Driver: San Francisco PC Review

excellent
key review info
  • Game: Driver: San Francisco
  • Platform: PC
  • Gamepad support: Yes  
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Driver: San Francisco PC review

Driver: San Francisco is the latest installment in the long running Driver series from Ubisoft, as the French publisher tasked its Ubisoft Reflections studio with bringing back the long dormant franchise and giving it a new lease on life.

With promises like a new, high quality engine, fresh gameplay and a rather unique premise of allowing you to jump into different cars during the action, San Francisco seems to be a breath of fresh air in the genre of open world racing titles.

So, is Driver: San Francisco a winner or should it retire completely from the genre? Let's have a quick look.
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You play as John Tanner ...
... who isn't doing so well
Story

The protagonist of past Driver games, John Tanner, returns in San Francisco, finally enjoying a major victory as his arch rival, Charles Jericho, is being transported by SFPD to finally pay for his crimes. Sadly, as you can imagine, things don't really go according to plan, as he is able to escape in his armored transport, prompting Tanner and his partner, Tobias Jones, to pursue him once again.

During this pursuit, Tanner's trademark Dodge Challenger R/T gets involved in a serious accident, sending the protagonist into a deep coma. During this coma, he is able to explore San Francisco in various cars, just like he always could, but can also jump from vehicle to vehicle, effectively shifting into the bodies of different drivers and controlling their every gesture.

While this may sound awkward at first, it's great for the story, as the mechanic proves to be essential in helping Tanner capture different criminals and ultimately track down Jericho in San Francisco before he flees the city.

There are a variety of story missions that allow Tanner to shift back into his actual body, but most of the times you'll be busy doing all sorts of side challenges, like helping police officers take down criminals or criminals escape the police. There's also a series of Blast from the Past missions, which get triggered once you shift into the famous DeLorean model and reach 88 miles per hour, like in the Back to the Future movies, allowing you to go through challenges from previous Driver games or recreate car chases from movies like 1968's Bullit.

While the actual narrative of Driver: San Francisco won't win any Oscars, it's lighthearted, at least in the beginning, and manages to make you laugh during some of the more outlandish missions, where Tanner needs to film reckless drivers that "put the Car in Carnage," or when he needs to raise the pulse of his passengers by driving in a dangerous manner. You slowly uncover the master plan of Jericho and it's pretty much a roller coaster ride before the end credits roll.




Gameplay

Driver: San Francisco may have a novel new mechanic to set it apart, but, at its core, it's still a Driver game, with the same familiar user interface and the classic gameplay that made the series so popular.

Cars feel pretty good, and there are over 100 licensed vehicles to choose from, slowly offering Tanner more and more options, from dull, everyday cars like the Dodge Neon, to powerful supercars like the Pagani Zonda or McLaren MP4-12C. Each handle in their own way, but rear-wheel drive cars, like Tanner's Dodge Challenger, feel a bit too unstable, especially when taking on corners.

Still, if you manage to wreck your car or you just get bored with it, you can easily shift into a new one with the press of a button. While it may seem a bit weird at first, you'll quickly get the hang of it and then wonder just how racing games could behave without it. The shifting mechanic sends John in the sky, overlooking San Francisco and the cars on its streets. You can choose pretty much any vehicle you want and then shift into the body of its driver.

The mechanic is smooth, although the exploration of San Francisco's streets is a bit awkward with the mouse, behaving more smoothly when using a console controller. Still, you'll find that Driver: San Francisco handles pretty good, even with the classic mouse and keyboard control scheme.

The AI is pretty smart in the game, while the police, if you manage to annoy them, is very aggressive, easily surrounding the player and forcing him into the nearest wall. Even in the most powerful cars, you'll barely be able to put some distance between you and the SFPD. As such, in order to escape the cops, you'll need to take them through every back alley in the Californian city, make sharp turns and always avoid long stretches of road. You can opt to shift into oncoming traffic and ram into police cars to make escaping easier, but it's hard to trust the autopilot that controls the car while you're high in the sky.

That's a bit of a problem, especially during races or other such challenges. I once needed to make sure two cars finished first and second in a four-car race. After getting one into first place, then shifting into the other to get it into second, I saw the opponents overtake my original car. Ultimately I decided to just eliminate the other two cars by taking over vehicles from the oncoming lane and smashing them head on until they were completely wrecked.

You'll often find yourself engaged in this sort of Burnout-style gameplay during Driver: San Francisco, as taking down illegal racers, while controlling police cars, always requires such actions. Still, while it may not be as smooth or as easy to take out your opponents like in Criterion's own racing series, these moments are still pretty fun.

The streets of San Francisco are also quite interesting and, while it's not a perfect recreation of the city from California, it still has most of the trademark elements, like the drastic slopes, the winding roads or the Golden Gate bridge. There are a variety of things hidden on, off and above its roads, so exploring every mile is key.
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Unlock and buy new cars ...
... and then have some fun
Multiplayer

Driver: San Francisco has a varied competitive multiplayer mode, with all sorts of different gameplay types, ranging from regular races to out of the ordinary ones like Trail Blazer, where players need to follow an AI-controlled vehicle as closely as possible, or Tag, in which they need to tag (aka hit) another car to accumulate experience points and progress through the ranks.

As you work your way through the online mode, you start unlocking new sorts of options or powers, including the Shift ability, which is carefully regulated to not upset the balance in some of the modes.

Many of them feel quite fun and allow you to indulge in all sorts of other activities after finishing the single-player story and the side-quests scattered throughout San Francisco, so spending some time online with other Drivers is recommended.




Visuals and Sound

While Driver: San Francisco isn't a contender to Crysis 2 or other such high quality titles, it's graphics look pretty good, managing to paint a pretty picture for San Francisco and its environment. Some cars can be a bit low quality, like the Dodge Neon or Cadillac DTS, but the more expensive ones, like Tanner's Dodge Challenger or the McLaren MP4-12C are accurately detailed.

The damage models also look realistic enough, and you'll certainly cringe when busting up supercars like the Pagani Zonda throughout the story. Still, the best part is that you can always shift into another with the press of a button.

The cinematics look very good, and Driver: San Francisco manages to easily shift from pre-rendered footage, most of the times with Tanner and his partner, to in-game sequences, where many of the details are still present.

In terms of sound, the game also impresses, with a pretty good variety of tunes, ranging from R&B to jazz or soul, with licensed tracks from Jamiroquai, Aretha Franklin, Beastie Boys, Beck or DJ Shadow, all reflecting the nature of San Francisco and your actions in the American city.

Cars sound good and the voice actors also make a great impression, especially Tanner who manages to reflect some interesting emotions when being faced with his new shifting ability.
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Explore lovely San Francisco ...
... in all sorts of ways
Conclusion

Driver: San Francisco is a great game, surprisingly enough, managing to offer a new sort of open world racing experience, thanks to its innovative Shift mechanic. Ubisoft Reflections took a big risk and it paid off in spades, managing to ease players into the new type of gameplay through the lighthearted story and fun side missions.

If you liked previous Driver games, or racing ones in general, you owe it to yourself to try out Driver: San Francisco.

The game is currently available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, while the PC version we tested is coming out tomorrow, on September 27, in North America, and September 30, in Europe. The PC edition also has support for controllers as well as some steering wheels.

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story 8
gameplay 9
concept 10
graphics 8
audio 9
multiplayer 8
final rating 9
Editor's review
excellent
 
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