with a graceless thump in the middle of the street without losing any speed, well clear of my pursuers.
I actually held my arms aloft, gloating at the fact that I had pulled off such an outrageous manoeuvre. My elation lasted about three seconds. Before I knew it another player had ploughed into my side, flipped me over and made off down the street. Such is the nature of Tag mode.
It’s exactly this kind of moment that make me hugely excited about Driver: San Francisco. It’s exactly that kind of moment that gives me faith in the multiplayer and it's exactly that kind of moment that tells me Shift isn’t so bad after all.
That’s the thing about good ideas. Sometimes they don’t look good on paper. Sometimes you have to stop talking about it and just do it. That’s exactly what Ubisoft Reflections has done and I’m glad they did. Driver: San Francisco has suddenly gone from being a new chapter in a tired old franchise with a silly new gimmick to one of my most anticipated games this year.
Diver: San Francisco is out on September 6th in North America and September 2nd in Europe.