E3 2011: Driver: San Francisco hands-on preview – leave your car without ever leaving the car

It’s been about a year since we last played Driver: San Francisco, the high-concept revival of the once-excellent open-world action driving series. In many respects it’s a back-to-basics approach, eschewing the recent games’ on-foot opportunities and returning to a car-centric experience. On the other hand, you’re playing as a hero who is currently in a coma and is thus magically able to immediately “shift” into the driver’s seat of nearly any other vehicle in sight. So that’s new. It’s a strange idea, but one that actually benefits the experience in some interesting ways.

At E3 2011, we had a fresh opportunity to check out a couple single-player missions and one of the many different multiplayer modes in advance of the game’s impending August 30 release. We weren’t able to make out much on the story end due to the noisy show floor, though the presentation we’ve seen to date seems to toss undercover cop hero Tanner into a retro-cool cop movie buddy flick scenario, albeit one set in modern-day San Francisco. But as noted above, he’s actually laying in a coma – something you’ll know as the player, but he won’t realize as he shifts between vehicles to stay in pursuit of criminals and win races.

We had a chance to play two distinct missions on the show floor, the first of which forced Tanner and a partner in a second vehicle to take the top two spots in an impromptu street race. Swapping between the two cars during the race gives you occasional strategic opportunities and enables you to influence the path of both sleds. But best of all, it gives you the power to force the computer to clean up your mess after a collision, since you can safely glide to the other driver’s seat and have the crashed car be magically righted on the track.

The other mission was a pretty straightforward escape mission in which your undercover officer has to avoid squad cars to maintain cover and deliver a car to a spot on the map. However, the “shift” mechanic is potentially helpful here since you can swap to an oncoming car and ram it directly into the police, giving you a chance to change back to the mission-centric car and better evade capture.

It’s all a little complicated, sure – but it seems like a mechanic we’d be able to fully grasp after a few missions. Or perhaps after several multiplayer matches, since the game offers a whole bunch of opportunities in that regard. We had a chance to play Shift Tag at E3, but it’s just one of 11 competitive online modes, with an additional five more team modes and three split-screen multiplayer options. That’s a wealth of possibilities, though it remains to be seen if all will be as engaging as Tag, which found us shifting and swerving through the city to be “it” for the longest cumulative span.

After the last couple mediocre Driver entries, it’s pretty reassuring that we’re already enjoying these pre-release demos. We haven’t a clue if the shift mechanic will hold up over the course of an entire campaign, or whether the myriad online options will draw a considerable community, but what we played this week was fast, fun, and consistently engaging – certainly not something that’ll put prospective players in a coma come late August.

Jun 14, 2011

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