It’s not the superfly soul and funk of Marlena Shaw or Aretha Franklin that makes Driver: San Francisco a winner. It’s not the likeable Tanner character or his sidekick, either, and it’s not the deft handling of the licensed cars and the outrageous stunts that the city promotes. It’s all of the above, blended to make a great melting pot of pulpy writing, effortlessly brilliant music, cool split camera views and handbrake turns at a hundred miles per hour. It’s Driver as we used to love it, then, and San Francisco is definitely a return to form.[drop]First up though, that handling. No, it’s not as heavy handed as it used to be – even in the big fat American rides like the Challenger – and it’s not as drift heavy even though it’s still easy enough to get the back end sliding. Instead, it’s tighter than we’d perhaps have liked (taking into account the game’s history) but still manages to offer a certain amount of ‘give’ if you need it, usually by way of the brakes, ironically enough. In short: it’s fine, but play the demo if you’re unsure.
The game itself is the biggest diversion, though – and there are a few surprises that start to pour out as you progress through the single player story mode. For starters, Tanner and Jericho are both alive after the last Driver, and after a short series of cut-scenes and briefly playable chunks of game, our hero takes a nasty bump and finds himself in what looks like a coma. This isn’t spoilers, by the way, this happens within a couple of minutes of starting the game.
We’re not for a second suggesting that TV series Life on Mars was the first show to play on this, of course, but Driver: San Francisco certainly feels like it’s riffing off the antics of Sam Tyler in particular, with messages and directions being conveyed via everyday objects and the occasional noise from the hospital ringing out over the action. What this means, as you’ll have no doubt heard, is that Tanner’s able to pull off one hell of a trick which forms the game’s core mechanic.
Shifting, as it’s known, is the process of transferring yourself from one body to another. In this case, because the player cannot leave a car and walk around, shifting is used to change cars, and by initiating the move (by tapping A on the 360, X on the PS3) you’ll zoom out and up, the action will slow, and you’ll be able to target another vehicle before jumping back down to earth. It’s a really brave, bold move and you know what – it actually works.
An early example sees Tanner tasked with taking down a fleeing felon but, as his police truck isn’t quite quick or agile enough to keep up, you’re free to shift to other cars heading in the same direction in order to try to shove the offender off the road. If the vehicle shows damage, or spins out of control, just shift across to another one and keep trying. Of course, early on the feature’s left quite open so you get practice in, but that’ll change later on.[videoyoutube]You’ll also find that after the first half hour or so a huge number of side missions and activities open up. These, on completion, award you with points with which you can buy new cars and upgrades at the various garages and also plug the gaps between the main story missions. They seem to offer quite a bit of variety when you’re not following the main plot thread, and it’s always neat hearing the voice of the various passengers you meet along the way.
Special mention on the graphics, too, which were a pleasant surprise, not least because they’re running at a lovely sixty frames per second, a real rarity in the genre of open world driving games. The last I can remember was Burnout Paradise, and Driver looks very nearly as good – the real world (damageable) cars are nicely done, the massive environment’s detailed enough (with some key, recognisable locations dotted around) and the film-like noise filter works well given the setting.
From the first couple of hours of play, Driver is great fun. Sure, the storyline’s a little bit ‘out there’ but it’s all done with a certain sense of irony, and where it counts – in the actual driving – Ubisoft have done a fine job. There are loads of multiplayer options and a dedicated film director mode too, but we’ll get to all that, along with everything else, in our full review. Let us know if you’re getting the game this weekend, and we’ll meet you there!