E3 wasn't just about running from hall to hall to check out the latest games, no, we also got time to actually sit down and chat about games as well. No, I don't mean "Hi sir, would you take a seat please?... Thank you... Now tell me, when did your fascination for games start?", I'm of course talking interviews.
We caught up with Ubisoft Reflections' Martin Edmondson, Creative Director of the Driver franchise and founder of the company which was bought by Ubisoft in 2006 for a reported $24 million. We talk Shift, San Fran, Tanner, GTA and more.
Driver’s been a series that’s been out the limelight for a long time, why bring it back now?
The reason it’s coming back now is really just a recent function of what’s happened in the recent history because Ubisoft purchased Reflections from Atari and also the Driver brand with it. We very much wanted to bring the game back and back to its roots and that’s involved a total ground up rewrite of everything. We don’t use any off the shelf stuff, it’s all proprietary tech – physics and so on – so it has taken a long, long time.
Is the whole reboot thing part of the reason why you decided to go back to San Francisco?
There were a couple of reasons we wanted to go back to San Francisco. The first is that it’s the most iconic car chase city – Bullet made it famous for that – but also because it’s just one of the diverse – from a driving point of view – cities in the US. It gives us two good reasons to go back to that, also, it was in Driver 1, so it’s another nice little link to the original game.
Is it modelled exactly on the city itself or have you taken a little artistic license?
We’ve taken a lot of artistic license. We learnt through the process of creating these city based games that to try and take an exact duplication of a real city, it’s interesting for people to say, “Oh there I work. There’s my house,” but in actual fact when it comes to playability, it tends to ruin the experience – the distances are too spread out. We wanted to get San Francisco to encompass the tight city streets, the hills, Golden Gate Park, Sutro, Marin County and you can’t do that without pushing it all together, otherwise the distances involved are just too great.
What was the reason to bring back Tanner and not instil some new blood into the franchise?
I think we’ve always had a bit of a connection with Tanner. The last game, Driver: Parallel Lines, was a new character altogether, and I think that missed him... He’s a good character and the representation of him in Driver: San Francisco is great and the cutscenes using Tanner are really, really, good. It was just nice to bring him back and also to link the story to the previous history of the game as well, which of course you need to do by bringing back the character.
What can we expect from the game from a handling perspective?
From a handling point of view, it’s the polar opposite of arcade handling, it’s a strange thing to say, but it really is “Driver handling” because Driver 1 was famous for its car-handling and although we’ve rebuilt the physics engine from the ground up, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to recreate the feel – the classic 70s, movie car chase style of handling. You know, the back end of the car sliding right out, big power-slides, burnouts and so on. When you master the control of the car, you really feel like you’re handling a real car, rather than an arcade representation.
The franchise has really been made on its set-piece moments; can we expect more of the same with Driver: SF?
Well the game’s not so much about set-pieces in the environment, like a Split/Second kind of thing, so the set-pieces are more in the story. So we have the cutscenes that tell the story... push the story on. The way that the story is told is similar to previous Driver games: we get to know the characters, we’ve got cutscenes that cut to music very much like movies often do, but in terms of the gameplay, a lot of it comes out of the open-world that we’re in, with the realistic traffic network, the pedestrians and the AI of the people that are chasing you or you’re chasing.
The mission structure, what can we expect from that? Sandbox-esque? Linear?
It’s sandboxy – obviously there has to be some structure in a game like this – but basically these missions are driving around in the city, as you’re driving, so, you can be driving around in a take-a-ride sort of mode and then a police chase just comes screaming past you and then you just say, “right, I’ll have a bit of that.” So it’s straight into Shift – do I want to be the getaway driver or do I want to be the cop? Shift into whoever you want to be and that’s the mission you take on.
Are those the game’s side missions then per se?
Well... they are all part of the story. They all push the story on, but there are missions there that push things on, so for example, you return to Tanner at least once per chapter in the game. When you’re Tanner you’re using your investigative kind of thing – we have the cutscenes telling the story – and we have some bigger missions that are a little bit like... we use a different view, a different mechanic to keep it interesting... to freshen it up every hour or so.
You’ve got licensed cars for the first time in the franchise’s history, was that something that was particularly hard for you to do?
Aside from the actual game developing, that probably has been the most difficult aspect of this game. It’s taken a long time. We’ve got a full team devoted to dealing with the licenses, almost over the project’s entirety... well, certainly in the last couple of years anyway. When we decided to really go for it, it was a big commitment, not just in terms of building the cars and so on, but dealing in the subtleties between the manufacturers.
We actually wanted real cars in the original Driver game, but it was just impossible with the restrictions that manufacturers wanted at the time. Thankfully with careful negotiations and just being careful about what you do – we don’t run over pedestrians for example, we don’t shoot people... there’s no guns in the game – it makes it a lot easier. The kind of action you get in Driver: San Francisco is the kind of action you get in a car chase.
What about licensed soundtracks? I hate to use the GTA thing, but the in-car radio can make the game a different driving experience at times...
Well, yeah, actually, again, with Driver 2, we had a big soundtrack. Driver 3 and 4 as well, so it’s a very important part of the whole driving experience. We’ve licensed... I think it’s around 60 tracks, and they’re all interesting tracks as well. It’s not sort of the stuff that everyone has on their iPod and it’s not radio play stuff. As we did exactly the same in the previous Driver games, it’s the sort of stuff you want to get your Shazam out and say, “What’s that?”... A bit like Pulp Fiction, you know? The soundtrack to that was really amazing, but it was all slightly quirky stuff. We’ve got that type of music.
Iconic, but not radio play. Not well known necessarily. Everyone’s going to recognise some of them, but it’s not the kind of stuff you expect to find in a game.
You talk about no guns in the game and what not, yet Driv3r took you out the car and gave you the on-foot sections. Did you ever consider that for Driver: SF?
We thought about it for a while but the problem is that... Driver 2 was actually the first game to feature getting out the car, stealing other cars and so on, and now lots of other games including Grand Theft Auto do that – they do that very well – and what we wanted to do for this game was absolutely return to the roots of what made the core experience of Driver such a unique experience... and that’s driving. We chose to just focus the team in that way and I think we get a better game for it, because we put so much energy into that, that we get kind of a unique driving experience.
Did it ever cross your mind that using the on-foot, third person shooter mechanics that you’d open yourself up to a new level of competition – namely GTA?
Well, this is the thing. There are now lots of games that do that and Driver has always been very innovative. Driver 1 was the first game in an open city environment. Driver 2 was the first game you could get out the car and steal other cars, and Driver 3 was then doing things that other games were doing. We wanted to just break with that and be original again and the “Shift” feature we have in the game is totally revolutionary... a real groundbreaking feature. For us it’s really exciting not to be copying what other people are doing and really, again, like the original Driver games, going our own way.
Speaking of “Shift,” can you just tell us about the new mechanic – what it does and how it affects the gameplay?
It’s an interesting one. Like I said, it’s a totally revolutionary, groundbreaking feature. Functionally, what it allows you to do is to be above the world and to instantaneously, seamlessly shift into any vehicle at will – very quickly if you want between vehicles. It’s not an unlimited ability; you have to charge it obviously. It gives you an immense freedom to the missions – you can be in a car chase and then you can be in a car watching the car chase, or you can shift into a truck and go head on with the guy you’re trying to take down.
Although it originally came from the function, it’s very deeply woven into the story – I don’t want to reveal too much about the story – but the way it works is that Tanner is actually involved in an incident at the beginning of the game – a serious incident – that puts him into a coma and he doesn’t realise at first that he’s in a coma. So that’s how we have him working through the story, but it’s not as simple as that – you have to play through the game and the story to appreciate how deeply intertwined these two things are.
Was it hard to balance? It kind of feels like a cheat button... you know, by jumping into another car and finishing the mission in a couple of seconds...
Well that’s true, but remember that the Shift feature came first, so it’s not like we designed a driving game and then went, “Oh! Shift! That’d be a good idea! Let’s try and put that into the missions.” The missions wouldn’t work. All of the missions are designed with Shift in mind, from the ground up, so you know, yes, it is a challenge, it is difficult and it’s something we were very aware of when designing the game and I think we’ve pulled it off.
You said in the press conference that the “Shift” in multiplayer was going to blow us away – or words to that effect – can you just give us an insight into how you expect to do that?
Yeah, you know, sometimes you can get a bit jaded when you’re spending years writing a game, but honestly the multiplayer experience is quite incredible. There is nothing like it. You don’t often get the whole development team who’ve been working on it for years, wanting to play it in their lunchtime – multiplayer games and this sort of thing. It’s just so much fun when you’re stealing cars, quickly rapidly shifting around, someone grabs a truck, someone grabs something quick, someone steals a car off someone else, you know, it’s an amazing experience.
What can we expect from the multiplayer side of things other than the Shift?
There’s a real mixed bag; we have 9 multiplayer modes – we’re only talking about 1 at E3, but they’re all roughly at the same level. The one we have here behind us is called Trailblazer actually. You have to get in the stream – it’s almost like an energy thing coming out the back of the car – so everyone’s fighting for position to soak up some of this stuff. It sounds very simple, but to play it, it’s just fantastic. We have another 8 of those, multiplayer XP and achievements, and so on.
And when can we expect it out?
We release this winter: fourth quarter.
Want more Driver? Don't forget to check out our recent Driver: San Francisco hands-on preview to find out our first impressions.