It's safe to say that despite numerous attempts, Ubisoft Reflections (formerly Reflections Interactive) never really managed to capture what made Driver such a great game. The core was still there, but the expanded elements just didn't seem to mesh well. It's a run that Reflections wanted to stop, which is why they've spent such a long time working on the latest installment, Driver: San Francisco.
The game has been in development for around 4-5 years, as Ubisoft Reflections wanted to build the experience from the ground up. They also wanted to make sure it was technically capable, with the development team setting a benchmark of 60fps for the framerate. It was actually supposed to release last year, but it was postponed because they wanted to make it even better - something which we, as gamers, can only benefit from.
You see, this Driver experience is also quite different from past games. Not in the sense of driving, but the game has been built around a new mechanic called Shifting.
Due to what happens in the storyline, which sees Tanner (the main protagonist) enter into a coma, the game takes place in his "mind". And because of this, the development team has been able to implement mechanics with a bit of creative freedom. Early on, Tanner will realise he has the ability to Shift between different cars, allowing him to effectively become the current driver of any car nearby. It makes for some rather interesting experiences.
For example, you could take control of a car where someone is learning to drive. Or, you could take control of a guy who's taking a sports car for a test drive. And what's great about this, is that the dialogue is rather funny. But it also helps to break things up between the story missions, which will become unlocked through natural progression.
There was a certain degree of scepticism floating around when the Shift mechanic was initially announced, but it works really well, especially in tactical situations. For example, if you're chasing a car, you can shift ahead and use another car to block its path. Then, shift back to your original car and things become a lot easier.
As you progress further through the game, you'll unlock Will Power, which is the game's currency. This will allow you to buy different garages throughout the city, and also to buy better cars to use. The majority of cars are licenced, and there's a full damage system in there too. You will also gain levels, which will affect how far you can zoom out when using the Shift ability. And, as you zoom further out, better cars will unlock naturally that you can shift into - it works really well.
After playing through Driver for a bit, I was left rather surprised. There's a real chance for the full game to erase the damage done by the past few games and Driver: San Francisco looks set to bring the franchise back to where it belongs. With tons of effort put into the mutiplayer components as well, the game should also have plenty of legs.
Be sure to check it out when it releases this September on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.