Driver: San Francisco could just as easily be called Driver: Insane Fever Dream. We're talking about a driving game where you suddenly take over the body of any driver you want, in any car you want, because you're in a coma and dreaming the whole thing. When you add an open-world San Francisco setting filled with hundreds of miles of roads and the sort of eccentrics unique to the city--believe us, GameSpot is based there--you have a pretty good idea of what sort of craziness this game has in store. And now that we've seen what you can get up to in multiplayer, it somehow seems even crazier.
The central mechanic in Driver: San Francisco is called "shifting." Here's how it works: You tap a button to switch from your basic driving view to a much wider top-down view of the area around you, where suddenly everything is moving in extreme slow motion. It's in slow motion because you're no longer controlling that car. Instead, you're moving a cursor around the streets to select the next car you want to take over; it's sort of like jacking a car in Grand Theft Auto but without the tricky business of running around the street, yanking open a door, and shouting, "I need that s*** you drive!"
It's a weird system, but it's one that works oddly well in an open-world driving game where sometimes you just really want to be driving a different car. There's a whole thing going on in the tongue-in-cheek single-player storyline that explains how it works and how the main character begins to deal with things when he discovers that his reality might not be so real after all. But in multiplayer, it's just plain-and-simple insanity. There are more than 10 different game modes inspired just as much by online shooters as online racers that all use the shifting mechanic in some important way.
We had the chance to play a mode called Shift Tag. In this mode, one person starts out as the designated "it" person, and the rest of the cars try to smash their cars into him or her for one simple reason: The longer you remain "it," the more points you gather. So it becomes this whole chase where the person who's "it" is trying to outrun the other folks, who are desperately trying to smash into this person at full speed.
But here's the rub: The person who's "it" can't shift cars, but everyone else can. So while you're trying to flee from everyone pursuing you, you never know when suddenly a rival player might shift into an oncoming car and veer straight into your path. It's a fast and frantic game mode that breeds a sort of paranoia and tension we haven't seen in a lot of racing games. It breeds this partly because there are so many people after one target and partly because that one target has every reason to believe that every car in the city is out to get him or her.
Some of the other modes we didn't get a chance to play include Capture the Flag, Cops and Robbers, and more straightforward racing contests. We enjoyed the brief amount of time we spent with Driver: San Francisco's chaotic multiplayer, but naturally, the question remains whether it's the sort of thing that will get old quickly or keep your interest for extended periods of time. We can't confidently answer that question right now, but we do know that we're eager to check out some of those other multiplayer modes.