For: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Publisher: Ubisoft
When? 2 September 2011

What’s it all about? If only the world’s real-life woes could be solved in the screeching of tyres and driving just this side of suicidal – maybe if Tanner, Driver’s perennial driving super hero was himself real they could… What am I saying? Of course they couldn’t, which makes Driver: San Francisco’s mantra of ‘good driving solves all problems’ a slightly odd pill to swallow.

Perhaps indeed it’s an issue that the development team themselves have looked at, hence why previous instalments have occasionally gone the way of Grand Theft Auto, as Tanner eventually took to the pavements on foot, in order to lend some slightly more logical crime fighting into the equation.

It never quite worked though, as evidenced by the annoyingly named Driv3r, beset as it was game-breaking bugs and glitches – though still noticeably amassing the odd positive review in one of gaming’s more famous conspiracies. It’s not much of a surprise then to see that this reboot for the series puts the impetus solely on providing driving thrills, eschewing the abandonment of vehicles altogether.

Actually that isn’t strictly true, Tanner can venture out of his vehicle but not exactly as you might expect. For in the title’s introduction Tanner finds himself hospitalised by arch-nemesis Jericho – following his successful prison break that is. Rushed to hospital in a coma Tanner wakes to find he’s the one driving himself to hospital, somehow having leapt into the ambulance driver in some kind of extreme out of body experience.

Is it all a dream or is it a real, physical occurrence? Whichever, it’s certainly something of a homage to TV series Life on Mars, complete with the just audible background sounds of life support machines and nurses shouting “Doctor, we’re losing him.”

Ubisoft have successfully mapped a hefty section of San Francisco, suiting a game of Driver’s ilk perfectly. You’ll be bouncing down the famous hills of the city, performing handbrake turns through the narrow streets of posh neighbourhoods and knocking garbage cans asunder as you your quarry, or simply frighten an overly sarcastic driving instructor in one early side-mission.

Confirmed too is the presence of fully-licensed vehicles, with genuine Fords, Nissan’s, etc., all included – possibly not quite to the minutiae of Gran Turismo 5’s handling mechanics, but certainly to decent effect with the game’s 60 fps ensuring a decent sense of speed throughout. Tanner will also be able to purchase further cars from garages dotted around the landscape and even upgrade and further customise his collection of automobiles.

Driver San Francisco’s unique selling point, the afore mentioned out of body experience is more commonly known as ‘Shift’ mode. At any point Tanner can zoom up into the stratosphere as you might do on Google Earth for example. From this heady vantage point, the driver of any vehicle can be taken over and it’s in this way that story missions and the various extras are accessed. Getting into a taxi might prompt a fare run, transporting into a cop car a pursuit and so forth.

It certainly makes for a more tactical experience, the game quickly demonstrating to you how road blocks can be caused by leaping ahead of your prey, thus making them easier to catch. The replay mode wasn’t on show but presumably stunts will be able to be constructed in this way, recorded and distributed at your leisure; while the little seen multiplayer, something mentioned at the preview event but not yet revealed, is sure to riff on the same too.

Worth the wait? What we saw was certainly a tantalising glimpse of a title with real potential. Of course variety is something easy to provide in the early part of any game, it’s in how variety is delivered through the whole experience that can make or break and it’s here that Driver: San Francisco is yet to face the acid test. At this stage we remain hopeful that the series can get back to the promise it showed in its original incarnation.

Driver San Francisco trailer from Games Catalyst on Vimeo.