The Driver franchise has been sort of forgotten in recent years. After Driv3r, it sort of faded into the background, overshadowed by games like Grand Theft Auto and Burnout. Perhaps that is the reason Driver: San Francisco is going in such a different direction. Oddly enough, Driver: San Francisco is staying rather mum about the biggest mechanic, which is not mentioned in the title of the game or the trailer video. You still play as undercover officer Tanner, but you're playing … as his disembodied spirit. After an accident leaves him in a coma, Tanner continues to fight crime and battle his archenemy Jericho from beyond the realm of mortals. It's odd for Driver to take a jump into the supernatural, but this also gives it the chance to do something that no other game can.
The thing that really makes Driver: San Francisco stand out is the Shift feature, which is a little difficult to explain, so please bear with me. Instead of controlling a driver, you're playing as a disembodied spirit that can possess cars. It's more than a little weird, but it lends itself to very unusual game mechanics. You can switch cars at any time during the game as long as your Shift meter is full. You are drawn out of the car and hover around as a ghost. At this point, you can highlight any other car, click the button, and instantly be in control of the new car. This lets you quickly switch cars during a car chase. If an enemy gets away from you, you don't need to waste time catching up with him. Just Shift to a nearby car and continue the chase as if nothing had happened.
We tried Shift in Tag mode, one of the multiplayer modes. At the start of the match, an NPC car is carrying a tag marker. Whoever touches that car first, whether it's a light tap or a brutal ram, will get the tag marker. From that point on, the car earns a point every couple of seconds, but if someone else rams it, he'll get the tag marker and begin to earn points. Whoever reaches 100 points is the winner. It's straightforward enough until you take Shift into account. Every character in multiplayer has the ability to Shift, so they can change cars at any point. The exception is that whoever has the tag marker is stuck and cannot Shift. This puts you at a distinct disadvantage when you're "it" because you're in one car and your opponents are every other car in the city.
Shift made Tag mode into an incredibly intense experience. In most racing games, getting the tag and throwing off your pursuers would be enough to win, but here, that's not possible. Once you have the tag marker, you're treated to the odd sight of cars being possessed all around you. You might be driving down the road when an adjacent car flashes red, hits a turbo boost and rams into you. You might be zooming down the highway when you see two or three cars suddenly change direction and zoom toward you down the opposite lane. There is never a quiet moment in the game, you're never safe, you're never secure, and you can never assume that your enemies are far off. It makes the entire experience heart-poundingly insane. The close calls and near-misses are constant, and keeping hold of the tag marker long enough to reach 100 points is much more difficult than it sounds.
That isn't to say that you can't turn this to your favor, but it requires more thought. San Francisco is a pretty big place, and the people mostly obey the rules of the road. This means that back alleys and hidden paths can take you to places where cars don't drive, so your opponents are less able to surprise you. In the demo, this trick came with its own risks. Most of the side paths are not meant to be driven on, so it's easy to crash into a wall or get stuck in a corner in these areas. This means that you'll make easy prey for any enemy who finds and follows you. It's neat because it makes you analyze your surroundings instead of merely utilizing the fastest routes. Driving along a highway lets you hit high speed, but it also surrounds you with potential enemies, and that's not something you can afford in a close game. It's also important to keep an eye on the cars. Jumping into a car near the enemy isn't going to be very useful if you jump into a slow jalopy and he's driving a top-of-the-line sports car.
At first glance, Driver: San Francisco looks like a generic action/racing game, but the Shift mechanic makes it play like absolutely nothing else on the market. Being able to switch cars at the touch of a button keeps the action far more intense than any other car action game on the market. You might not have machine guns or rocket launchers, but you're never safe, even for a moment. It's a curious mechanic because it almost all but eliminates downtime. You'll never be too far behind to make a comeback. The brief time I spent with Driver: San Francisco's multiplayer mode was some of the most fun I've had with a racing game. If the main game can maintain that amazing intensity, it might be exactly what the franchise needs to stand out among its competitors.
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