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.