Driver: San Francisco
All right, we’re going to be straight with you here. Drive: San Francisco, though conservative enough in its title, is looking really flipping weird. We’ll take you through the experience as it was revealed to us, so you can fully appreciate our feeling of surprise and alarm. The game was switched on, and there it all was, just as we’d remembered it from Driv3r – without, obviously, the ridiculous title.
There was Tanner, careering down a busy, six-lane main road in pursuit of some criminal or other. The handling looked tight, the physics were right there as the tyres reacted realistically with each bump and groove in the road surface. Every inch of the completely proprietary technology – which had apparently taken Reflections over four years to develop and turn into a game – is in full effect here, with a full, crowded road operating under a fully realised traffic system, as swarms of pedestrians leap out of the way of our crazy pursuit as we draw too close to the curb. It’s impressive stuff – perhaps not the best-looking driving game we’ve ever seen, but it’s already maintaining a silky, nigh-on unbroken 60 frames per second. It’s accurate, realistic, and feels like it’s returning to the original Driver’s focus on in-car action and dramatic chases. Pretty neat, we think to ourselves.
The target suddenly veers sharply down an alley, and Tanner follows hot on the heels of his Porsche 911 (cars are, finally, fully licensed in Driver: San Francisco). He smashes straight through some scaffolding, which tumbles all over the road, a few of the steel bars clattering off our roof, and denting our bodywork. All too late, we realise Tanner’s heading for a dead end, but a craftily placed wooden ramp sends his car hurtling over the top of the fence. We wait for the impact, but instead… everything freezes.
What’s going on? Console crash? Apparently not. The camera zooms out of the car, now hovering above it, and the street below, in some kind of swirly-sounded out-of-body experience. “This is the Shift system,” announces creative director Martin Edmondson, which really explains nothing whatsoever, though we’re grateful someone’s said something, as it starts us all breathing again, as the vaguely distressed looks leave our faces. The demonstrator goes on to show how a deft flick of RS pulls the camera further and further up into the sky, eventually allowing us a full view of the entire, beautifully realised city beneath. Great, it’s lovely. We really like what they’ve done with the lighting effects and the…
Hold up. Hang on. Just one minute. What the hell just happened here?! Tanner, explains Edmondson, is in a coma. This makes some degree of sense anyway – he was, after all, shot in the head by arch baddie Jericho at the end of the last game. What makes rather less sense, however, is how being in a coma allows Tanner to spook around San Francisco like some intangible, car-jacking ghost-man.
Car-jacking – yeah. Because while we’re still trying to come to terms with the fact that the player character is now a floating camera, the demonstrator’s begun offering a little validity to this seemingly nutshit gaming device. Once Tanner’s in the air, he can pick any of the tiny cars scuttling about far below him, take aim and, after a quick press of A, jump straight into it, effectively inhabiting the body of the occupant and taking full control of their car.
Unfortunately, the chase doesn’t continue, as it all seems forgotten. But we’re now treated to a bit of reckless body hopping, as Tanner, or the sweet old woman he now is, hurtles around town causing veritable carnage, before abandoning the car at high speed and watching safely from the window of a passing truck as the ejected shopper smashes headfirst into a wall.
After this, we’re let loose for ourselves, but not before pumping Edmondson for information. Restraining ourselves from shaking him by both shoulders and screaming “What were you thinking?, we instead settle for “So… please explain the idea behind the Shift system.”
Actually, the very early beginnings of the function were from the idea of Google Earth Live,” he explains. “So you know when you’re at the higher level of Shift, right above the city? That’s like when you look at the world from above in Google Earth. But obviously everything’s static and six months old or whatever – this is the equivalent, but running live, so grab any car you want, instantaneously at any time. That was the starter.”
Never once does Edmondson mention what we consider is a major contributing factor to the basis of the idea; after a run of poorly received games that were often seen merely as playing catch-up with Grand Theft Auto titles, there’s a palpable sense that Driver San Francisco really wants to be starkly different. What, when the Reflections team sat down to plan Driver San Francisco, did they decide they wanted to do with the IP?
“Well, explains Edmondson, “There are a number of things that we were clear we didn’t want to do; we didn’t want to try to continue down the line of doing ‘getting out of car and wandering around solving puzzles’ and all that stuff, because again, there are a lot of games doing that, and doing that well. Driver is called Driver for a reason – it’s about Hollywood car chases, and we wanted to make sure we maintained and kept that focus on the real Hollywood driving, car chase experience – that was a very clear thing.
“The other thing we wanted to do was to make sure that we really innovated, because if you look at the previous games that we’ve done like Destruction Derby and Stuntman and Driver, they’ve always been innovative at the time, and they’re doing something that no one else is doing, and we didn’t want to drift into just doing the ‘me too’ type of city-based driving thing, so we wanted something really innovative, and certainly this gives it something that’s never been seen before in a driving game… There’s sometimes pressure to turn it into something slightly different or a little bit more like a racing style or whatever, and we were just adamant that we wanted that streets, real Hollywood car-chase thing.”
It’s all measured, sensible thinking, but we still couldn’t help feel that this Life On Mars vs Quantum Leap dynamic was, even when explained as rationally as it was, somehow jumping the shark when compared to the lush physics and keenly realised geographic space of the world.
Still, Ubisoft is increasingly becoming the company that does things a little differently. Twisting Assassin’s Creed produced a sequel of depth and perfection when compared to its progenitor. Overhauling Sam Fisher (just a little, in the end) produced a Splinter Cell anyone could appreciate, and so who are we to suggest that Driver: San Francisco’s bold, eccentric creative assertion will end up proving anything but a gambit that pays off?
As Edmondson rightly reminded us, Reflections, since long before its connection with Ubisoft, has had a reputation for doing its own thing – its own proprietary tech and its own highly original ideas. Shadow Of The Beast knocked everybody’s socks off back in the day with its surreal, hallucinogenic visuals, and continues to enthrall today for those timeless qualities. We’re choosing to look on Reflections’ latest innovation as a potentially positive twist on the driving formula, guided by over 20 years of, at times, revolutionary game-making.
Once the developer has backed up its bold yet ambiguous display of technical philosophy with some concrete gameplay dynamics, we’ll have much more of an idea of whether this move, which is an unarguable gamble by anyone’s reckoning, has actually paid off.