Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Video games, like movies, are a collaborative art form. Anyone who waits through the 5 minute scrawl of text that ends each game, waiting to see what bonus features all their hard work has unlocked, knows that the only real difference between a video game and a movie is the lack of a key grip. Other than that, these AAA titles are assembled by a cast of hundreds or thousands, and marketed by twice that. I usually pay particular attention to the Creative Director – the person who keeps the ship afloat as it makes that long journey from inception to “gone gold.” And it’s particularly interesting when a creator leaves his baby in well-meaning hands and heads off to explore new frontiers, only to return several years down the line. Within the next six months, gamers have the chance to enjoy a series of titles that are notable for having enticed their fathers back into the fold. Next year, Ken Levine brings us a brand new Bioshock after sitting the second one out. This Fall, Michel Ancel returns to his Rayman platforming roots. And in just a few weeks, Martin Edmonson takes the wheel in Driver: San Francisco – returning to the series once again after a lengthy absence.
Edmonson and his team at Reflections burst onto the scene with the 1999 release Driver, for the original PlayStation. Putting players behind the wheel as undercover cop Jack Tanner, then a criminal getaway driver – this free-roaming ‘cops and robbers’ tale was remarkable for laying the blueprint for some of Grand Theft Auto’s later success. At the time, it was a real thrill to take the wheel and drive through a bustling metropolis, speeding through Hollywood-esque car chases. The sequel, Driver 2, allowed Tanner to get out of the car in order to grab new rides – again providing additional inspiration for the PS2 GTA series. Unfortunately, the much hyped next gen Driver 3 failed to match the innovations laid out by its predecessors and the series lost quite a bit of that luster.
Having had the chance to play through a three-part demo available now on the Playstation Network and XBLA, Edmonson’s return is felt immediately. This appetizer course offers up tantalizing morsels of game play and the racing feels crisp and dynamic. With Fast Five’s film director, Justin Lim, in the design stable – the feel of flying through a breakneck chase is immediately apparent. The recipe for addictive action racing feels complete.
Driver: San Francisco’s big hook takes a page from Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. In this title, Tanner is wounded in a major car crash and from that develops the ability to project or “Shift” his consciousness from one car to another; allowing him to take control of the driver and influence their actions. While it remains to be seen how this is developed in the narrative, each time Tanner “shifts” into the guise of another character – it feels like small morsels of the Animus trips in Creed. In the game, it plays similarly to that bravura sequence in the second Matrix flick – where the various agents continued to chase Neo by “car-jacking” various drivers on a crowded highway.
The “Prove It” sequence of the demo introduces Tanner’s new power and lets players take it for a spin. Tanner brings his partner along for the journey and is forced to execute a number of stunts while hunting a suspect – whom he torments by randomly popping into his head and taking control of his ride. All of this leads to some interesting and humorous wrinkles on the traditional car chase format as the unwitting suspect begins tormenting and toying with police cars and tow trucks – all just waiting to collar this perp.
“Escapist” finds Tanner picking up a passenger moments before the long arm of the law crashes down. The player then needs to utilize their driving prowess in concert with Tanner’s “Shifting” ability to lose the cops – as indicated by a red sphere on the map. As more cops join the fray, you’ll need to discover short cuts through the environment to cut them off. It’s similar to missions seen in the later GTA games but the “Shift” ability constantly adds a shiny gloss to the proceedings.
“Team Colors” is the closest mode to a traditional race – pairing two teams of two drivers each. This means, in the single player mode, you need to keep “shifting” between your two cars in order to insure that both cars cross the finish line in the top two slots. This micro-management of two sets of racers feels like carefully orchestrated chaos and left me at the edge of my seat the entire time – as I constantly checked on my wingman to make sure he was keeping up while working to fend off those vying for my front line pole position.
Driver: San Francisco goes on sale for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on September 6, 2011. A PC release is scheduled for later that month. From what I’ve played, this is a well-polished arcade racer that feels similar to the Burnout series while re-embracing the roots first laid down by Edmonson in the winning first installment. This is one to watch.