Driver: San Francisco is a game that has its chief character in a coma for much of its duration, his consciousness flitting across The City by the Bay as he shifts from car to car. If it's a little disingenuous to draw a parallel and suggest that Driver has been a series on life support these past few years, it's definitely been drifting out in the ether for some time; by the time Driver: San Francisco is released, it'll be nearly five years since the brand was last seen on a home console.
That's a long time for a series that was once at the cutting edge of driving games, a place that its developer Reflections sees as its rightful home. The Newcastle studio's PlayStation launch title Destruction Derby was a brilliant Ballardian funfair ride, and with Driver's release in 1998 it introduced a then-novel cinematic sensibility to its cars and open world.
A couple of years later Reflections could proudly boast that it beat Rockstar to the punch in delivering an open-world 3D game in which you could leave your car and walk around the city, being the first to offer the kind of digital tourism that became so prevalent in the decade that followed. But famously, the empire would soon all come tumbling down.
2004's Driver 3 is a game remembered for all the wrong reasons. Prematurely hurried out by an Infogrames and Atari starved of cash and hungry for a quick hit, the game was famously buggy, incomplete and all too often a horror to play.
A recent retrospective catalogued its flaws, of which there were many, but the response in the comments was surprising; yes, Driver 3 was broken, but people were quick to jump to its defence, countering each tale of a game-breaking bug with a fond memory of time spent freewheeling in the game's overstated muscle cars.
"It was certainly a flawed game," admits Martin Edmonson, the man who founded Reflections in 1984, who helped birth the series and who is behind this recent revival, "my personal take on it was I was happy with a lot of it and unhappy with some of it."
"I was very happy with the car dynamics, the crashes and the visuals, the city, the lighting and the artistic side of it. I still maintain my personal view that that was all good. But the out-of-car sections we just didn't finish."
By the time of Driver 3's release, Grand Theft Auto's star had truly risen, and comparisons between the two - especially in regard to those incomplete on-foot sections - saw Reflections' game come off dismally. It's been a slow resurgence ever since.
Driver: Parallel Lines came out just over a year later, a quick-fix job that looked to atone for many of Driver 3's sins. It was a better game, for sure, and one that thankfully wasn't broken, but in the rush to get something to shelves some of the series' soul had been lost.
"The problem was they spoiled the car stuff," says Edmonson. "But to be fair to the team, they were given less than a year to create that game. I could feel all that pressure on the team, on Reflections, to deliver in that time. It's not a good situation to be in, to deliver games under that pressure."
A change of publisher, with Ubisoft coming back on board, saw a change of circumstances; the next Driver would be produced in a more amenable atmosphere, and Ubisoft was happy to give Reflections the time it needed to make the game it wanted.
Nearly five years later that game is finally ready to ship. It's no doubt the game that the series needs as well, with Driver: San Francisco's bold nature kick-starting the Driver franchise and restoring Reflection's reputation for pushing at the boundaries of the genre.
"If you go back to the history of Reflections, all the way back to Shadow of the Beast, Stuntman and Destruction Derby, there's always a big level of innovation" says Edmonson.
"If the concept isn't totally original then something about it is totally original. That definitely got lost in Driver 3 and Driver 4. We wanted to get back to what Reflections has always done, which is two things: innovate, and be right at the cutting edge of pushing the machine hard."
Here that innovation comes from Shift, Driver: San Francisco's bold mechanic that's as strange as it is exciting; with the press of a button, you can switch out of a car, float above the traffic and pick another vehicle to switch straight back into.
"It's been a huge problem to communicate on paper," admits Edmonson, and it's easy to see why. Shift's an alien concept that's hard to decipher even when the pad's in your hand. It's only after a handful of hours' play that its implications become explicit, and when the novel tactics that it allows in a car chase become clear.
It's not helped by its introduction in the game, either. The plot's a convoluted tangle that sees lead Tanner sent into a coma within minutes of the game's opening, and what follows is a loose mess of Life on Mars and Quantum Leap influences told with varying levels of conviction from the game's cast.
To its credit, it doesn't take itself too seriously - and in the Assassin's Creed games Ubisoft has already proven that you can wrangle a hit series out of a comatose lead. Shift's not there for dramatic effect, though, and it serves rather as a neat gameplay tool that ensures the action is kept firmly behind the wheel.
It's tempting to think that the mechanic was introduced in response to the criticism aimed at the limp on-foot sections that have plagued past Driver games, though Edmonson is adamant that's not the case. Regardless, what it does do is allow the studio to focus on what it has historically excelled at: the driving.
Driver: San Francisco certainly succeeds in this regard. It's a return to the aggressively cinematic handling of the first game - and its cinema is of a particularly seventies bent. Ever since he was smuggled in to a screening of Walter Hill's The Driver as a child, this world has transfixed Edmonson, and it has always been brilliantly evoked by the Driver series. It's at its best here, whether that's in the hazy, sepia depiction of a half-imagined San Francisco or in the game's love affair with soft-sprung muscle cars.
"We tried to make it feel like the first one - it's not the same code, obviously, but it's been tuned to make you feel that way," says Edmonson. The feeling has been recaptured perfectly; cars fishtail with ease, and the default position for a car in Driver seems to be flat-out, sideways and with a stream of tire smoke dancing through the wheel arches.
There's nuance too: shift into one of Driver: San Francisco's front-wheel-drive cars and the difference is clear, with the rear much more reluctant to flick out. Nothing new, but not what you'd expect to find in a game that's often pinned down as having arcade sensibilities.
"The approach we use is real physics with one or two helpers - but not too many," reveals Edmonson, "Most driving games - if you extract Forza and Gran Turismo - they are almost pure arcade driving mechanics. It's a personal choice whether you like it or not.
"What we do is take a quite deep physics simulation base and apply some little helpers. It's a bit like putting traction control or ABS on a real car, we add these little software tweaks on this physics bed to make the car respond in a predictable way, but crucially to allow you as a player to experiment with it and discover new levels of depth."
It helps, too, that Driver: San Francisco is one of the fabled few that runs at a clean 60fps that only rarely dips. The frame-rate lends a butter-smooth fidelity to the handling, and it's another reminder of how sad it is that so few games have aspired to the same standard this generation.
More on Driver: San Francisco
Face-off: Face-Off: Driver: San Francisco
Interview: Driver: San Francisco's MOT
Martin Edmonson on reviews, decisions and the future.
Review: Driver: San Francisco
Tanner the best.
Can we shake the console versions' 60FPS refresh?
"Remember, this is what the old arcade games used to run in - the Defenders through to the 3D things like Daytona and SEGA Rally - they all run at 60 fps and it was this accepted norm," says Edmonson, "Now we have all this power - and it's ridiculously more powerful than the old Model 2 boards - and everything runs at 30. You have some notable exceptions like Gran Turismo, Burnout or Modern Warfare, and for me it transforms the experience."
Reflections' return looks set to be triumphant then, and it's got a game that does the studio's heritage proud with its patina of innovation. But with a hostile climate facing racing games outside of Forza, Need for Speed and Gran Turismo, it'll need all that and more if it's going to succeed.
With the full support of Ubisoft behind the studio, it's unlikely that Reflections will go the way of either Black Rock or Bizarre, but their demise and the declining appetite for racing games is still a concern.
"What it does show is that innovation is not always rewarded," Edmonson says of the failure of both Split/Second and Blur, "and that's slightly worrying. Here we are with another thing that's difficult to sell, because people tend to want a slightly better version of what they already have. You try and go down the track of doing something slightly different and it has to be acknowledged that you're taking a big risk."
It's a big risk, but it's one that will hopefully pay off - for the sake of the genre, for the sake of the sadly diminishing British racing game scene and for the sake of a once-brilliant series that looks like it's recaptured its mojo.