Driver: San Francisco Hands-On Preview - Mind Games

Driver: San Francisco will let you change lanes...and change identities. Get the details in our hands-on report.

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Drawing inspiration from such classics as Bullit and The French Connection, as well as more contemporary titles, such as the Bourne series, Driver: San Francisco is aiming to instill some of Hollywood's hard-nosed cop bravado into its action racing formula. Recently, we got the chance to go behind the wheel of this latest entry in the Driver series alongside series creator Martin Edmondson of developer Ubisoft Reflections. While previous entries in this series have dabbled in the realm of third-person combat, our demo of Driver: San Francisco forwent such extraneous features and focused on making the driving as fun and wild as possible.

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Our session with Driver San Francisco picked up with the continuing story of the series--months after the events that took place in the awkwardly titled DRIV3R. The series' protagonist, on-again, off-again police officer Tanner, had finally succeeded in putting the villain Jericho behind bars. Jericho's sentencing was close at hand, but as we soon discovered, not everything would go according to plan. In brief, Jericho hatched a daring scheme involving an acid tablet, a rocket launcher, and a local news helicopter to make his escape, but not before forcing Tanner into a deadly automotive wreck. After regaining consciousness, Tanner discovered that this event had yielded unexpected results: he could now leave his body and posses other drivers on the San Francisco streets.

With the press of a button we could depart our mortal shell and take flight above the city. From here we could glide around using the two analog sticks (our demonstration was on an Xbox 360) and possess the driver of any vehicle we wanted. In the beginning we were limited to a very intimate view of the city. However, as our powers developed, we were eventually able to pull the camera back to reveal the entire city and instantly jump anywhere we wanted. As Edmondson noted, including the ability to quickly hop from one side of this massive city to the next in mere moments has been no small technical feat. To pull this off, the team at Ubisoft Reflections has forgone the use of any middleware in favor of building all its own tech from the ground up--and keeping it running at a smooth 60 frames per second no less.

We're not sure what happens to Tanner's body when he leaves, but that's neither here nor there.
We're not sure what happens to Tanner's body when he leaves, but that's neither here nor there.

It's worth noting that the re-created area of San Francisco encompasses roughly 200 miles worth of road. However, if you're hoping to drive by and spot your house, that probably isn't going to happen. It's not an inch-by-inch re-creation. Many of the city's major landmarks and attractions are there, but the developers have taken some creative liberties with the spaces in between them. From what we've experienced, in order to accurately recapture the San Francisco driving experience, there would need to be a few more gridlocked traffic jams, narrower streets, and at least one yahoo on a bicycle pulling out in front of you every five minutes.

We soon discovered that being able to shift from one person's body to another at will opens up a brave new world of possibilities for ruining someone's day. In one instance, we swapped bodies with a businessman who was test-driving a new sports car alongside an obnoxious salesman. We then took this dealer on a wild ride through the Financial District before drifting down the infamous hairpin turns of Lombard Street (and maybe we banged up the car a bit along the way). Another mission saw us aiding an upstart television crew looking to capture the city's craziest drivers--how convenient. By swapping between bodies we put on a show involving high-flying jumps, head-on collisions, and drifting through medians.

Completing these missions gradually unlocks additional story missions for Tanner and also earns you willpower, which is the game's currency and is used to purchase additional vehicles and other unlockables. If this all sounds crazy, don't worry, it is. You remember that car crash Tanner was in earlier? Turns out it didn't go so well, and now our hero's body lies comatose in a hospital bed back in reality. Edmondson was tight-lipped about how the events in Tanner's mind will influence what's happening in the real world, but he did hint that Tanner's road to recovery was linked to his actions internally.

Tanner and his partner encapsulate the classic buddy cop relationship.
Tanner and his partner encapsulate the classic buddy cop relationship.

We found that Driver: San Francisco felt more akin to Burnout Paradise or Test Drive Unlimited 2 than, for instance, a Forza game. Excessive use of the emergency brake was a must to wrangle the game's loud and heavy muscle cars around the road, and the game was very forgiving when it came to clipping (or crashing into) other drivers. The vehicles also showed an impressive amount of damage modeling, epically since the game features roughly 140 licensed cars. Edmondson wasn't ready to divulge any more details on multiplayer, other than to say that it is going to be a "big element" of the game and will implement the shift feature. He also noted that local split-screen play will be included. You can find Driver: San Francisco this August for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and Mac.

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