After taking a long hiatus to build a new, completely proprietary engine, the franchise has returned in Driver: San Francisco and brings with it a few new ideas.
"Have you ever seen the show, Quantum Leap?" A Ubisoft representative asked me as he showed off the single-player version of Driver: San Francisco. The newest "innovation" to the Driver series is the ability to, at the press of a button, jump from one vehicle and take over another.
The word "possess" is never used, but it's implied as Tanner -- the protagonist who returns from the original Driver series -- is in a coma for the duration of the game's campaign. Effectively, the entire tale you're weaving through is taking place in the police officer's mind and the reasons why will be revealed through the memory sequences players take control of in the campaign.
As "innovative" as the idea is, it has been done before. In DICE's Battlefield 2: Modern Combat players were given the same ability to jump from body to body in combat. That doesn't detract from the effect here, because it's actually well-done, but it's a point that needs to be mentioned.
When I was able to play the game it was a 4-player multiplayer mode called Trailblazers. In this mode four cars are chasing down an AI-controlled lead car. As the car speeds through the street, a trail of where the car is appears in the world. Rather than use arrows to show key vehicles, the engine Ubisoft Reflections created shows a trail of the taillights in the game world.
In order to be victorious in trailblazers, players must draft the lead car and stay within the taillight stream the longest. The car weaves through a preset path on roads filled with AI controlled cars that are not competing in the mode.
When one player-controlled vehicle hits the winning point total -- 150 points when I played -- the match is over. According to creative director Martin Edmondson, the mode originally featured more vehicles but the action became too chaotic for it to be "fun." With four players on the road and a sizable variety and amount of AI vehicles on the road, it's easy to see what he means.
Staying behind a lead car isn't the only thing you'll be doing in the mode. As opponents attempt to jockey for position you'll constantly be knocked out from behind the lead car and spin out of control. At any time players can press the A button to active the "Shift" (or "Quantum Leap") ability move the cursor to a new vehicle in the world and take it over instantly. My favorite move (and the move that brought me to victory rather quickly) was to take over a vehicle when I was pushed out of the taillight stream, aim my new car at the opponent in my way and drive at full-throttle to t-bone them off the road. Just as my vehicle was going to make an impact, I would "shift" out of the car, take over something closer to the lead vehicle and continue to accumulate trailblazer points, while my opponents were busy exchanging virtual insurance papers behind me.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions for Driver: San Francisco. According to Edmondson the Shift ability is important to the story and acts as a special power in the campaign. You won't be able to use it with impunity out of the box, it's something you must level-up. As you shift into vehicles you put Tanner into the lives of others, and will often be forced to help those people you take over. "These are real people, with real lives," a Ubisoft employee told me during the single-player demo; interestingly enough, in Driver: San Francisco you appear to be in control of more than you might expect.