From the wah-pedal infused soundtrack, through to the rear-wheel camera angles, it's clear that Ubisoft Reflections has spent a lot of time analysing classic seventies car chases during the development of the game. Driver: San Francisco promises the "ultimate car chase experience", and based on our first impressions, it's certainly not far off.
Driver as a series has been absent for a long time now. While the series was a smash-hit on the original PlayStation, subsequent titles such as Driv3r failed to live up to the franchise's early promise, leaving it to stagnate while competitors such as Grand Theft Auto boomed.
But Driver: San Francisco feels like a reboot of kinds. Original protagonist Tanner is back, but the game is tied together by a new gameplay gimmick called 'Shift'. The supernatural ability allows Tanner to assume the persona of other drivers on San Francisco's busy streets, allowing you to quickly jump between other vehicles with a tap of the X button.
The mechanic's kind of ridiculous, but it's neatly implemented. There are three gameplay modes on-hand in the demo, each taking advantage of the Shift mechanic in interesting ways. Prove It is the first mission, in which Tanner must convince his partner that he has supernatural powers in the first place. Here you toy with another driver, crashing into cop-cars and eventually hooking up to a tow-truck in order to prove yourself to your partner. The Shift mechanic itself is really well refined, allowing you to hop between vehicles from a Google Maps-esque street view with ease.
But what's really cool about the Shift mechanic is the way you're dropped into a conversation with the occupants of the vehicle. The dialogue is intentionally cheesy, but the feature itself is fascinating in a curious kind of way. If Ubisoft Reflections has managed to record enough dialogue, this could easily end up being one of the stand-out features of the game.
The second mission focuses on a father-daughter street race, in which Tanner must switch between the duo in order to ensure the pair finish first and second. This really heralds the strength of the Shift mechanic, as you hit R1 to immediately switch between the team mates. The challenge here is all about control — keeping both cars at the front of the pack. It's quite challenging, but it's great fun. It certainly showcases massive potential for gameplay variety within Driver: San Francisco's campaign.
The cars themselves handle well. Ubisoft's promising 120 licensed vehicles in the final game. The cars have an arcadey slide to them, but are weighty, requiring heavy use of the hand-brake to kick them around corners. The car models themselves are fairly good too, though obviously not up there with Gran Turismo standards.
Unfortunately, visuals are one area where Driver: San Francisco lets itself down. While the CGI cutscenes look fantastic, the game is a grainy, cloudy mess in gameplay. We suppose this channels some of the seventies cop drama influence that's inspired Driver: San Francisco, but we'd have preferred a clearer graphical style. The draw-distance is also poor, utilising fogging to block off much of the scenery in the distance. Thankfully the game itself runs well, with a solid frame-rate despite the number of AI controlled cars on the road.
The final mission — a straight-forward cop-chase — showcases the handling well, as the emphasis is moved away from Shifting and onto racing a fancy Audi R8.
With fun racing, a variety of cars and a well executed gimmick, Driver: San Francisco has plenty of potential. We're looking forward to the full release next month to see if the game can channel that potential into a fun and varied campaign. Shift provides plenty of opportunity for unique mission objectives, and we're excited to see just how creative Ubisoft Reflections get in the full game.
Driver: San Francisco is due out September 2nd [EU] / September 6th [US] on PlayStation 3.