Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Driver: San Francisco [Preview]

The Driver series originally surfaced back in the days of the original PlayStation, with the emphasis firmly on the driving side of things. You couldn’t get out of your car, wander round and start shooting people; back then, this wasn’t just another Grand Theft Auto clone (and rightly so, considering the first two games were actually released whilst GTA was still in aerial view mode). Since 1999, however, the series has fluctuated wildly (the less said about Driv3r, the better).

Now we’re twelve years down the line, and less than a month away from Driver’s latest offering, San Francisco. You can’t get out of your car anymore, a feature introduced way back in 2000 with Driver 2. But you can get out of your body.

New gimmick/mechanic/USP ‘shifting’ allows the player to, well, shift between cars. Returning protagonist Tanner has been left in a coma (though developer Reflections assures us it’s “not the Bobby Ewing moment in Dallas - it’s crucial to the story”), and within his coma-induced state of mind, he’s led to believe he can transport his consciousness remotely to other cars with a quick tap of a face button. Or rather, that’s the bit we’ll be doing.

But it really is just as easy as that; a press of 'X' (or the Xbox equivalent) and you’re floating above the streets of San Fran, as everything runs in slow motion below you while you find another car to zip into. Sounds nuts, right?

It's lucky for Reflections, then, that their chimerical mechanic has so many potential applications. Take the race level I played; a father-daughter team need to finish in both first and second to be victorious, winning a trophy or their pride or something. Tanner, good guy that he is, decides to ‘help out’. Over the course of two laps, it’s your job to make sure both cars finish in the desired position by constantly switching between them, bringing both up to speed. It definitely makes for a more intense and interesting experience than your standard racing fare.

And there’s plenty more intriguing gameplay where that came from. It’s not just about winning races or escaping from cops; there’s a strategic element to shifting, which quickly becomes obvious. Where’s the sense in endlessly chasing villains when you can shift into a bus, creating an instant roadblock just a few feet ahead?

If things are starting to sound a bit daft, that’s probably because they are. San Francisco takes itself far less seriously than previous Driver instalments; particularly the last console iteration Parallel Lines, the first (and only) game of the series to be rated 18. It’s evident from the off, not least in the humourous scripting and banter between the two leads (Tanner is joined by his partner, Jones). The changes and indeed the shift mechanic have apparently come about as a desire to "[avoid] trying to duplicate anything that is being done in other open world action driving games."

Of course, with the renewed focus on driving (the game is called Driver, after all), it’s important that the cars play their part. Licensed cars are new to the series, and each one feels like a character in itself - the personality each vehicle has will resonate instantly as you get to grips with it; whether fragile and classy or packing a serious punch, you’ll soon have a few favourites you won’t be able to help yourself from shifting into the second you see them (I claim the Delorean!).

Reflections’ new gimmick might seem like a step backward - removing the ability to leave your car - and slightly silly, but the seamless execution shows promising signs of a series reformed. Driver's trying to be unique again - something that can only be commended - and while it's a risk, it's one that looks to have paid off.


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