John Tanner, driving ace police detective with easy going designer stubble, had it pretty rough at the end of Driv3r, lying in hospital next to Jericho, the very criminal who had shot him in the back. Driver: San Francisco reveals he's back on his feet! Just not for very long.
Whatever else you might say about the premise of this game, you can't argue that it isn't original. Tanner is now in a coma, but dreaming that he's still trying to find and take down Jericho on the streets of San Francisco. Not only that, his near death experience has given him the power to 'Shift' into the body of anyone in a car. The end result is kind of a cross between Life on Mars and Quantum Leap.
Developer Reflections claims this instalment of the Driver series will have a 'lighter, more humorous approach', but there's a dark undertone - smash cuts to Tanner in intensive care with a tube in his mouth spring to mind. Despite frequent environmental clues, like billboards exhorting you to "WAKE UP", the Driver frontman seems blissfully unaware of his predicament.
The Shift mechanic is San Francisco's unique selling point. Racing games are often boxed in slightly by their realism - there are only so many fanciful innovations you can make. With its dreamland premise, the new Driver aims to have the best of both worlds. Designer Pete Young has said the mechanic developed partly as a way to distance the game from Rockstar's famous vehicular sandbox, commenting 'we wanted to keep the action in the driving and experience a great variety of cars'.
Shifting certainly holds good on Young's promise, as it comes at the cost of being able to physically leave cars at all. Rather, when you shift you float serenely in a birds-eye-view of San Francisco, everything slightly yellowed as if you were looking down through a pair of horrible tinted sunglasses. It's openly inspired by Google Maps, and indeed you can zoom in and out, between satellite and streetview, if you will, before choosing your car.
Multiplayer will use Shift to great effect. Nine different game modes have been confirmed, including a massive game of reverse Tag where players chase each other round San Francisco, Shifting in and out of cars until they find the tagged player. The first one who does becomes tagged themselves - repeat ad infinitum for crazed fun. It's not all good news for the multiplayer, mind: San Francisco is the first game to incorporate Ubisoft's new Uplay passport, restricting access to those who've bought the game new or forked out on top for a code.
The writing could use work. There's some heavy handed dialogue with NPC passengers who comment that the drivers you possess are acting as if they are, in fact, possessed. Look out for some ostentatiously "meta" questions like 'What's real?', 'Is any of this is real?', and 'What does consciousness really mean anyway?' - questions we're ill-equipped to deal with on a Tuesday afternoon.
Driver's fond belief that there's nothing you can't solve with cars feels a little stretched here. Scaring oppressive driving instructors with 20 metre drifts, or helping teenagers earn enough money to go to college by drag racing we can deal with - lighthearted side missions that are reflected by the games provisional 12 rating, lower than other titles in the series. But rescuing a kidnapped woman from the boot of a car by... ramming the car? That's pushing it a little far.
Driver: San Francisco seems a solid enough title so far. The driving controls themselves aren't too sensitive, meaning you won't spin out on every corner. Ultimately though, the game's success may rest on how straight-faced it is about its premise. It's hard to know what to make of a game where you drive an ambulance with your own comatose body in the back.
Driver: San Francisco hits stores on 2nd September.