‘Getting back to the roots’ is a phrase we often hear in connection with sequels to series that have gone a bit Lindsay Lohan, and what more clear-cut a case of franchise crash-out than Driver, celebrated for its first iteration, panned for its third and sniffed at complacently for its second and fourth? A Senior Brand Manager bolds the point at our Driver: San Francisco hands-on by propping a weather-beaten copy of the original game against the TV. There it sits beside the high definition rough-and-tumble of its descendent, very much like a grandma abandoned in a theme-park cafe while the kids merrily concuss themselves on the big dipper.
It’s a slant we’re not fully comfortable with for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Ubisoft has already spun this sentiment of Driver: Parallel Lines, the solidly inoffensive 2006 outing. Secondly and more importantly, it sells the project’s ambition a little short. In some respects San Francisco is indeed classic Driver – it’s an open-world vehicle sandbox modelled on the bonnet-flapping pursuit sequences of films like Starsky and Hutch – but in certain others it’s as far remote from its forebears as a Tardis is from a Dodge Challenger. Indeed, the latter analogy says it all.
‘Shifting’, the new showboat feature, is fascinating not so much for what it is – the ability to warp away from one ride, pan the camera across the city in suspended animation and phase-hop into another – as for where we find it. Teleportation mechanics date back to StarCraft and probably well beyond, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that we’ve encountered the idea in a racing game.
There are fairly obvious reasons for this, and seasoned motorheads would be well-justified on the face of it in throwing many a toy Ferrari from their 540 horsepower prams. Stay with this one for the moment, though, guys. From our experiences on Wednesday, San Francisco could be rather special.
The narrative tread stitching such fanciful gameplay conceits to the road is that returning protagonist John Tanner has wound up in a coma after one too many head-on collisions with old nemesis Jericho. Where other leading men might have used the hallucinatory downtime to revisit childhood horrors or hang out with their inner serial killer, Tanner’s private delusions see him continuing the hunt for Jericho while making every wheeled object on 208 miles of authentic (and reasonably attractive-looking) West Coast tarmac his own personal plaything.
Unhooking the campaign from the constraints of Tanner’s body has allowed Ubisoft Reflections to look afresh at the idea of non-linear progression. The city reportedly contains 500 individual lives, with their own personal dilemmas and associated missions or side-missions, each housed in one of 120 licensed cars (including Pagani Zondas, DeLoreans and Aston Martins). As the story wears on the shift mechanic will upgrade, letting you pull the camera out and jump further, till at last by the denouement the entirety of San Francisco is accessible from on high.