Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview

It takes a minute to get used to Driver: San Francisco. I had a chance to get my hands on a PS3 controller with the game running at Ubisoft’s pre-E3 event back in May, and while I’m not much of a virtual wheelman as it is, the car I started with as I started a Freeplay round and began driving around the city was a bit touchy for my taste.

That was when one of the many developers hanging around to give rubes like me tips started to explain the game’s Shift mechanic.

Driver fans will have already heard about Shift, but if you haven’t been following the news about San Francisco, it’s a lot like being a ghost and possessing other living people. Shifting lets you hop from the body of one driver, and the car they’re driving, to another. It’s like jacking a fresh car in a Grand Theft Auto game, and gaining all the changes you receive from jumping behind the wheel of a different car with its size and handling, but without the more annoying portions of being on foot and having to secure the other vehicle. If you can see it, you can Shift to it – and often, you can fly around dispossessed in Shift mode and find a car to your liking.

In Freeplay mode, this opens up a lot of different options for minigame modes. For example, Shift into a cop car and you can start running down lawbreakers, and after you’ve kicked off the mini-game, you can actually shift between cop cars in pursuit of your suspect. That means you can get in close with one car and ram your suspect in the back, or maneuver two cruisers alongside the perp and box him in.

Shift, in fact, is the central mechanic for all of Driver: San Francisco and fundamentally changes the way the game plays in many ways. In Freeplay mode, it allows you to hop around and do the cop side missions or, conversely, get yourself into trouble with the law and do the escaping, among other things. But there are other game modes that use the mechanic, as well.

In the game’s single player campaign (which I admittedly spent very little time with because of the nature of the preview event and all the other Ubisoft games in the offing), Driver follows a distinct story, and while it wasn’t made clear to me during the course of the mission I played why the player is capable of Shifting, it can be used in campaign missions to help extricate police escapes and the like. The mission I saw had the player character serving as the wheelman for some guy under police pursuit, and a nearby dev recommended I use Shifting to help break up the chase, maneuvering civilian drivers to aid in my escape.

This is actually something of a difficult concept to wrap your head around, and I didn’t use Shifting effectively during the mission at all. At first I couldn’t really get my mind to think in terms of Shifting – it was a lot like the first time I picked up a controller in Portal. It’s a big change to the way players approach driving games, especially because it requires relinquishing control of the main character for a short time in order to micromanage other drivers.

Skipping off the single player campaign, I spent a few minutes with a secondary racing mode that Driver offers. In that mode, I actually controlled two cars taking part in a street race. The cars made up a team and the goal was to have both cars take the top two slots in the run; and that meant using Shift to drive each as necessary.

Here, I got a little more training in making Shifting work for me. I could quickly Shift between my racers to help maneuver both where I needed them to go, and that meant thinking about race strategy with two vehicles rather than one. After a lap or two, I started using one racer to box out opponents while the other moved into position, or left one capable racer toward the front while dropping back to assist the other. Once I got the hang of it, the race was fun and challenging in a fairly new way. The AI also seemed trustworthy to the point that I could leave a car on its own to handle things while I helped out another that was struggling.

In no place was Shifting cooler than in Driver: San Francisco’s multiplayer, though. I played a couple of rounds of a Tag-like game mode with some of the devs that was the most fun I had at Ubisoft’s entire event; some brilliant use of the Shift mechanic makes that game fast-paced and hectic, as well as fun in that way that makes you laugh even as you’re losing.
The Tag mode worked like this: At the start of each round, each player was placed in a car behind a truck that was marked in red. That car was “it,” and it was controlled by the AI. When the green light came up, all the players scrambled to try to bump the “it” truck, and the first to do so would become the marked car instead.

As the marked car, players rack up time toward winning the match, with a certain amount total – I think it was two or three minutes – triggering the win. Meanwhile, the remaining three players do everything they can to crash into the marked car; when one does, that player becomes “it” and starts racking up time instead.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though: Players pursuing the marked car can Shift, which means they can move in front, behind, and basically anywhere near the player that’s “it.” The marked player, on the other hand, can’t Shift. The result is a frantic escape drive as you try to rack up as much time as possible, with opponent players suddenly appearing in front of you like so many Agent Smiths, taking civilian cars from oncoming lanes and abruptly ripping them straight at you. Others might be coming up on your back or preparing an ambush as you reach an intersection – it makes for some crazy play, with evading collisions and traps easily being as fun as setting and springing them.

Driver: San Francisco finds great ways in making the driving interesting and memorable, primarily with the Shift mechanic, but also with time spent on making the cars drive and feel differently than one another. Shifting into a bus might seem like a great idea for setting a trap in the Tag mode, until you realize that after successfully taking out the marked car, you then have to try to drive it; similarly, knowing how cars handle and maneuver can be key to success in other situations, especially when making getaways from the cops.

It takes some getting used to, but imaginative game modes, especially in the multiplayer realm, might really set apart Driver: San Francisco and make it a lasting and memorable driving game both online and off. There’s potential here: I’m officially excited for this one.

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