Hands On With Driver: San Francisco

By Alec Meer on May 2nd, 2011 at 12:45 pm.

Car, wot goes fast

Last week, I had bit of a play with Driver: San Francisco, the surprisingly weird comeback attempt for the veteran action-racing series. After a string of delays, it’s due out September 2 this year, but here are some impressions, pictures and videos for you to eyeball in the meantime.

It’s a name that makes as many people recoil in horror as do sigh fondly. Oh, thank God that post-GTA craze that led to every publisher cack-handedly attempting their own open world, urban violence sim seems to be over now. They’re all trying to make their own Call of Duties instead, and at least those aren’t games which carry the confusing flicker of possible ingenuity – the disappointments are less crushing because we didn’t expect them to attempt anything especially interesting in the first place. Driver was one of the most painfully public casualties of the post-GTA goldrush, its third game a broadly charmless, rough attempt to transform a series originally about spectacular car chases into one about shooting dudes. Hearing it was attempting a new comeback incited mix feelings; another roll of the die was certainly deserved, given what Driver once was, but what if it simply eroded what scraps of goodwill remained?

Thus, there’s clear and firm intent in the news that returning Driver hero Detective John Tanner cannot leave his car(s) in the new game, San Francisco, at least not outside of cutscenes. He can, however, change car – only with his mind, not his body. This is going to sound absolutely insane, and to be honest it seems a little insane in the game too, but it kinda works. So: very early in the game, heroic cop/expert wheelman Tanner gets involved in a terrible car accident whilst pursuing his long-time nemesis, the crimelord Jericho. Moments later, he finds himself back at the wheel of his puzzlingly immaculate motor, with his pithy new partner Jones still in the passenger seat, referring to how lucky they were to get away with their lives but given everything maybe they should check in with a doctor anyway. A hard knock like that should shatter spines, not just leave the victims feeling a bit grumpy, right?

The latter concern escalates when Tanner starts to talk of seeing billboards directing orders specifically at him, hearing beeps and voices which evoke hospital machinery and staff and, most of all, somehow finds himself able to transfer his consciousness into the body of any other driver in the city. Car accident. Metaphysical mystery. 70s vibe (the game’s set present day, but Tanner is something of a classic rock aficionado). Tanner/Tyler. If you’re thinking it all seems little bit like…


(Sorry about the green box, couldn’t find a better version)

… then you’re not alone, as my vaguely hysterical notes from the preview session can attest to. Whether or not the nod is entirely intentional, the key difference between D:SF and Life On Mars is that Ubisoft Reflections’ game doesn’t seem to make any bones about the fact that Tanner’s in a coma, his unconscious mind imagining adventures and mental superpowers while his battered body tries to heal. Likely there are twists and mysteries to come, but from the hour or so I’ve played it seems pretty straight up: it’s a quasi-realistic game, not a sci-fi one, but Tanner’s dream state provides a handy way to explain away the inclusion of a crucial, slick but ridiculous new mechanic. Shift is its name, and the aforementioned Quantum Leaping between bodies is its game. It’s absolutely absurd and the attempts to narratively justify it do, I must admit it, simply make me giggle, but fondly so. More importantly, the system itself works rather well.

The idea is based around the same core GTA et al conceit – any car in the city is yours for the taking – but it dispenses with any running around on foot shenanigans, and indeed any element of naughty carjacking. Instead, Tanner’s consciousness (OR IS IT, etc) is depicted as a bird’s eye map of the city, which he/you can pan across at high speed, instantly zooming inside the driver of whatever car catches your fancy with a button push. It’s all rapid-streaming, zero-loading stuff, and there’s a real giddy thrill to it. No lurking around on a street corner hoping something better than a bicycle with a bonnet happens to turn up – instead, pick exactly what you want and go for it. As well as offering a chance to try out new motors and reach new missions, it’s a means of instant travel across the city. It’s quick, it’s very odd but it swiftly becomes natural, and keeps the focus entirely on driving.

Shift is doubly entertaining when your car of choice has a passenger. One minute they’re being driven around by some boring old fart, next minute their companion apparently turns into a suicidal gobshite with zero respect for health, safety or authority. Like Quantum Leap, your host doesn’t physically change, but Tanner’s gung-ho, wisecracking, mortality-ignoring persona is entirely in charge. A hop into one of those butt-ugly new(ish) VW Beetles saw me snatch the body of an elderly woman going for a gentle Sunday drive with her uptight daughter. Suddenly,she’s ramming buses at 100 MPH, speeding off ramps and scuttering along the pavement cackling to herself as her bewildered apparent offspring screams “Mother! Your heart pills!” Eventually, the daughter nervously admitted to enjoying the death-race carnage and began squealing excitedly as I took another acute corner at 80MPH. When you finally jump back to your own body (or at least the one Tanner imagines he has in this meta-world), your understandably irritated partner claims you’ve been sat there in stony silence for the last half hour.

Who knows just how much comedy can be wrung from what’s always going to be essentially the same gag, but Reflections certainly seemed to be experimenting with a vein of humour previously absent, rather than hanging proceedings around gritty grime. One mission (for there are set tasks as well as a glut of optional ones and simply dicking around) sees Tanner brain-steal some rich bugger test-driving a Ford GT, with the salesman offering snake oil from the passenger seat. His patter slows down as the supercar is hurled around the roads at deadly speeds, and prissy screeching about losing his bonus begins. Tanner giggles to himself, a police officer entirely unconcerned about ruining a man’s career or, indeed, causing terrible injuries to civilians and untold property damage. Then again, it’s just a coma-dream, right? Not to mention that game’s careful not to let you visibly kill anyone – each and every pedestrian dives out the way, no matter how long you spend careening directly down the pavement. The only fantasy here is a driving fantasy, not a killing fantasy.

Tanner’s role once granted his ‘power’, with a vague implication of being a sort of urban angel, is to solve crimes and problems across the city – hopping into the body of a hapless, fatted cop in order to grant the driving skill necessary to hunt down a getaway vehicle, getting a patient-bearing ambulance to the hospital on time, that sort of thing. There’s also plenty of pure indulgence, however – Tanner loves cars and loves driving, so performing stunts for a ‘world’s craziest drivers’ TV show is also right up his mildly psychotic alley. Some tasks unlock core narrative progress, others are just for kicks.

Vintage Hollywood car chases are the main inspiration throughout, and it certainly lends a back to basics feel and confidence to this beleaguered franchise. Its driving is intractably on the arcade side of things, forever in the pursuit of the highest possible speed rather than necessarily the highest skill, but it’s designed to make you feel as though you’re genuinely behind a wheel – certainly, the dashboard camera seems the most enjoyable way to play, although top-down and bonnet views are in there too.

A diligent and good- (if not perhaps spectacular) looking recreation of much of San Francisco lends itself well to this – all those steep hills and large intersections, and of course the iconic downhill zig-zag of Lombard Street, which you get to cheerfully tackle about half an hour into the game. D:SF manages to be both very familiar in that the driving is akin to a mildly less cartoonish GTA and appealingly fresh thanks to the Shift mechanic and proud refusal to let you pound the streets on foot.

So: pleasantly surprised, so far at least. It’s a game that takes its name very seriously, even if it employs some ludicrous concepts to ensure you remain Driver, not Walker. Hard to say, at this stage, if it’s relatively one-note focus (though bear in mind driving splinters neatly into chasing, racing, stunts and wrecking) can remain fresh over a long period, but it’s entirely obvious already that Driver’s heart and confidence is back. Hopefully, come its September 2 release date, we can convince ourselves that the horrors of Driver 3 were a collective hallucination.

Driver: San Francisco is due out on PC and console funboxtoys on September 2, 2011. Full disclosure: the version played at this stage was Xbox 360, hence while we’re discussing concept and features here we’d be telling porky-pies if we passed any comment on its Windows performance and feel as yet. While we’ll strive to get time with the PC version before release, we’re told it will apparently boast no particularly notable improvements/differences over that version, bar yer usual resolution and controller tweaks.

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48 Comments »

  1. Ace Jon says:

    Well, that got me suitably excited. I still need to get the Life on Mars boxset, but it is *so expensive*. It seems retailers know how good it is too.

    Edit: yeah now I bought the boxset. THANKS RPS >:(

  2. Monchberter says:

    Sounds like this has the potential to be the Far Cry 2 of driving games. Ambitious, but unless very well delivered it’s already looking too weird to be anything but a noble failure.

    Good luck though!

    • Dominic White says:

      Yes, Far Cry 2, that huge critical and commercial success… and failure, apparently? What? Don’t mistake grumpy internet echo-chamberisms for reality.

    • Yosharian says:

      Far Cry 2 is a bad game, period.

    • Urthman says:

      I don’t see how this is dangerously ambitions. It’s weird, but it sounds like a really great, fun premise for a driving game. I’d think they’d have to work really hard not make this fun. At least the gimmick part. It’s apparently not hard to screw up the actual driving in a driving game, so I hope they don’t do that.

      (Also, while I can understand someone not enjoying Far Cry 2, that’s not the critical nor the popular consensus. Lots of people enjoyed that game, including lots of people with excellent taste in video games.)

    • mwoody says:

      Far Cry 2 is a good game, period.

      (this is fun; makes the comments much quicker to read)

    • Koozer says:

      Far Cry 2 is a pretty good game, FULL STOP.

    • Lukasz says:

      Far Cry 2 is a game about which I don’t have an opinion as I did not yet play it. Period.

    • AndrewC says:

      Sound the Far Cry 2 alarm! We got a Far Cry 2 mention! FAR CRY 2!

      God I love Far Cry 2. How could anyone deny love? How cruel would you have to be?

    • Iskariot says:

      Personally, I loved Far Cry 2. It is one of my favorite open world games.
      Yes, I know about the downsides of the game, there was room for improvement, but when push comes to shove I would not have wanted to miss it for the world.

    • Yosharian says:

      Far Cry 2 is a great game if you love trudging around the same bit of forest remapped over a 30 kilometre stretch of island, doing the same missions repeatedly with virtually no variation and driving between said missions for 10-15 mins at a time in the same old vehicles with hundreds of (respawning) soldiers camping inbetween said missions to try to stop you. Yessir, this is a GREAT game.

      Hell, I’d rather play Grand Theft Auto 4 than FC2. BURN.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      I personally enjoyed playing Far Cry 2. Period.

  3. westyfield says:

    Ashes to Ashes was better.

    Jus’ sayin’.

    • egg651 says:

      I will buy this game if it can use voice recognition to hear me shout “FIRE UP THE QUATTRO” and act accordingly.

    • Ace Jon says:

      You are so wrong it hurts! A2A was great, yes, but LoM is the best TV… ever.

    • destroy.all.monsters says:

      I can’t agree. There are lovely things about both series but John Simms is immensely better than Keeley Hawes though she certainly got much better as the series wore on.

      Though it seems impossible not to fall in love with Shazz (sp?).

  4. gorgol says:

    I used to love Driver. Epic car chases. This looks interesting!

  5. sockeatsock says:

    But the trailer says it September the 1st release???

  6. unacomn says:

    Wait…. The Master had his own show!?

    I’ve got to check this out.

    • theSeekerr says:

      Definitely do, Life on Mars is brilliant.
      Unfortunately, it turned out that the writers only had about a dozen brilliant ideas, so the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, was only mediocre – awful lead, basically only watched it for Philip Glenister’s one-liners. And then the second series was dumb, and the third series introduced a character who served only to be even more hatefully awful than the lead.
      But if you pretend that doesn’t exist, and stop after the two seasons of Life on Mars, you’re onto a winner!
      (FWIW, it’s my third favourite show of the decade, behind Firefly and the revived Doctor Who [well, Seasons 1, 3 and 5 thereof, anyhow!])

    • tossrStu says:

      I think you’re being a bit harsh there; A2A had a shaky start but that third series was cracking telly (although let down slightly by the fact that IIRC, the show suddenly started weaving clues into the narrative which had previously been absent — I’m almost certain that if you went back to the first two series you won’t find any hints of what was to come).

      Also you’ve got to love it for kinda stealing the thunder of a certain other show that came to its conclusion at roughly the same time (about a week or two later, I think?) by ending in a sorta similar way.

      About the one thing I didn’t like about it was the fact that LoM ended on a nice ambiguous note with lots of room for speculation — and then the very next day the writers came out and spilled the beans on exactly what had happened, in the name of setting up Gene Hunt’s return in A2A. It kinda spoilt the mystery, to be honest.

    • Vandelay says:

      Agreed. One and two of A2A were just okay, but the third series was brilliant. The writers claim they knew how it would end from ages ago (possibly even since Life on Mars, IIRC,) but I agree that I’m not sure how well that holds up. Only seen Life on Mars and A2A when broadcast, so would need to watch them both to see.

    • theSeekerr says:

      Jumping back in way late – the 3rd series of Ashes to Ashes COULD have been the best, if it weren’t for the new character, Jim Keats.

      Possibly the worst TV writing I’ve ever seen – every time he was on screen, it was like:

      “WHOAH, hope you don’t mind me pulling you aside, Alex, but here’s some out of context plot exposition and some meaningless twaddle to pad out my 2 minutes on screen. Oh, and have some foreshadowing about Hunt”

      Made me wince every time he was on screen. There were a couple of episodes where he only got a passing appearance, and they were VASTLY more enjoyable.

  7. CMaster says:

    That sounds brilliant.
    Not sure that it’s a game I’d want to play that much not being a driving game fan, but the concept and silliness sounds very good.

    Also, good to see the note on version played at the bottom. Could this please be a regular thing?

  8. JackShandy says:

    Wasn’t this one somehow written by Tom Jubert?

    Label me interested.

  9. phuzz says:

    What’s the driving feel like? Beyond arcade-y?

    • phenom_x8 says:

      If its feels like the first/second driver than its great, dont care if that was a sim or arcade!

  10. Teddy Leach says:

    This game had better contain Gene Hunt.

  11. Rii says:

    I laughed out loud at one point whilst reading this article. That’s usually a good sign.

    P.S. 360p? What is this, 2002?

  12. bill says:

    Come on, Driver 3 wasn’t that bad.

    It had one infuriating flaw – the way lamp-posts brought your car to a sudden stop. But the shooting was a tiny part of the game, and easy to ignore, and the driving was great fun in a high-speed-hollywood-car-chase kind of way. Except those goddam lamp-posts and the sparse checkpoints. And the city was pretty and had nice sunsets.

    It was fun enough that I actually bothered to complete it, even though the last mission took over 150 retries due to the ridiculous start.

    Driver 1 – on the other hand, is pretty terrible. It was good at the time, but that time was VERY short. Horrible handling and a city made of right-angle corners. After Midtown Madness it felt horrible.

    • WJonathan says:

      I agree. With the exact opposite of everything you just typed.

  13. flamingmenudo says:

    I hope the accurately model all the crazy homeless and human scat on the sidewalks. It wouldn’t be San Francisco without it!

  14. kyrieee says:

    Why are they keeping Tanner? He’s barely a character

  15. piggydiggy says:

    After watching the trailer and reading this I have one observation, although I’ve probably missed something. If you can jump into any car of your choosing, why doesn’t ‘Tanner’ jump into the bad guy’s car in the chase shown in the trailer?

    Edit: In fact why not jump into any bad guy’s car?

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      I would assume its because you have the crash that puts you in the coma DURING the chase with that criminal.

  16. Sam Crisp says:

    This looks brilliant. The idea of swapping to another car whenever you crash or mess up sounds appealing to me, and I’ll be interested to see how well it works in the end. Any word on the DRM this game will have for PC?

  17. Raithah says:

    Life on Mars title sequence sans green blocky, coming right up :D. Hopefully that’s the series you intended …

  18. Kefren says:

    The green box caught a lot of people out today – appearing on all video sites. It turns out to be a bug in the latest crappy Adobe Flash. Why do we put up with awful proprietary plugins? http://www.techieshelp.com/youtube-video-showing-in-split-screen/ for the solution – it worked for me when I started seeing green boxes everywhere today.

    And in the game.

  19. disperse says:

    “Tanner’s role once granted his ‘power’, with a vague implication of being a sort of urban angel, is to solve crimes and problems across the city – hopping into the body of a hapless, fatted cop in order to grant the driving skill necessary to hunt down a getaway vehicle, getting a patient-bearing ambulance to the hospital on time, that sort of thing.”

    A sandbox game where I don’t have to control a soulless psychopath? Yes please.

  20. Iskariot says:

    I have completely lost interest in this game. They just made up some stupid excuse to camouflage the fact that you can not leave the car. I they had made this into something like a supernatural thriller in which you are able to jump from body to body it might have been interesting. But it is simply a game in which you can’t do nothing else but drive. It is a single minded driving/racing game. Not interested in that at all. I’ll wait for GTA 5. :)

    • KenTWOu says:

      A game in which you can’t do nothing else but drive is still pure fun if it has appropriate steering wheel support.

  21. Bassism says:

    To be fair, Driver came out before GTA3, so it’s hard to call it a GTA-wannabe.

    But, the series lost its magic after the first one. I was skeptical when I first hear about the car-hopping, but it actually seems like it might a good kind of fun.

    • SamC says:

      I think they meant the later games in the series tried to copy the GTA model, to the detriment of the Driver series. All I know is I got a sweet Driver: Parallel Lines shirt out of it.

  22. B0GiE-uk- says:

    Starsky and Hutch car at 1.12, anyone else notice?