E3 2010: Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview

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The fine folks at Ubisoft were kind enough to invite me to a private session with Driver: San Francisco as well as some of the team developing it.

Driver has come along way, and the series itself has been incredibly quiet since Driver 3 (Driv3r) failed to impress critics. This time, the team is taking Driver in a very new direction, but at the same time returning the series back to the roots that made it so very popular to begin with.

Find out how, and if it works in this E3 2010 Hands-On look at Driver: San Francisco.

What was it that gave Driver its charm back when the first one released? Driver was based around an open world that captured the thrills and spills of the car chases that we had all seen in Hollywood movies. Swinging your muscle cars’ butts out with the handbrake, while dodging police cars and chasing your mark through the city.

Driver 2 was one of my favorites, tons of fun but required skilled hands on the steering wheel to fend off the fiendishly aggressive cops.

All went well for the series until one major problem arrived, took over and pissed on the Driver parade. Its name was Grand Theft Auto. GTA not only allowed you to also drive around the cities, but get out, interact, shoot and run around as well. Seeing that this was the future, Driver 3 was released, featuring an open world with a free roaming version of the lead protagonist, Tanner. Driver 3 failed to capture the hearts of the masses and now, a couple of years down the line, Driver is back and in its original form.

Driver: San Francisco brings the series back to its roots by having the entire game take place behind the wheel of a car. You can’t get out and walk around, shoot a gun or beat up any hookers, so if that’s what you are looking for, then you already know where to go.

Driver: San Francisco takes a hint from its own title (and some ideas from Test Drive Unlimited) and focuses on the core heart-pounding driving intensity that springs to mind when thinking of the edge-of-your-seat car chase scenes from Hollywood such as the “Elanor” scene from Gone in Sixty Seconds or the legendary San Francisco chase with Steve McQueen in Bullitt.

Each car in the game has its own unique feel and handling. It looks as though the driving mechanics in Driver have been designed to keep the game accessible to more people, but have also not made it a crazy arcade game either. The muscle cars feel heavy and torque-ish while a supercar will feel flat and nimble on the road. Either way, the driving was at a good balance between accessibility and realism. I will possibly have to once again have refer to Test Drive Unlimited in terms of the overall feel of the cars. Not like a sim, not like an arcade racer either and they luckily didn’t drive like boats either.

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Driver is no ordinary driving game though, so don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just some rehash. Driver: SF has been graced with a very out of the ordinary feature, that also brings in an excuse as to how it all works.

You see, in Driver: SF our protagonist Tanner gets himself into a situation that doesn’t quite pan out the way he thinks it did. Tanner has a close call during a car chase, but little does he know, the poor bastard actually got himself into a massive accident that caused him to get KTFO and fall into unconsciousness.

This is where things get a little out of the ordinary. Tanner undergoes an out of body experience that serves as a new feature in the game that allows the player to almost possess any driver (and their vehicle) in the game.

With the use of this new feature, the player can build up meter to give them the power to slow the game down and float above the city. From this mode you can move around the city, select another vehicle and then annex it.

Whilst playing the game, we were taken through a mission in the game that involved us chasing down a Porsche in a high speed chase. Using the new mode we were able to have horrendous screw ups but then slow time down, pop up into the air and zip into another vehicle on the road and continue the chase.

Sure, this new mode is ludicrous as far as keeping things realistic is concerned and you may think that it would make the whole game a little easy, but do bare in mind that the game is based around this new system.

What I did notice in the demo we were shown is that a lot of scripted events took place during the chase. Trucks would cross the roads between you and the AI, allowing you to look ultra cool as you zip underneath its trailer, or dodge falling scaffolding and so on. At this point I can’t say if the scripted pieces are a good thing or a bad thing as they add a lot to the excitement, but also make me wonder if it will make the missions seem a little too “set up”.

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The visuals in Driver will not blow you away, but considering that size of the city and the amount of traffic around, the game can still be considered good looking in many ways. The visuals as well as the way that the map works really does remind me of Test Drive Unlimited in so many ways. Even though all of the car models aren’t as amazingly detailed as dedicated track racers, the overall feel from the large city and everything in it give it a good visual vibe.

The entire city will be unlocked as you progress through the game and from what we were shown in our time with the game, it really does make the whole of San Francisco available to the player, including a decent amount of the areas across the bridges (I’m no expert on SF though). Better yet, you can zoom really far out and then zip back into another car on the other side of the city with almost no loading time at all, keeping things smooth.

The game also includes a full roster of licensed cars now, and range from American muscle like the new Dodge Challenger to old favorites like the Cobra as well as a variety of different cars from other regions that range from average to monstrously fast.

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We had a small multiplayer session as well and were shown a versus mode that has every player chasing down an AI car. The AI vehicle has two streams of light coming from its tail lights. The point of the game was to stay as close behind the car as possible and soak up as many points as possible.

The crazy thing is that in multiplayer, everyone can zoom out and hop into other cars, ensuring that there everyone is always near the AI vehicle car. It really became a lot of fun when everyone was driving up behind the AI vehicle, pushing and shoving to get into the light streams to soak up points. There are more modes that will be revealed at a later time but it was fun and different to what’s out there already.

At the moment, I am not entirely sure what to think about Driver: San Francisco. The driving was fun, the city was huge and the game had a definite air of fun surrounding it. We will truly have to wait for the review copy to really know if this game will be a good final product.

Last Updated: June 24, 2010

Nick De Bruyne

Video games writer, editor and critic since '08. Living and breathing video games, movies and cars since the 80s. Follow me on Twitter if you love tons of gaming talk, and @pennyworthrevs for fun stuff and links.

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