Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview: Tanner the Body Snatcher

The Driver franchise has struggled mightily in the years since its 1999 debut. While the original game was a bonafide PlayStation classic, the successors to that title have ranged from decent (see Driver: Parallel Lines) to atrocious (the infamous Driver 3, take a bow!). For 2011’s Driver: San Francisco, developer Reflections and new publisher Ubisoft are going back to basics — it’s a straight up open-world driving game with racing, chases, and… post-coma body shifting. There’s a lot of interesting ideas at hand here, and after spending time with the brand new demo, I’m very curious as to how the final product will turn out. This could be the fresh start the series has needed for over a decade.

Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Reflections
Genre: Stealing Cars… WITH YOUR MIND
Release Date: September 6, 2011
ESRB Rating: Teen

Driver: San Francisco is kind of a retelling of the story of Tanner and his arch-rival, Jericho. In this situation, Tanner is involved in a huge altercation, and an explosion puts him into a coma. After leaving this coma (or is he still in the coma? The demo actually doesn’t say either way), Tanner suddenly develops one hell of a superpower: the ability to “shift” into someone else’s car. It’s pretty ridiculous, but it’s also a cool way to let you drive different cars without any awkward on-foot sections. Anyway, Tanner once again has to find and capture Jericho using his newfound abilities.The demo doesn’t really show off the story all that much, but the basics are there.

The demo does feature three different missions that show off the potential of the game. The initial mission is obviously going to be of the training variety, as it shows Tanner demonstrating his new skill to his partner, Jones. In this case, he takes over someone’s car, rams a police car, and then forces it onto the back of a tow truck to punish the original person behind the wheel. The second mission shows off “instant switching.” Tanner has to help two racers win a race by finishing first and second… and you have to drive both cars. This is easier than you might expect: once you get a car into first it will keep pace pretty well, allowing you to take over the other car and put it into the right position. Finally, the third mission in the demo allows Tanner to infiltrate the ranks of Jericho’s crew by “overtaking” one of his employees, helping the guy climb up the food chain with Tanner’s skills.

Though the whole concept of shifting from car to car seems really hokey, it makes for some very interesting gameplay mechanics. The demo did a really good job of showing this off. If there was anything to take away from the game, it was the handling of the vehicles… which is kind of important. In Driver: SF’s case, the cars are a bit floaty and awkward at first blush; hopefully that will be fixed for the full game. The visuals are not superb by any means, but they get the job done. However, the inclusion of real vehicles has led to some very polished car models, which is way more fun.

The Driver: San Francisco demo isn’t huge — only three of the expected 200 missions are present — but there’s a lot of promise here. The concept is different — annoying people might call it “too video gamey” — but the potential for its use is sky high, allowing for the use of many cars without actually getting out of one. While the car handling needs some work, it wasn’t terrible… there’s just a learning curve to dealing with the floaty feel.

Due next month, Driver: San Francisco looks like it could be one of September’s sleeper hits – a unique open-world driving game that gets a once-proud franchise back to basics.

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