Driver: San Francisco hands-on - "Shift is like nothing you've played before"
- Driver: San Francisco
It’s been five long years but the wait is nearly over. This September, Driver fans will finally be reunited with Tanner and his accompanying muscle car as the franchise makes its next generation debut back to its sunny series roots of San Francisco. If you’re clued up on your Driver history, you will already know that a lot is riding on Driver: San Francisco after its long list of sequels failed to live up to the glory of the original game.
I went hands-on with the single-player portion of Driver: San Francisco during my visit to Ubisoft Reflections and had an extensive chat with Chief Wheelman Martin Edmdonson about the new innovations and technical challenges it incurred. You can also read his account of the very first Driver as well as his feelings on Driver 2 and Driv3r.
The scene is set as Tanner natters with long-time partner Tobias Jones in their signature 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, a classic car known for its starring role in Vanishing Point. Meanwhile, arch rival Jericho has been imprisoned following the events of Driv3r, but a daring escape leads to several smashed cop cars and a commandeered prison van.
Yes, you guessed it: the chase is on. It’s classic Driver, as you pursue Jericho through tight alleyways, smash into road-side furniture and avoid a trail of tumbling traffic cars left in Jericho’s wake in a destructive sequence not too dissimilar from Bad Boys 2.
I’m happy to report that the car handling is absolutely spot-on: engage the handbrake as you squeal around a corner and Driver veterans will feel instantly at home. There’s a satisfying, weighty feel to the cars as you erratically swing the tail out. While I stuck with the traditional rear view, an optional dashboard viewpoint is now possible too, and I was pleased to see that the steering wheel visibly turns lock to lock, unlike most games where you only see it turn 90 degrees. It’s this astute attention to detail that I have always admired about the series, like in the original where the hubcaps would detach from the wheel.
When discussing the car handling with Creative Director Martin Edmondson, it’s clear that their intention is to evoke the same feeling players had when they hammered around their first 90 degree corner in the original Driver 12 years ago. “If you’ve played the first Driver, when you pick up the pad you know instantly this is Driver, not any one of the multitude of driving and racing games,” asserts Martin. “That is the key thing: the loose feel of the handling, the loose soft soaky suspension, over steer handling, spinning wheels, burning rubber. It took a lot of work to do that because you have to get a nice balance between real physics, which it is based on. It’s a real physics engine but also if you go too sim with it, it becomes tricky to play, especially in the environment of the real city with lots of cars on the streets.”
Indeed, it’s fair to say that no driving game has matched Driver’s penchant for wild ‘70s movie car handling – that knowing thud of the suspension as you land a hill jump present in Driver: San Francisco has yet to be replicated elsewhere, so it’s reassuring to know that Reflections are all too aware of this.
That’s not to say there aren’t any enhancements in this latest handling model however – on a technical level, Martin confirms there are “absolutely hundreds if not thousands,” citing the Scandinavian Flick as an example of Driver’s handling evolution.
“If you drive up to a t-junction very fast and you want to turn right, there are a few different ways you can do it. You can come off the gas very early and just use full right and the car will steer and some cars will oversteer a bit, some will understeer – it’s quite a slow way of getting round a bend,” he explains.
“The other thing you can try is, as you would do in Driver 1, tap the hand brake to kick the back end out a little bit and then drift it round but you’ll still drift fairly wide. As you get better and better you can start to take advantage of the physics and the depth of the handling by doing this thing called a Scandanavian Flick. It’s a big rallying thing and what they do is actually kick the car sideways in the opposite direction to the way that they want to get which flicks it round and you get a pendulum thing going with the car. So what you’ll do is, if you want to turn right, you approach the bend, turn left a bit, full on the brakes to slow the car down, which is another thing you need to do to get around the bend anyway, and it goes sideways. Then you turn into the bend to the right and release the brake and then it starts to come round and the rotational momentum that you built up actually flings it around the bend and has it going in the opposite direction. You can see it in rallying videos and so on. It’s a level of depth that is there if you want to spend time with it and really develop your technique.”
The humorous banter between Tanner and Jones evokes a noticeably different tone to that of the more serious, gritty nature of the original Driver games. Will this be a significant detraction from the Tanner we know and love?
Martin Edmondson has the answer: “He still has a dry feel to him, so he has a sense of humour now which he never had before, but it is dry and sarcastic. He doesn’t crack too many one-liners so the change is more of a subtle one. Everything has become much more powerful with the technology so we’re able to develop a character that is much more believable and Tanner actually feels like a real character when you’re playing the game now, which was tricky to do before on the previous machines.“
Intriguingly, the story is told via a series of stylistic CGI cut scenes when focused on the characters, which is woven between the vehicular action cut scenes running on the game engine. While this mergence could be seen as a bit jarring, Martin asserts that this is not the case: “It’s really to get the realism into the faces and to continue the characterisation. When you can see every last pour on the skin we’ve put a lot of effort into these faces. It allows us flexibility to keep you immersed in the game world and running the game engine but still having the detail level that we wanted in the faces.”
So far, then, this is a very quintessential Driver experience. But things take a dramatic turn as Jericho outmanoeuvres the pair, slamming them into the path of a busy intersection. There’s a resulting chain reaction accident, leaving their car crippled and Tanner left in a life-threatening coma.
It’s all a setup to introduce you to the game’s new head-turning feature that sets it far apart from Driver games of the past: Shift. The easiest way to describe Shift is to say it’s like something out of The Matrix Reloaded: Tanner has acquired the strange ability to morph into the bodies of other drivers, as you soon find out when you’re driving the same ambulance that is ferrying Tanner’s body. For comic relief, Tanner becomes the same person who previously occupied the vehicle (although players will still see the driver as Tanner), so passengers are blissfully unaware and begin to question any sudden reckless antics. Conversations during these sequences are represented by animated icons of each person’s face at the top of the screen.
The supernatural element of Shift initially polarised fans when it was first unveiled at E3 last year, straying from the series’ established reality roots and I’ll admit that I too was slightly incredulous. “We realised that it might be a bit controversial, but you always hope people play the game and decide rather than just make their mind up without even playing it,” says Martin. “It’s actually because we wanted to root the game in reality that we went for the storyline because this is something which is basically a function that does not exist in real life. It’s totally unique, never seen before in a game.”
“It opened up the possibilities for the missions, actions, and multiplayer in ways that have never been seen before. We wanted a fusion of these things, but we also wanted the game rooted in reality as all Driver games have been, so there was the challenge. There were all sorts of crazy stuff we could have done like being abducted by aliens, but the one thing about the coma is it’s actually rooted in reality. He starts off the game, he has an accident and gets into a coma. People in comas do have dreams or visions so you can even think of it like a dream, but remember that the story plays out and has an ending to it. Even if what happens in his head is crazy, it’s still rooted in reality because it’s only what he’s imagining. He’s still there on his hospital bed: it was a way of us actually rooting the function in reality rather than it being a really surreal thing.”
While I can’t judge the crazy narrative until it fully pans out, at its core Shift acts as a seamless way to instantaneously switch into other cars and an effective substitute for getting out of the car, which works very well. It’s also incredibly good fun to experiment with, too, as Shift opens up a world of possibilities for causing disarray in San Francisco by staging accidents and generally larking about. It also gives chases a vital urgency and intensity, since you can simply Shift into a nearby car if you lose sight of your target.
“At its simplest it’s a great way of swapping cars – it’s the immediacy of it, how rapid fire it can be and how reactive it can be,” Martin explains. “If you got out of the car and walked around you couldn’t do the sort of missions and action that we have. This is something that is totally new. It doesn’t really mean we didn’t have to do getting out of the car because we were doing this however because this is a lot harder than doing out of car from a technical point of view. It allowed us to do things no one has done before. Reflections has always tried to be innovative but not just for the sake of it – we genuinely sat and thought about it. When you play it, it’s honestly like nothing you’ve played before.”
Once the tutorial missions are over, I was free to roam the expansive environment to search for missions, instigate chases by slamming into patrolling police cars or purchase garages where you can buy any car you’ve shifted into. There’s a strong variety of missions, be it Story missions, City Missions or Stunt Dares to tackle at will.
Stunt Dares can be anything from maintaining speed for a set time to landing hill jumps, but it’s the City Missions that incorporate Shift in novel ways that stand out. One example included a news van hot on the tail of a film crew shooting a movie – as you set up the camera position with the van, you can then Shift into the target car and perform the required manoeuvres – it all ends in a head-on crash which you must stage yourself with Shift.
Completing these missions earns you “Will Power” which allows you to buy garages, cars or upgrades such as the Thrill Cam from the previous Drivers. Special abilities are also gradually unlocked, equipping your with car boost and ram abilities. I’m not so keen on these however, since their arcadey nature feels out of place in a Driver game and should have stayed in Vin Diesal’s flop The Wheelman.
What I’m most excited about, however, are the hidden Movie Challenges, unlocked after finding set numbers of hidden tokens dotted around the city. These act as direct tributes to famous movie car chase scenes such as Bullitt and Gone in 60 Seconds, placing you in the very same cars with custom music deliberately mimicking the soundtracks heard in the films. To add even more authenticity, film grain is added to some challenges such as the Bullitt parody to capture that ’60s and ’70s look. which is clearly targeted to satisfy the nerdiest of car movie buffs. Suits me, then.
As for the soundtrack that will accompany your numerous drives in San Francisco, there will be a total of 80 licensed tracks of a very diverse nature, with the aim of recapturing the ‘70s vibe that Driver strives for.
“The ‘70s vibe is still there – they’re not all ‘70s tracks but definitely a ‘70s feel to it. All the tracks are interesting pieces of music and not the sort of thing people would have on their iPods. Something we’ve always done is have a track where the first time you hear it, maybe you think you might have heard it before but you’re not sure, or for most people they haven’t heard it and don’t know what it is. Therefore, you create an association with the music and the game. If you’re seriously into your music then you obviously will know what some of these tracks are, but I think it’s interesting and obscure enough that it will be quite a new experience for the vast majority people.”
Visually, San Francisco is undeniably detailed but it’s the sheer scale that astounds when you zoom out with Shift (possible once your Shift level has upgraded) to reveal a believable, densely populated city running at silky smooth 60 frames per second. For Martin Edmondson this was a necessity, but achieving such a solid frame rate has been an almighty technical challenge to avoid the stuttering performance issues that hampered Driver 2’s ambition – the difference is profound.
“Driver 2 was built on the foundations of Driver 1. What we did for Driver: San Francisco was build all of the core tech up from scratch. Most games are built on rendering engines from third parties, middle ware or physics from third parties. We have built everything to do with the core tech rendering physics and so on from the ground up just for this game,” Martin says assuredly.
“It’s specifically tailored for this game. 60 frames per second is the benchmark we wanted to achieve right at the very beginning of the design concept 5 years ago, so everything was planned with 60 frames per second in mind. The time we’ve been allowed, the technical abilities of the team and also being clear from the beginning about what we wanted to do have all been factors. It uses the machine like no game that we’ve produced before but it almost never drops below 60 frames per second as you’ve seen and that’s just been a relentless process of iteration and optimisation.”
Unfortunately, the development team is so intent on maintaining this stable performance that dynamic weather will not be present in the game. “We don’t have weather for technical reasons. We do have fog but not rain as it causes problems with some of the visual effects that are necessary to make rain look convincing. We can do some crappy rain effect but if you want the roads to look glossy, everyone knows how to do it but there is a cost to it and if you want 60 frames a second and all the other stuff you have to start making trade-offs.”
It’s a similar story with the omission of day and night cycles. “The reason we didn’t do night time is because there a lot of lighting bloom effects and also the textures for your buildings need to be doubled up to cope with night time stuff, lights coming from buildings. It’s more stuff that we just decided wasn’t key to what we were trying to do. We said right at the beginning, especially with the night time, that we are building a city of over 210 miles, the largest open plan city a driving game has ever seen, so we’re not going to build this thing effectively twice.”
Still, it’s not all bad news. After all, the Film Director, a staple and innovative feature of the classic Driver games where you can edit camera angles to create your own movie car chase, is making a comeback after its disappointing absence from Parallel Lines, which will no doubt cause Driver fanatics to rejoice.
Keen to see it for myself, I attempted to try it out as it was accessible in the pause menu at all times, but a polite tap on the shoulder prevented me from progressing any further. From what I saw, the interface looked very familiar, a fact that Martin clarified when I enquired.
“Its new features are more to do with usability. We haven’t loaded it with visual effects and turn it into a sports game or racing video type of thing with lots of video effects and colours. We very much approached this from the point of view of producing a Hollywood car chase. So the cameras and the use of the cameras is very rooted in real film making for real car chase movies,” explains Martin.
“But the usability is so much better because we have the ability to rewind in chunks of 5 seconds which we never were able to do before because of the need to be able to store them on the memory sticks, which meant tiny amounts of memory. You therefore couldn’t store everything properly as we needed to, but now it’s done in a very different way because we have much more flexibility now. The new hardware and the way that we store the data means you can rewind and fine-tune cameras in a much easier way so it’s far quicker to put a movie together.”
While Martin couldn’t go into specific detail, he did confirm that videos will be uploaded via Ubisoft’s server which handles the compression rather than directly to YouTube, but they can then be sent to wherever you like. There will be a limit of around 10 – 15 minutes but the Film Director will not be usable within the online multiplayer, again down to technical reasons because of the constant syncing with Shifting players which is unfortunate.
Once you grow accustomed to Driver San Francisco’s shifty departure from the norm in terms of its storyline, every other aspect that made Driver such a hit back in the day seems to be intact. In fact, the Driver series is very much like the Ford Mustang, rather aptly. The original took the industry by storm and became an instant classic, the second was good but didn’t quite have the magic of the original, the third was a shadow of its former self that made people say “what were they thinking?” and the fourth showed improvement but wasn’t quite there yet. The fifth, however, turned out to be a worthy modern incarnation. It even now stars as Knight Rider’s KITT, but we won’t go into that.
If you’re after a throwback to the gritty car chases, impeccably designed real-life environments and muscle car attitude from the Driver of yesteryear, plus a helping of innovation to keep the series on the same road as the current generation, I think I can categorically say that this will be the Driver that fans have long been waiting for. And that’s before we’ve even touched on the multiplayer.
This article was originally published on Drivinggamespro.com.
Words by Martin Bigg (Twitter: @drivinggamespro)
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