More so than in any other art form or entertainment medium, hobbyists and fans of gaming love absolutely nothing more than to compile lists pertaining to be definitive countdowns of history’s best ever videogames, usually restricting each list to the output of one specific gaming console in particular. The frequency with which these lists are compiled truly beggars belief, and whilst many make a play for empty controversy in an attempt to keep things fresh, many more dare not stray from convention lest their endeavours stop being taken seriously altogether.
So in the same way that you’ll never see a ‘Best Of N64′ list omit either Nintendo’s Ocarina Of Time or Rare’s Goldeneye, a ‘Best Of PSOne’ list would (and probably should) be considered completely illegitimate if it were to leave out either or both of the first two Driver games. They were a pair of quietly revolutionary little firebrands that arguably laid a large part of the groundwork for what became the next-gen Grand Theft Auto franchise, and not only were they seminal, if you can handle the sluggish framerates and giant pixels, they are still compulsive and rewarding to play even today.
After 2005′s unbearably poor Driver 3 (a game so heinous that it now feels like the videogame equivalent of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, minus the innocence and charm) the series seemed as if it had totally run its course. But now that a considerable amount of time has passed, and the sins of Driver 3 have been largely forgiven and/or forgotten (and in addition to the fact that Ubisoft has now taken the publishing reins from Atari) the series is finally returning, and as expected it’s taking its cues from those superb originals rather than that hideous second sequel.
Details of the single-player campaign are still being kept very tightly under wraps, but the hints that have been made thus far – including the suggestion that the plot takes place entirely inside the main character’s whacked-out fever dream – already suggests more invention than was present in the entirety of Driver 3. But our recent hands-on time with the multiplayer component revealed something that not only felt like the classic Driver games of old, but also surprisingly fresh with it.
Driver: San Francisco’s Pursuit-style multiplayer mode involves the absorption of a fluorescent yellow trail that is constantly spilling from the trunk of a car that you’re all collectively pursuing. Initially the disorientation instilled by the vehicle handling is off-putting, as a frenzied arcade smash-em-up like this really shouldn’t boast handling that is this unforgivingly realistic. Although the difficulty level varies depending on what kind of vehicle you’re driving – and everything from large trucks to Formula One cars were present in the build we played – it feels much more like a driving sim than a game of this kind really should.
But once you get your head around this mode’s ‘Shift’ mechanic, it becomes clear that the toughness of the vehicle handling (and the differences between each vehicle) has been implemented in order to fully emphasise the elements of strategy that are required in order to win each game. ‘Shift’ involves the pressing of a single button, and it immediately places your vehicle on auto-pilot, whilst the camera zooms to a detailed birds-eye view of the streets that you’re manoeuvring around.
You are then free to use the interface’s arrow cursor to choose another vehicle to instantaneously ‘shift’ into, and as the car that you’re pursuing never fluffs corners and travels at incredibly high speeds, you’ll have to do this frequently. Picking the nearest car to your opponent is the quickest option, but trying to find the fastest car (or the one that has your preferred level of handling) takes a few seconds longer. And those are seconds in which your opponents will either have gained many valuable points, or will have snuck in and stolen the very vehicle that you were just about to leap inside.
To gain a few extra seconds of hot pursuit your can ram and shunt the other players – both of which almost always cause them to instantly jack-knife – but if you’re not near enough to the target vehicle (which appeared to be, in every game that we played, a shiny silver DeLorean) those seconds will be stolen by your just-devastated opponent, who’ll inevitably shift into a car right in front of you, the second that his previous vehicle began to skid off-kilter.
The first player to reach 100 points wins the match, and every time we played it, victory was hotly contested and very close-run. Fists were clenched, smack was talked, and winning a bout felt hard-won and genuinely exhilarating. The replication of old 1970′s cop movies which the original Driver titles did so well returns (featuring pedestrians who all scream before diving out of your path) and as a whole the multiplayer feels new, inventive and utterly addictive. Whether the single-player campaign compliments it remains to be seen, but on this evidence, this is definitely a proposition that everyone should be keeping at least one sharp eye on.
Watch the Driver trailer here…