The most surprising things to come out of E3 this year were from Ubisoft's press conference. The reinvention of laser tag and a copycat version of Nintendo's Vitality Sensor were among the highlights, but perhaps the biggest shock was not hardware reveals from the French publisher, but details of the new Driver game. It's built around a mechanic that allows you to take control of any vehicle around you, performed by zooming out to bird's eye view before selecting your motor with a cursor. The explanation behind it? Series protagonist Tanner has fallen into a coma. He doesn't know it, and somehow it lets him possess the populous of San Francisco at will. No, we don't quite get it either.
It's a strange idea, especially for the story, but one that works resoundingly well in practice. Shift is an interesting evolution from the rewind mechanic introduced in Race Driver: GRID and Forza 3, allowing you to continue your objective after a crash or wrong turn without interrupting the action. Jumping out and selecting another vehicle is simple and snappy, and is surprisingly tactical: not only do you have to consider the location of your new ride, but also its type. "You're not just thinking about it in terms of, 'Right, I've crashed my car so I need to get another one,' which is obviously a viable reason for using it, but you've got to think ahead now. I need to get this car or that car, or think even further ahead and get something big that people can't push off the road and come at it from another angle," Lavis explained.
In keeping with modern driving games, it'll feature a full multiplayer suite of modes. Few were detailed, but we went hands-on with 'Trail Blazer', where players chase a glowing car and keep up in its wake as it weaves through traffic and tight back alleys. Planting yourself in the trail will give you points and deprive others, leading to a lot of shunting and scraping. The signature loose handling of Driver made this mode particularly unenjoyable, since the lead car will turn sporadically making it difficult to keep up, but again the Shift mechanic shows promise: there are times where everyone is choosing their next car, so it's a race to find a sports car or lorry that will give you the upper hand.
Although plenty of details on Driver: San Francisco were still under wraps - which is unsurprising now the game has been pushed back to 2011 - there are enough interesting ideas to have this title on your radar. The premise is bizarre and for now poorly explained, but in practice the Shift mechanic works superbly, and the idea of assuming different people across a vast city may lead to some diverse mission types. Reflections is keen to bring back the magic of the original franchise, and with a few nifty ideas in tow, it could well stand a chance after all these years.
Driver: San Francisco will be released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in early 2011.