Driver: San Francisco preview – Reviving a burnout

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The first Driver game, subtitled “You are the Wheelman” in the US exploded on to the PlayStation (and PC) in 1999 garnering exceptional critical and gamer acclaim. It’s still often cited as one of the very best games available for Sony’s first console.

Subsequent games in the series haven’t done quite as well; Driver 2 and the awkwardly named Driv3r are generally regarded as pretty poor games. The fourth game in the series – Parallel Lines- while better, just comes off as a poor GTA clone.

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At last year’s E3, Ubisoft’s Newcastle-based Reflections studio revealed that the fifth bona-fide entry in the series – the first on current generation systems – would be called Driver: San Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to tour the studio, chat with its lead designer and senior producer and most importantly, play the game. Could the quinquennially developed Driver: San Francisco be the studio’s necessary atonement for its previous aberrations?

You might be wondering – as was I – why the studio would put so much time and effort in to an unsafe, dare I say failed, property and one that’s largely escaped from the current gamer’s scope. It’s a question I put forth to lead designer Jean-Baptiste Decant and senior producer Marie-Jo Leroux. They say the game was once as cemented in the gamers’ minds as other PlayStation mainstays like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy and its ilk, and it’s time for it to return to its former prominence. From the limited play-time I had with the game, it might just do that.

Driver: San Francisco continues to story of Tanner, and for the handful of you that were masochistic enough to actually play Driv3r to completion, follows the events that take place after that game’s conclusion. In a botched chase following the escape of the still-alive and decidedly evil Jericho, our protagonist is thrust in to a coma – which instead of terminating the game as the world’s shortest interactive digital narrative, gives it a sort of metaphysical twist.

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Tanner, unaware he’s the flick of a life-support machine’s switch away from being deceased, continues the chase in his mind. He’s convinced that he’s somehow gained the supernatural ability to project his psyche and consciousness in to the minds of the city’s drivers – giving him direct control of their vehicles. Effectively it allows you, the player, to project or shift (Yes that’s shift with an “f.” A game about multi-vehicular defecation would be rather niche) in to any one of the vehicles that litter the fully realised recreation of over 200 miles of San Francisco’s roads.

Though it follows the general GTA formula of granting you an open city to explore, it dispenses with the pedestrian shenanigans and wanton gunplay, making it feel more like Criterion’s excellent Burnout Paradise. This is a racing game; it just happens to have a pretty compelling story attached to it.

There’s a renewed focus on one of the series hallmarks, its handling. Each of the game’s 120 licenced cars (including Tanner’s primary vehicle, the iconic Dodge challenger) handles uniquely, and it has to be said, sublimely. The game’s developers have struck a fine balance between allowing precise enough handling to accurately slalom through traffic, and enough leeway to careen around corners at breakneck speeds. It’s this handling that allowed me, notoriously terrible at racing games, to crash in to walls and other cars with hitherto unseen grace and speed.

Last Updated: May 9, 2011

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Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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