Tanner’s back this September in Driver: San Francisco. TGL got hands on with the game in London earlier this week and if our brief taste of San Francisco is anything to go by, Ubisoft are on the cusp of delivering the most unique and definitive Driver experience yet. We sat down with San Francisco Producer Marie-Jo Leroux and Senior Designer Jean-Sebastien Decant to talk about all things Driver.

Here we go;

TGL: So it’s been a while since the last true Driver game in the main story timeline. Can you set up San Francisco’s story for us?

JSD: Tanner in the first Driver was an undercover cop and the principle of the undercover cop was expanded in the second episode when Jericho was introduced. He was one of the main bad guys. He quickly became the most important nemesis for Tanner. Now we find ourselves in San Francisco with the fourth game. The idea for San Francisco is start just a few hours and days after the events of Driver 3 (Driv3r). It was set in Turkey.

TGL: How does the setting and the city of San Francisco define the way we play this latest instalment in the franchise?

MJL: It’s extremely varied. It’s a big diverse city. That’s why we chose it. It’s also a very iconic driving city. All the hills and dirt tracks are there and there are lots of iconic and fun places to drive like Twin Peaks and Lombard Street. So that’s how the city comes into the gameplay.

TGL: There’s a dark element to Tanner’s story, epitomised by the state of comatose he finds himself in early on in the game. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a story that sees you chasing bad guys around the streets. What’s the inspiration behind this dark story underscoring?

JSD: The big question for us was how to focus on the driving in an open world driving game. So we had this idea for a mechanic that would allow you to jump from one car to another. It let us just focus on the driving. At the same time we had this idea that we wanted it to be in a sort of Google Maps state so that when you are driving you can literally pick any car you want to drive. That was the basis. That had a big impact on the story because we wanted to justify that in a proper fashion.  So this cop story had to be fused with some kind of fantasy element and the coma was the direction we took. When you’re in a coma, you’re in a dream and this dream is taking inspiration from what’s going on in your head. It could be quite close to the real thing but there are some tangents. This is how we try to justify the shift mechanic. But still we wanted to stick with the cop story. So it’s a cop story with the fantasy element. It’s kind of like some of the psychological elements you can see in movies at the moment like Inception and Sucker Punch.

MJL: It has all these different layers of reality interacting with each other.

TGL: So the shift fantasy element keeps the impetus on the driving…

MJL: Exactly. It’s a paradox actually because it has been said that shift is kind of different than driving but the whole point is to be able to keep driving as much as possible. So when I’m driving a car and I see one I’m really exciting about, I can jump into it. I don’t have to run around. That’s why shift promotes driving.

JSD: And at the same time, when your shifting into a car, you’re not just shifting into an empty box, you’re shifting into a life. So your either going to disrupt a life or help one. That is also something that is really nice that is done by shift.

MJL: You get to interrupt conversations that are going on and different situations. So shift is very layered like that.

TGL: Driver: San Francisco has had a pretty protracted incubation period, at least four or five years. What’s the reason behind the long development cycle?

MJL: First of all, it’s the first one on this generation of consoles. It was extremely ambitious technically. The whole point of developing shift was to keep the immersion going all the time. To do that, we wanted to go anywhere in the city. We wanted to be able to zoom out and see the whole city and pick any car and jump into it without loading, at 60 frames a second. We had to develop our own tech to do that and achieve that. We had to find the right balance and ask ourselves what we want to do with this new shift ingredient. It keeps you in the car all the time but it’s also a fun ingredient to create new diverse gameplay missions and gameplay types. Once we had shift and it worked and it was really good and tuned, we had to find the right way of exploiting it and finding the right balance between driving and what we call the shifting missions. It’s taken a long time. Then there’s the story. It takes place on so many levels like inside the dream, there’s in the real world and there’s Tanner in his hospital room where he’s hearing things. Plus there’s a whole investigation going on. We want to make sure the player understands this. It’s a very complex story, very involving. It took a long time to develop and a long time to integrate it.

TGL: As regards Shift, is this the game changer? Is this the defining mechanic? Is this what sets Driver apart from other similar game types out there?

JSD: I think the first thing that sets Driver apart is the handling, the very unique handling on the 140 vehicles. This is the heart and soul of what Driver is. But after that, it’s the Shift. It is a proper game changer in the open world sandbox games.

TGL: It adds an added layer of freedom to proceedings…

JSD: Absolutely. This is especially visible in multiplayer. The multiplayer becomes almost like a first person shooter where you get into the action and you perform some objectives that now you might only associate with FPS games like capturing the flag or trying to fight other people with cars. You have the ability to just jump out and take out another vehicle, maybe using a stronger vehicle to take out a smaller faster vehicle. There are small tactical choices you can make all the time but you always have the ability to always stay in the action.

TGL: This has been a huge collaborative effort with four or five studios contributing to the final product. What has it been like working with all the studios on such an established franchise?

MJL: It’s been good. One of the questions we’ve been asked is was there a problem with having too many ‘cooks in the kitchen’ and one of the strengths we’ve had as a team is that because the vision is so strong, because it has such a strong identity and that everyone gets what we are trying to do, it’s been really good to rally that talent from everywhere. I mean Newcastle is very strong in vehicle handling; they have guys up there who build cars as a hobby. To pick up different pieces of Ubisoft from all over the world has been really good. One of the things that Ubisoft have really brought to this has been the accessibility and making this hardcore franchise open to the real world through signs and feedback and constantly making the player aware of what they’re supposed to be doing. We needed that in order to make such a complex story and complex mechanic. It’s very accessible to everyone. Shift brings us so many different ways of playing. If you don’t explain it well, the game changes a lot all the time and the player can get lost. Ubisoft is very strong on accessibility, signs and feedback.

MLJ: Yes, we have been working with a lot of studios but the heart and soul is in North in Newcastle. This is really important. Most of the team that built the content are up there and we worked all together. It was not disjointed. It was very focused.

JSD: One part of the city was built in Montreal. The cut scenes were built in Vancouver. But the mechanics, the heart and the shift was done in Newcastle. It’s been a good team effort.


Driver: San Francisco hits Irish stores on PS3, 360 and PC this September 2nd