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We have a poke around in near-final code for Driver San Francisco as the game nears release...
Some games are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. If Driver: San Francisco is going to aspire to any of these categories, it'll be the middle one. The title certainly won't be born great, such is the disappointment of former instalments in the series - for the same reason, it seems unlikely that anybody is going to be thrusting greatness upon it. This leaves achieving greatness as Ubisoft Reflections (formerly Reflections Interactive) strives to reinstate the Driver name after a series of poor design choices in the three major instalments following its 1998 debut. And as far as we can see having sat down for a sizeable hands-on with Driver San Francisco's multiplayer and opening single-player act, Ubi Reflections has been working very hard to produce a game of formidable polish.
Take, for example, how far the code has come since we first saw it this time last year. At the centre of the gameplay is a 'shift' dynamic that allows you to teleport freely between any car in the game's open world (we'll explain why later). In our first hands-on with the multiplayer this time last year, the bird's eye view of the city that you used for shifting was featureless and colourless. Buildings and roads were uniformly grey, almost as if the game was in a proof-of-concept stage at the very start of development. In the current build though, this bird's eye view is fully rendered with all the textures and colours that you'd see from the default driver's perspective. The developers were taking on a hefty task with the innovative 'shift' dynamic - smoothly rendering a full open-world with no noticeable drops in frame-rate or pop-up is a daunting prospect at the best of times - so it's great to see that they've been refining and optimising the process so successfully over the last twelve months.
For those of you who haven't been keeping up with the development of DSF though, here's a quick recap: it's billed as a return to the classic gameplay of the original Driver, where the focus was squarely on driving - gone are the GTA-style on-foot sections and gunplay of subsequent sequels. The hook, though, is this 'shift' dynamic. Ubisoft Reflections makes sense of it by placing Tanner, who returns as protagonist, in a coma after a coming together with his long-time adversary, Jericho. Within that coma, Tanner learns that he can shift into any car across the city of San Francisco and embody the driver at that vehicle's wheel. Across the game's main story, Tanner uses this ability (unawares he's in a coma) to infiltrate Jericho's gang and embody his various henchman as they complete jobs for their ringleader. With these details alone, DSF is already the most story-focused pure driving experience in any game of recent times, but it's the variation that Ubisoft Reflections appears to be managing through all of this that's particularly striking.
During a couple of hours with the single-player, we experienced everything from car chases (as both cop and criminal) to illegal point-to-point street races, one mission where we embodied a journalist trying to capture footage of reckless driving, and another where we had to rescue a kidnapped woman in the boot of a car (the key was to take out the kidnapper's car with oncoming collisions by shifting to cars just in front of him). The gameplay hook of shifting really has allowed Ubi Reflections a wide range of tools to flesh out a discernible plot and the studio clearly hasn't shied away from the challenge. Each vehicle you shift into with either a side or story mission attached to it has discernible characters on-board with plentiful lines of dialogue and even minor back-stories to flesh out. There's the driving instructor who bullies the confidence out of his teenage student until Tanner embodies the young boy and scares the living daylights out of the instructor with some crazy driving antics, or the street racer who's trying to win some cash to send his younger brother to college. The scope and breadth of what's going on here is as fresh and invigorating as it is technically impressive.
Of course, no Driver game comes without its focus on American muscle car-style handling, and what better location to frame that than the series' original setting, San Francisco, where Steve McQueen's antics in a Ford Mustang have made the film Bullitt so enduring over the decades. True to the game's heritage, handling is weighty through the corners with a focus on handbrake turns and rung-out drifts. The steep hills of San Francisco make for plenty of ludicrously airborne moments as you chase down the game's various objectives, all of which is then latched onto a Burnout-style currency system. Driving into oncoming traffic, time spent jumping, and drifting all add to the amount of money available for buying new cars and parts, while 'boost' and 'ram' gameplay perks that emerge as the game goes on do manage to keep the driving experience fresh.
From what we've seen of the multiplayer, shifting lends itself as well to the gameplay here as it does in the story missions. Two modes were on offer during our hands-on, one of which was a variant of tag and the other your basic cops and robbers experience. In the tag mode, one player has a trophy and all other players have to steal it off them - the person who holds the trophy longest wins. Shifting has obvious advantages here as you scurry to shift into a vehicle as close as possible to the trophy holder and take them by surprise. The cops and robbers mode, on the other hand, pits numerous cop players against a single robber and, once again, using shifts strategically as a group of cops will soon have the target car pinned into a corner. Ubisoft Reflections has promised 19 multiplayer modes in total (11 online, the rest split-screen) which is a pretty tantalising prospect, although it'll be interesting to see how many of these turn out to be variants on a theme.
As the arcade driving game genre misfires on current-gen consoles, it's refreshing to have Driver San Francisco come in and fill that void with all kinds of refreshing ideas across its gameplay and storyline. There are genuinely shades of Burnout's previous-gen brilliance here.
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