Driver: San Francisco preview: Shifting perspectives

The biggest accomplishment in Driver: San Francisco appears to be the city itself, a huge expanse that not only covers the northern part of San Fran, but also Marin County, the East Bay and Treasure Island. Ubisoft Reflections creative director Martin Edmondson gave me a quick tour, showing me both a zoomed-out look at the entire gameworld and views from within the driver's seat in different districts, to give me a taste of the variety in locales. To see it all recreated and in such grand scope -- and running at a smooth framerate -- was quite impressive.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to drive around much on my own when I was at the controls. Instead, my playtime was relegated to roughly the first hour of the game and the northern section of the city, giving me a chance to see how protagonist Tanner gains the ability to possess other drivers -- what Edmondson calls "the shifting mechanic."
The game picks up right after the conclusion of Driv3r. Undercover cop Tanner has tracked crime kingpin Jericho to Istanbul, and the two engage in a climactic shootout. While Driv3r left some doubt as to whether either survived, we learn in Driver: San Francisco that Tanner ultimately arrested Jericho and brought him back here to be tried for his crimes.

It's not long before Jericho escapes imprisonment, hijacking an armored police truck in the process. Pursuing him, Tanner ends up in a pretty gruesome car crash, which leaves him in a coma. Everything in the game after this point plays out in Tanner's mind.

It's an odd juxtaposition -- the supernatural element of Tanner's ability to shift into other people's bodies with the straight-up driving gameplay -- but it actually works well enough in execution: A button press zooms-out the camera, and then taking over another driver is as simple as lining up a reticle and pressing another button. When Tanner shifts into another driver, for game missions and the like, a brief cutscene plays out and we see Tanner behind the wheel, talking with a passenger or sometimes just internally commenting on the individual he's possessed. While it's always Tanner in driver's seat, when looking in the rear-view mirror, he and the player will see the possessed's face staring back.

The brilliant part about shifting is you're never taken out of the game to some map screen where you have to find an objective, tag it and drive there. You so rarely have to visit a pause screen because objectives are the clearly visible drivers in the gameworld, which you just highlight and shift into. This seamlessness is apparent in the pre-mission cutscenes, too, which aren't spoiled by loading times between the brief bits of dialog and the missions.

The missions themselves vary quite a bit. One mission I played was a basic race (beat out some chumps for a shot at being a wheelman for one of Jericho's minions), while other missions were more creative, like when I shifted into a news reporter's body. She and her cameraman are out in the streets, trying to capture footage of illegal racing and high-speed chases. Tanner, as the reporter, parks the news van at an intersection, and then starts shifting into other drivers; the goal being to execute some illegal driving antics (hit a big jump, get a police car to chase you, etc. ) in view of the camera's lens. Another mission had me possessing an ambulance driver to transport Tanner's body to the nearest hospital immediately after his crash.

Parallel to the events in Tanner's mind, the "real" world plays on. Throughout cutscenes sprinkled between missions (and, uh, other cutscenes), I was given updates on Tanner's condition at the hospital. "We keep hammering it home," Edmondson said, with these kinds of narrative updates supported by in-game cues, like the ominous black billboards telling Tanner to "wake up."

The other big part of the game, obviously, is the driving. Edmundson told me that there are "about 150 different licensed cars" in Driver: San Francisco, but I found -- at least in the vehicles I used -- that their general handling is pretty uniform: cars are heavy and oversteer. They slide in a very over-the-top, arcade-game fashion, lending a sort of dramatic, action-movie moment to ordinary turns.

Ultimately, the preview left me wanting to see more -- specifically, more of that massive gameworld. Only an hour into the game, I had sampled what I perceived to be a significant section of San Francisco, but it was nothing compared to the brief peek I had at the entire city and its outlying areas. Witnessing Edmondson smoothly zoom out -- from street level to near satellite level -- and shift into cars throughout the entire gameworld, without any loading whatsoever, I could begin to see why it took Ubisoft Reflections so long to build its proprietary engine for the game.

Driver: San Francisco wasn't just fun to play, it oozed technological merit. At its core, it's an open-world driving game in which you never leave the driver's seat, akin to Burnout: Paradise, but with a compelling twist -- er, shift.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.