It's Wednesday, right in the middle of E3, and as I sit in the Joystiq conference room frantically tapping away at my keyboard, I hear my colleague Alexander gushing about Driver: San Francisco's multiplayer component. The following day he would publish a piece about the game's Tag mode and thanks to it, and many others like it, Driver's multiplayer would emerge as one of the show's sleeper hits.

At the core of all the excitement is "shifting." With the press of a button, you can seamlessly exit your vehicle and hover above the game world ... think of it as an out-of-auto-body experience. Then, you can "possess" other vehicles, taking direct control. There's plenty of solid driving, but the possibilities of shifting are what no one can seem to stop talking about.

"It's really confirmed to everyone in the studio that the shift mechanic works -- it's especially exciting in the multiplayer," creative director Martin Edmondson said. "To get people at E3 playing it for the first time and writing very positive things about it is great for the team."

Up until now, I've only been able to get cozy with the single-player component, but when Ubisoft invited me out to see the multiplayer, I finally got to see exactly what Alex and everyone else was so worked up about.
Joining the Tag mode in multiplayer is: Takedown, a cops-and-robbers variant; the checkpoint racing of Sprint GT; Capture the Flag; and a follow-the-leader mode, Trailblazers, in which players follow a golden DeLorean as it tears across town, accruing points for touching the trails it leaves in its wake.

Normally, these fairly run-of-the-mill modes would just feel adequate, but shifting really elevates the whole experience. For example, in Trailblazers one journalist got the bright idea to shift into a giant truck and muscle competing players out of its way. To see the strategy organically manifest itself in a room full of other writers shouting at each other and having a blast, promised some awesome emergent gameplay in Driver's future.

"Shift is a function that lends itself so well to multiplayer and, crucially, allowed us to design multiplayer driving games -- like Tag and so on -- that have never been successfully done, in my opinion, in a driving game before," Edmondson said. For example, shifting is hugely helpful in reducing multiplayer frustration. Rather than spend time trying to correct yourself after a nasty crash or slamming on the boost trying to catch up to the pack, you can simply press a button and hop into another ride. It's empowering and gives you tools you've never had in a multiplayer racing experience before.

But, of course, this isn't the first time a publisher has tried to radically revamp racing. Just last year saw the launch of excellent racing games like Blur and Split/Second, both of which ultimately skidded to a stop just short of commercial success.

"We've all seen what happened with Split/Second and Blur, but what I think makes Driver different is that it has a rich history," Edmonson said. "There are so many people that want Driver to come back, in a good way, a proper way, that, speaking personally, when Ubisoft asked me to come on board and be creative director, the biggest thing for me is, 'Are we going to do it right and proper? Are we bringing Driver back or is it going to be a quick thing?' If it was a quick thing, I wouldn't have accepted and I wouldn't be here right now." For Edmondson, the "proper" treatment is what he hopes will help sell the game.

Driver: San Francisco is set to launch on August 30, so what I played was pretty much final, and it looked it. While the return of this franchise may not be on everyone's radar, it may just be the perfect escape for racing fans looking to shift into something completely different.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.