There's a lot to be said for offering something new. While Driver San Francisco might look like just another entry in the long-running open-city driving series, in which you nip about in a variety of cars, evade cops and generally cause all-manner of vehicular-based carnage, what we've got here is actually refreshingly original. At the core of the experience is an arcade-like but weighty handling model that allows for rewarding, drift-heavy fun, and on top of this is a unique shifting mechanic that turns the genre on its head.
For some people the game's concept and setup will be a little too "out there" to accept, but it's essential to what developer Ubisoft Reflections has delivered. Veteran police detective John Tanner and his partner, Tobias Jones, are chasing down mob boss Charles Jericho, only for the tables to turn, forcing our crime-fighting duo to outrun a hijacked prison transport van. A disastrous crash results in a massive truck ploughing into the side of our hero's Dodge Challenger, and then the crazy stuff starts to happen.
The accident leaves Tanner in a coma, with the events of the game unfolding inside his head - not that Tanner himself is aware of this. As a result of his condition, our hero is able to shift his consciousness to any other person driving a car. This is handled by a god-like overhead view that lets you target any car, bus, van or truck you like and then magically zoom into them as if you're a modern-day Sam Beckett (the Quantum Leap character, not the playwright).
Initially this shifting mechanic doesn't seem to add a great deal, with the tutorial levels only really hinting at what lies in store later on in the game. A tap of the shift button zooms you out of Tanner's vehicle, as if you're having an out-of-body experience, with the camera now looking down on the city below. To begin with this view remains quite close to the road, but as you progress through the story you're able to zoom out further, covering huge distances in no time at all by flying high above the city.
It's fair to say that this whole mechanic feels a little gimmicky at first, with even the characters having a hard time grasping what's going on, but once missions start giving you the freedom to tackle them as you wish, Shifting comes into its own. Certain missions require you to use Shift in a very functional manner, zipping across town in order to find cars and then drive them to a drop-off point within a set time limit, but other assignments allow for far more creative thinking.
Race events are good fun thanks to the excellent connection cars have with the road, due to the weighty handling model. But you don't need to approach these contests like a standard racer: If you're falling too far behind the pack, you can use Shift to enter the driver of a semi truck heading in the opposite direction and then plough head-first into the leader, taking him out.