We've tailed the resurrection of the story-driven racing series for the past few months, as the development studio of Reflections took us on repeated laps of the single player. The game's other half, and from evidence this is a title of two halves, sat in the garage under heavy drapes, and we were told it wasn't ready for show yet, as it was still undergoing work.
The length of that tinkering, we're now informed, clocks in at two years. Necessary mileage, explains Martin Edmondson as we watch the four-wheeled version of World War III tear up his version of San Francisco, to ensure that's it's just right.
You imagine it's an issue that weighs heavy on every developer, whatever genre they're tuning their wares for. A crushing sense of inevitability that they're driving into the multiplayer corner blind, faith in their creation warring with doubt that there could be anything other than that brick wall graffitied with the Call of Duty brand to plough into on exit.
It seems difference is key; leave the FPS genre to war with itself, and skid down a road less travelled. For Reflections, its hooking its multiplayer around the central Shift mechanic - gameplay feature that is, rather than a fella who's handy with a spanner.
It's a mechanic that took some getting used to in the single player, more due to the story line premise for its inclusion rather than its actual execution, letting you hot-swop between cars at will, pulling the camera out of your ride at the touch of a button for an overview of the city streets, until you find a ride you like. another button press and you're behind the wheel, ethical dilemma over possessing the driver be damned.
One multiplayer mode is on offer today, the fairly self-explanatory Tag, although in reverse. Each second someone is "it", they accrue points. Whoever hits the total first, wins. One bump is all that it takes to transfer power and point accumulator to you, and vice-versa.
The mode was easily picked up from the off by those playing; everyone can get the premise. Okay, bonnets and shunts are replacing hands and elbows, and we're talking thousands of pounds of collateral damage and countless cases of whiplash instead of scraped elbows in the effort to getaway, but you get the idea.
Everyone starts off in an quiet alley, with a tagged car at the front, but swiftly the group cannons onto the packed streets of San Francisco. The entire city is open from the off, and proves more liberating than confusing thanks to the Shift feature keeping everyone tied close to the action, letting players leap ahead to cars or trucks within spitting distance of the tagged car.
The tagged car is clearly highlighted on the screen, while a glance at the mini-map shows the direction its hurtling in. Parking in a hidden recess therefore, is not an option. You got to keep moving.
Traffic is randomised, although there's obviously some sleight of hand in keeping the faster rides stacked high on any given street than what would be normal. We easily spot and possess sports cars that litter the lanes in decent number, as do transport trucks, their empty car-carrying carriages obvious in their role for a quick drive up and over any foes driving in from the front.
While the curves of a speedster can blast across blocks faster than it takes most to Shift, orientate and give chase, turning is suicide unless you chance across a break in traffic, and shortcuts will likely see you turn crushed can against a wall or dumpster. For all-round versatility, taxis prove surprisingly effective; running at a fair old clip and are easier if quick exits off roads are needed.
In our match we witness, and pull off, the types of moves that would take a film crew and stuntmen months to plan almost by accident. Such as a handbrake-heavy series of drifts across one bridge, narrowly screaming past the lightning blots that indicate nearby car possessions, before pulling a skid around a truck and using the bridge barrier as a custom brake bumper to come to a quick halt. A split-second later the pack disappear past the rear bumper with what we know are colourful tirades against the successful audacity of the move.
The match is full of moments like these, ones that have you cheering as you perform them, cars handling with just the amount of slide we like in our arcade racers, and jeering as you're outfoxed by a competitor who whispers past you into a turn.
While it's dodgems from the off, tactics develop quickly. Small things like jumping to a car further up a narrow street from the chase and parking in its middle while pointing you car away from the direction of the fight, either to chance a mistaken clip of your rear as your target passes or to position yourself right to nip in and strike from the back.
It's a short sharp blast, neither true racing nor combat, something between. Something different. It's perked our interest sufficiently to want to see what other multiplayer modes Driver will have built in under the hood, with this half of the game proving a stronger proposition from the off. While we need to clock some more miles on the SP to see if it grows on us, we find we're wanting behind the wheel of MP to see if the rest is as strong as what's been presented today.
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