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Driver: San Francisco Multiplayer Preview

Driver: San Francisco Multiplayer Preview

Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360
Release Date: 30 August 2011

The racing game genre hasn't typically displayed much in the way of innovation. Sure, there have been occasional titles, such as Burnout or Trackmania, which manage to stand out from the crowd, but most racers are limited in their scope from the moment they define themselves. It's not the fault of the developers, however - it's just that there's only so much you can do in a racing game that's grounded in a vaguely realistic world.

At least, that's what we thought when we sat down to play Driver: San Francisco. We fully expected to see a game that would be described using the usual, hazy language - 'tight/loose handling', for example. Imagine our surprise then when we played Driver's brilliant Tag mode and discovered a game whose main inspiration wasn't GTA, Formula One or Destruction Derby, but Google Earth.

The Tag mode works fundamentally like an inversion of the playground game, but with cars instead of screaming schoolchildren. One player is marked as 'It', while all other players are tasked with catching this player. Anyone who successfully bumps into 'It' takes over that role and then gets a chance to run away. There's a grace period whenever the tag passes from one player to another, giving you a chance to rev your engines, and the game is over when a timer reaches zero. At that point, whoever has been 'It' for the longest is declared the winner.

Driver: San Francisco Multiplayer Preview Driver: San Francisco Multiplayer Preview
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While it's easy to corner someone in a playground, it's a lot harder in an open-plan city, especially when you've sacrificed on-foot agility for the speed of a diesel engine. It's here that the Google Earth influence seeps in, manifested in the ability for chasing players to jump to any new car in town. Tapping the triggers immediately zooms you up to an aerial view, enabling you to roam around until you find a car closer to your quarry - another tap lets you assume control. Ubisoft calls this 'Shifting'.

While the immediate suspicion is that this system would create an incredibly unbalanced multiplayer game, with chasers able to exploit their power and take over oncoming traffic, that's not actually the case. This is because jumping to a new car forces players to choose cars directly, and because most cars are simple civilians' vehicles rather than sporty super-cars, Shifting is a tactical and skilful process. Spotting an opening and seizing it before anyone else is just as involving and difficult as it is in any other game.

Or, we found it difficult, at least. Maybe it's because we've not played a racing game on the PlayStation 3 in a while, or maybe the controls were a bit too confusingly laid out, but we finished last in every game we played. That fact helps illustrate the moreishness of Driver's Tag mode, however, as we never stopped wanting to play the game, despite our continued failures.
At the same time, though, the fact that Ubisoft was only showing off Tag mode was enough to raise our eyebrows. As much as we enjoyed Tag's unique mechanic, we're driving blind when it comes to discussing the rest of the game or some of the periphery issues, such as the number of cars or mission design.

In fact, the other information we gathered about Driver: San Francisco from within our Tag matches didn't leave us wholly impressed. The city itself was particularly underwhelming, lacking in the aesthetic flair that may have supported the Bullitt-esque theme for which Driver seems to be aiming. Also, while the cars handled enjoyably (who cares about tightness or looseness, as long as it's fun?), they didn't seem to have the character suggested by this tone.

On the other hand, given the fun we had playing Driver's Tag mode, we'll be willing to give Driver: San Francisco the benefit of the doubt for now. Will the singleplayer mode live up to expectations, and can the remaining multiplayer modes match Tag in terms of addictiveness and fun? At least it won't be long until we find out.

Driver: San Francisco is being published by Ubisoft and will be released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on 30 August, 2011.

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