Jeremy Jastrzab
06 May, 2011

Driver: San Francisco Preview

PS3 Preview | Going to take you for a drive...
Since the debut of the Driver franchise in 1999, a cursory glance at Metacritic or Gamerankings will tell you one thing about the series; it’s been downhill since an excellent start. The original Driver is still the most successful in the series, and after the franchise and developer were salvaged by Ubisoft in 2006, the new custodians are keen to get the series back on track. So keen that they had have let the fifth major title in the series, Driver: San Francisco, to cook for the last five years in development. And as the September release gets closer, Ubisoft has managed to get series creator, Martin Edmondson, to take us for a ride in the passenger seat for this latest title.

At the get go, Martin was very keen to point out a couple of key factors in the development of this game. Aside from the five year development cycle, he pointed out that it had taken this long, because the team had a focus on creating an open-world driving game running at 60 frames per second. And the only way for them to achieve this, was for the team to create their own tools and engines, from the ground up. Furthermore, he mentioned the desire for the team to take the series back to the glory days of the original, as well as add multiplayer.

Back in Tanner's seat. Literally.

Back in Tanner's seat. Literally.
The game takes players back to San Francisco, one of the cities from the original title. And players will hopefully appreciate how the developers have tried to recreate San Francisco, with the most obvious features including a very quaint version of the most famous winding street in the world: Lombard Street. Of course, it won’t be to scale, and it won’t be 100% accurate, but for anyone who has actually been to San Francisco, they’ll feel like the game is quite familiar to them. Given the size and scale of the city this time around, as well as the title, the game won’t venture to other cities.

The original game was inspired by famous car chase movies such as Bullitt and The Driver, and Driver: San Francisco returns to using the original protagonist, John Tanner. It picks up after the events of the third game, Driv3r. Players will find that both Jericho and Tanner have lived, and during the opening scenes of the game, players will try and chase down a fugitive Jericho. During this chase, Tanner is involved in a head on crash and players are left in the ambiguous situation over whether Tanner is dead or alive. Players switch between scenes where Tanner is unconscious in a hospital, and where he’s alive and chasing after Jericho.

While unclear and unsettling at first, particularly since it seems that Tanner now has the ability to directly jump into just about anyone’s car, the impression is that the game plays in a dream while Tanner is in a coma. This might seem a little bit like a cop-out, but it’s actually necessary in driving the game’s key mechanic. Despite being potentially contrived, the story itself is superbly presented in the first hour and kept you hooked to the seat’s edge, so it will be quite exciting to see if it manages to keep this up.

Sometimes you chase. Sometimes you get chased. Just a typical Friday night, really...

Sometimes you chase. Sometimes you get chased. Just a typical Friday night, really...
The key mechanic that looks to set Driver: San Francisco apart from all the other open-world driving games out there is the ‘shift’ mechanic. Very early on, you’re given the ability to literally jump (or shift) from one car to another. With the press of a button, you zoom out of your current vehicle and take an isometric view, looking out of a lens. You can then lock onto just about any other car that is currently on the streets. And with one last button press, you’re off and driving again in your new car. It should be noted that this mechanic is often optional, and that it is an active decision by the development team to get keep the player in a car at all times. It's also used to distinguish itself from other open-world driving games that put the player at a third person perspective.

Having such a surreal mechanic definitely fits into a ‘dream’ story. Furthermore, it’s not unlimited, as you’ll have to drive with stunts (speeding, drifting, overtaking and so forth) to gather enough ‘willpower’ to shift. Willpower is also the game’s currency, for buying the 130-140 licensed cars in the game, all with complete damage models (including Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Ruf Automobile, Dodge, Shelby, Pagani, DeLorean and Bugatti) as well as upgrades relating to garages, which store your cars and act as repair and warp points. The shift mechanic will upgrade as you play through as well, and the game will often show off the potential with each upgraded level of shift with a quick video clip.

The gameplay itself shows off a much heavier set of cars, much in line with the game’s mantra of driving around and performing stunts in muscle cars. It takes a little bit of time to get used to, but it all handles very well once you are in the groove. The story continues whenever you are in Tanner’s car, but you’ll often have to ‘earn’ your way back into the car by performing missions around the city because “San Francisco needs a hero”. These will include performing stunts, chases, getting chased and races. Outside of missions, you’ll have ‘dares’ which require you to perform particular tasks within a time limit (such as drive 800m in 45 seconds without crashing into anything), which will earn you willpower and progressively get harder and more cerebral. Furthermore, micro versions of all the entire mission types, again which you'll play for the challenge and willpower.

Yep. It's definitely San Francisco.

Yep. It's definitely San Francisco.
True to their word, the development team have managed to do an excellent job of pulling off a ridiculously smooth frame rate. The preview build was very close to, if not already, hitting the promised 60 frames per second. The game also had some entertaining, well-directed and enthusiastically voiced presentation, and it will be interesting to see how well it will be sustained through out. Finally, there are over 70 licensed music tracks for the game, all of which will hopefully fit the mood that the game is going for.

Driver: San Francisco shows a concerted effort by the development team in trying to take franchise back to the glory days, as well as avoid being just another Grand Theft Auto clone. While the story will be contentious for some, the riveting presentation makes it suggest that it’s worth trying, while the new shift mechanic is in interesting step in keeping players in the car at all times. Throw in all the extras, such as the car licenses, and a massive area to explore, and this just might end up being the return to form that the series has been looking for.
The changes and additions made to Driver: San Francisco have the series back on the right track for a long overdue return to form.

Related Driver: San Francisco Content

Driver: San Francisco Review
14 Sep, 2011 We find out if comas make better drivers.
Driver: San Francisco demo speeding over to console shortly
10 Aug, 2011 Take it for a test drive.
1 Comment
2 years ago
I have mixed feelings about this game and really won't be able to decide on whether to buy it until I've tried it for at least a small period of time.

What is the handling of the cars like? If it resembles something like GTA IV I'll be slightly annoyed.

Something that intrigues me about this game is the story. With something so clichéd (I mean, Tanner dies, so what? He's just dreaming) and already well documented (Life on Mars, anybody?) the obvious route for the story seems to be to not take the obvious route. So hopefully it's interesting and really drives the game forward.
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Australian Release Date:
  29/09/2011 (Tentative)
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