Driver San Francisco: multiplayer hands-on

Driver is back with a strange and intriguing new gameplay mechanic and tons of multiplayer options. We have a smashing time testing the thrilling Tag mode

Back in 1999, the original Driver was one of the best games on PlayStation. Created by Newcastle-based veteran Reflections and heavily inspired by Walter Hill’s cult seventies flick of the same name, it was a rollicking cops-‘n-robbers adventure, revolving around an undercover detective named John Tanner, on the hyper-accelerated trail of a major crime syndicate.

The single-player mode provided slick driving entertainment, maintaining the riotous sense of fun present in Reflections’ previous PlayStation racer, Destruction Derby. But the real find was the large selection of mini-games and challenges that accompanied the central mode. Of these, ‘Survival’ in which you simply had to drive around the city evading the cops for as long as possible was a demented highlight. Alongside GoldenEye, it became a staple of those all-back-to-mine post-pub gaming sessions many of us enjoyed before online multiplayer came to consoles.

Reflections (now Ubisoft Reflections) has clearly never forgotten those heady days. Its forthcoming return to the series, Driver San Francisco, is set to feature an incredible 19 multiplayer modes – 11 online, and eight splitscreen. Alongside a few straightforward racing options, several are designed to match the thrilling insanity of Survival. At a recent games showcase event in London, Ubi was showing off ‘Tag’, in which eight drivers fight it out to grab a trophy and keep hold of it as long as possible. To take the item from another player, you simply have to smash into their vehicle. Players get a point for every second they retain the trophy and the first to 100 wins.

Of course, the key element is ‘switching’. If you’ve kept your eye on the Driver pre-release hype you’ll know that the main game is no ordinary gangland drive-‘em-up. Once again, you’re Tanner, on the tail of crime lord Jericho, but this time a near fatal car accident leaves the cop in a coma, and the game plays out inside his state of unconsciousness. Comparisons have been made to Life on Mars and Inception, and while its proved a controversial feature it has allowed this interesting game mechanic – the ability to instantly switch from one car to another.

In Tag, the concept takes a while to grasp, but the tactical possibilities are immediately obvious. Hitting X on the PS3 controller, draws your view out of the car and into a map screen, which shows the city layout: pushing down on the analogue controller pans out for a wider view, and hitting R1 zooms directly to the trophy car. You can also see every other vehicle on the road – putting the cursor over one and pressing X puts you straight in to it.

Obviously, the idea is to scope out the map, pick a vehicle near the trophy car, transfer into it and then give chase. But there are myriad strategic approaches: should you choose a car heading in the opposite direction to your target, thereby allowing you to drive straight into them? It’s a fast, very direct option, but it’s hard to time correctly, and if you hit the trophy car head on, you get the item, but your car is now a mess (and switching out of it will lose you the trophy). Also, do you swap into a sports car for a high speed chase, or opt for a truck or bus that can block off a section of the road? Eventually, it looks like you’ll be able to gradually upgrade your shifting powers, opening up the ability to spawn the types of cars you want, when you want them.

Tag is a brilliant concept, which essentially boils down the entire multiplayer experience into a series of heart-stopping five-second encounters. During the Ubisoft press event, there were players who’d spend ages in the map view, intricately planning attack strategies, while others hopped madly from car to car or stubbornly stayed in one vehicle to give chase on the road. And once you have the trophy, it’s all about evasion – swerving through traffic, making last minute handbrake turns and – vitally – heading down the back alleys where there are fewer vehicles for other players to switch into. All the while, there are players spawning into vehicles around you turning every passive participant the mid-town congestion into a potential smash-happy competitor.

San Francisco, it turns out, provides a sprawling network of wide avenues, snaking rat runs and fraught interchanges, along with its trademark swooping hills. The moderately heavy and unpredictable traffic adds hugely to the action, allowing the trophy car to clip other vehicles and cause mini-pile-ups in its wake. And of course, a robust physics model adds crunching impact to every car-on-car encounter. “A lot of people have said that tag reminds them of Destruction Derby,” says studio founder and the game’s creative director, Martin Edmondson. “There was a similar mode in that called ‘It’, which was you versus 19 AI drivers – it was total mayhem.”

Along side Tag, there will also be team-based co-op modes including a Capture the Flag variant. Here, the car with the flag is weaker than the rest and if it is destroyed the flag is dropped. There are also relay racers, in which the team has to get a torch from one side of the map to another before their rivals – the problem is, the car carrying the item has a rapidly depleting fuel tank, so other drivers have to be ready to grab the torch and take it further. It requires a tactical mix of close-support and the sabotage of opponent vehicles. “You get a lot of moments where you’re shouting ‘I’m running out of fuel, where are you?!’ And they’re busy trying to smash the opponent’s car…”

So, Reflections is soon to be back doing what it has always done – messing about with driving games and providing wonderful little side-modes that are hilarious, destructive and very social. It will be fascinating to see how switching can operate as an integral part of the main game, and whether its use becomes seamless and natural enough to work as a major gameplay addition. After plenty of laughs on Tag, I think I’m one step closer to appreciating the potential.

Let’s shift again

Martin Edmondson on this year’s most intriguing game mechanic…

The idea of ‘shifting’ has provided the focus for much pre-release coverage of Driver: San Francisco – it’s something gamers have struggled to get their heads around. “Four and a half years ago, when we set out to make this game, shift was there from day one, so the whole game’s been designed with the system,” says Martin Edmondson. “We’ve got missions that operate almost like a racing team, where you’ve got to get two cars into two different positions on the map; you’re continually shifting between the two. We have another mission where there are ten trucks around the city with bombs underneath them, so you need to shift into low sports cars all around the city and get underneath the trucks to diffuse the bombs – then you switch it another car on the other side of the city for the next truck…”

Edmondson is keen to point out that there are multiplayer race events in which switching is removed – if purists insist on it. But mostly he wants the feature to be seen as a core dynamic rather than something that’s been tacked on to give it a handy USP – a charge that’s been levelled at forthcoming Need For Speed offshoot, The Run, which has on-foot sections. “Pure racing games are tricky – they don’t have the market share they used to have, so there’s a pressure to innovate,” says Edmondson. “But I’d stress that this studio has a history, all the way back to Shadow of the Beast, Destruction derby and Stuntman, of innovating. For us it’s natural to do something like this. And also innovation for the sake of it is pointless, it’s self-defeating. We really think switching brings something new in. But it’s so hard to explain. You just have to experience it…”

• Driver San Francsico will be released by Ubisoft on 2 September 2 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360





Keith Stuart © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds is updated several times each day with the latest Free Sony Slim PS3 news.

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