There I was on Ubisoft's E3 stand, late Thursday afternoon, tired, bedraggled and slightly delirious. A really bad time to sit through a demo of Driver: San Francisco - a game that should have been straightforward, but isn't.
While we've mentioned the concept in an earlier first-look, a quick reminder seems pertinent because it's so batshit beserk. Tanner, star of the original games returns, but he's in a coma. This is used as a plot framing device to explain 'shifting' - the practice of jumping between different people's lives (and cars) to select missions.
Let's get this straight: as far as we know so far, the game exists entirely in the mind of its central character? Right.
Reeling with confusion, my demoer demonstrates how this works and how the 'shift' mechanic can be used to our advantage. During a chase mission he jumps from his car to a lorry further up the road, and uses it as barricade to stop the criminal he's pursuing, causing a spectacular collision. Amazingly, it sort of makes sense when shown in the context of a game.
Above: Shifting to a truck to create an obstruction
The showpiece comes at the end when the top down camera used to select a vehicle in shift mode draws up to a Google Maps-inspired satellite view of San Francisco and images of hundreds of potential 'shiftees' appear on screen at once, each chattering away simultaneously about their own particular life story, suggesting different missions and story threads.
Above: The satellite view of Driver's reimagined San Francisco
There's a sort of punch-line to this that was probably funnier at the time, because at this stage of the show we were likely to either laugh or cry. The journalist who had been watching the demo with me (who had made a spectacular entrance by first falling off his stool and then losing his bag) was the first to ask a question.
What do you reckon he asked? About Tanner's coma? Where the idea came from? How the hell the story works?
No. He asked, "Is there a Wii version?"
Even the demoer looked stunned. Of course, I was given the chance to ask the more obvious questions after his similarly inane follow up, "And who is developing it?"
Unfortunately it becomes no clearer. The guy couldn't confirm that the entire game was a big charade, played out in the brain dead mind of Tanner. He couldn't reveal how it fitted into the story (that would be giving some serious spoilers away) and one of the main influences cited were the films of M. Night Shyamalan, which is faintly troubling. Life on Mars might have been a more appropriate comparison.
The one fact we did extract was that Driver: San Francisco is entirely about driving. In a further nod to its 1999 origins, on-foot sections are out, which should please the purists.
Above: There will be no getting out on foot in this back to its roots Driver
All that was left was to give the multiplayer version a go and get thoroughly humiliated as I grappled pitifully with the shift function, accidentally jumping into inferior vehicles or cars going the opposite direction to the race. The 'Trailblazer' mode I was playing comprises of following a chase car and accumulating points by sitting in its slipstream. First to 100 points wins, and this being multiplayer three other cars are trying to do the same thing at the same time.
Above: Chase the trailblazing car to get points, try not to crash
The shift mechanic can be used to good effect here as a way of abandoning a totalled car and swapping to a faster one further along the street to gain the advantage. I'd try and tell you what the handling was like, but I spent so much time shifting between vehicles I didn't stay in one single auto long enough to get a proper sense for it.
The politest way I can describe Driver: San Francisco is that it's unique. But you could call it mental. The positives are that it is returning to its roots and focusing on driving, and the San Francisco location is a clever one in the variety it offers for exhilarating movie-inspired chases. I'll have to reserve judgement on the shift mechanic for now - it's just too weird.
Jun 21, 2010