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The Driver franchise has evolved quite a bit since it’s debut on the original PlayStation. The first two games are basically precursors to what the 3D urban open world genre has become. Unfortunately, Driver 3 failed to meet the new standards of the genre the series helped lay the groundwork for. Regardless, the developers tried again with Parallel Lines and I would say it turned out to be a solid and fun game. But the developers decided to abandon the on-foot stuff and return the franchise to its roots, so to speak, with the next game, Driver: San Francisco.
Developed by Ubisoft Reflections and published by Ubisoft, Driver: San Francisco was released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii in August, 2011 and PC in September of that same year. It should be noted that there are significant differences in the Wii version. For this review, I played the PC version, specifically the Steam version. Unfortunately, as of this review, the game is no longer available digitally, possibly due to licensing issues. As you can probably guess, I did consult the game’s PCGamingWiki page before playing. Apparently, the PC version is missing the piss filter and film grain present in the console versions so I installed the Post Process Re-Enabled mod to add these effects. Also, the protagonist’s hands and clothes are apparently too “shiny” in the PC version so I also installed the Character Skin and Cloth Fix which rectifies this.
The story is set after the events of Driver 3. Jericho escapes from the Turkish hospital and makes his way to San Francisco where he’s captured and arrested. He manages to breakout from his prison convoy and is then pursued by returning protagonist and FBI agent John Tanner along with his partner Tobias Jones. Tanner and Jones end up in a car crash resulting in Tanner obtaining the ability to “shift” into other people’s bodies and control them. He decides to use this new ability to his advantage and continues to investigate Jericho, hoping to find him and take him down.
One thing I really like about the plot here is that it seems like it was written to revolve around the shift mechanic making for some humorous situations and interactions. It definitely feels like the gameplay was the primary focus during development. Regardless, the whole plot is wonderfully ridiculous and sort of conveys a more light-hearted tone than the previous games. I do feel some of the humor fails to land and instead comes across as cringey or corny but for the most part the story is all good fun. Luckily, you don’t need to play the previous games to understand what’s happening here but it would provide some context. That said, I would suggest reading a plot summary of Driver 3 or looking up the cut scenes because that game is terrible and I don’t recommend playing it.
Driver: San Francisco is another game set in a single city, just like Parallel Lines and does come with a multiplayer mode but I didn’t get the chance to try it. All the on-foot stuff was removed. You are restricted to vehicles and there are no guns. The big gimmick here is the new shift mechanic which basically allows you to teleport to any vehicle on the road. To shift into another vehicle, the game puts you in an overhead view of the map where you can move a crosshair around and over any vehicle on the road and shift into it at the press of a button. Shifting proves to be a lot of fun and can make for some exciting situations. This is the first game in the series to feature licensed vehicles from real manufacturers. I would say the only bummer is that there’s no motorcycles or boats.
I will say the driving does feel a bit different than that of the previous games. Everything controls well but each vehicle handles differently and overall, the driving feels less arcade and a little more realistic. Not that this is a simulation by any stretch of the imagination, it’s definitely still in the arcade style realm, but when compared to the previous games, it just feels a little more realistic and it took me some time to get used to. The game does support wheels but I played with a controller and you can now switch the camera to a first-person perspective or behind-the-wheel view which I found to be quite immersive.
The story plays out in chapters through a series of missions and if you were to just go from mission to mission, it wouldn’t take you very long to beat the story. Story missions do need to be unlocked by completing city missions, many of which are connected to the events in the story. Completing these also unlocks activities and as you progress through the story, you’ll unlock Dares which are often speed or stunt objectives that can be completed for Willpower, the game’s form of currency. You earn Willpower for almost everything – driving recklessly, drifting, jumping, pulling off stunts and maneuvers, and completing activities and dares. Willpower can be spent at Garages to buy new vehicles and upgrades. Not only that, but it can also be spent to unlock new Garages which, in turn, unlocks additional Challenges and vehicles for purchase.
I would say the real meat of the game is almost everything outside of the story. There are tons of activities to complete including races, pursuits, getaways, stunt events, and some more creative stuff like protecting armored vans by shifting into vehicles and crashing them into the attacking vehicles. Completing activities will unlock vehicles for purchase and some activities are outright nods to films like Back to the Future and Speed. One activity in particular is a recreation of the first mission from the first Driver. The reward system can be addictive as is trying to collect all the vehicles. This is one of those games that makes it easy to lose track of time. I often found myself thinking “just one more activity” over and over again and the next thing I knew, an hour or longer had passed.
Once you beat the story, you unlock New Game Plus where you can play through the story again but keep all your purchases and unlocks. Some of the later activities are definitely more challenging than the earlier ones but you’ll constantly earn Willpower and you can always repeat activities and Dares to earn more Willpower to buy faster and better vehicles and ones that will make it easier to complete specific activities. More of the city unlocks as you progress through the story and the partial recreation of San Francisco on display here is a rather large playground ripe for vehicular mayhem.
When you’re not on a mission or attempting an activity or Dare, you can freely drive around and go wherever you want, crash into whatever you want, and shift around at will. There are movie tokens to collect scattered around the city and collecting enough unlocks Challenges to complete. You can tag cop cars or, if driving a police vehicle, tag marked cars and initiate a chase, and escape police or take the target vehicle down for Willpower. I am happy to say the Film Director feature makes a return, allowing players to once again create their own little car chase films and you could even share them online back in the day.
As you progress through the story, you’ll unlock upgrades which are different than the upgrades offered in the Garages. These include Ram, Boost, and Rapid Shift. Ram and Boost drain through your ability bar which recharges over time and you can upgrade the size and recharge speed by purchasing the appropriate upgrades from Garages. As the names imply, Ram lets you ram into other vehicles, inflicting damage and Boost grants you a burst of speed. The only thing I don’t like about Boost is the default mapping on an XInput controller which is the Up direction of the left stick. The same stick used to make turns. This means if you push up on the stick, you’ll boost and because of that, I found it very easy to boost inadvertently. This can become annoying if you’re like me and slightly push the stick up when you make turns. Luckily, it can be remapped. Rapid Shift lets you shift into an allied vehicle or cancel a standard shift at the press of a button, instantly returning you to your current vehicle. It can come in quite handy during pursuits and is almost a required mechanic for team races where you must ensure both you and your partner end up in first and second place.
Driver: San Francisco features a lot of cool and exciting objectives and situations. You’ll do familiar stuff like chase people, tail people, and scare people. Then there’s the more creative objectives like getting a witness to a safehouse and avoiding the main roads, driving a guy to the hospital and performing stunts and maneuvers to keep him alive, and returning stolen cars to the cops among other cool stuff. The game does feature a good variety of activities like protecting armored vans, taking down racers, fire response, adrenaline activities which require you to keep your heart rate up, and there’s even a Survival activity where you must chase a vehicle and avoid the vehicles being launched at you for as long as possible. With all the story missions, city missions, activities, and dares – I can’t say I ever got bored.
The game does feature a lot of races including street races, team races, checkpoint races, and ambush races where you must not only win but also evade the police. The shift mechanic makes a lot of chases and certain activities like race takedowns very fun and exciting. In general, a standard car chase is fun but the shift mechanic gives you another way to complete these. You don’t have to remain in the pursuing vehicle. You can just shift into other vehicles on the road and crash them into the target vehicles to slow them down and stop them. You can even utilize the same strategy if you’re being chased to slow down the cops.
Just like the previous games, the city is a partial recreation of it’s real-world counterpart and I would say it’s a good reflection of San Francisco. It comes with some recognizable landmarks, buildings, areas and structures including the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and the steep rolling hills the city is known for. There’s plenty of vehicles on the roads and pedestrians walking around (although you can’t run them over). Police do drive around the city but you are free to drive around like a maniac without attracting police attention unless you crash into cops or the objective or activity calls for it. That said, the police can be aggressive and gang up on you. You’ll want to weave around traffic, make tight turns, and boost in an effort to get them to crash or even shift into other vehicles and crash them into the police to slow them down.
Visually, I think Driver: San Francisco is a gorgeous game and the presentation still holds up today. From the vehicle models to the city, everything looks amazing. Even the pre-rendered cut scenes look great. Crashes can look devastating and some can be witnessed in slow motion which showcases the cool vehicle deformities and glass flying through the air. The only eye sores I can think of would be the pop-in which is nowhere near as bad as that of the previous games and the bloom lighting which can make for an ugly overbright sky. The visual presentation is backed by a soundtrack consisting of licensed tunes and some great audio work. Engines roar, tires screech, and sirens wail. On the technical side, the game ran smooth. It did crash on me once but other than that, no problems.
I had a great time with Driver: San Francisco. In fact, I think it’s my favorite game in the series. I like how it does its own thing with the shift mechanic rather than just trying to be another urban open world action game. Shifting is a lot of fun, there’s plenty of content on offer, and the experience can be quite addictive. Sure, the gameplay can get repetitive, you are always restricted to vehicles, but the series has always been known for its vehicular action so to speak. It’s a franchise that centers on car chases and there’s plenty of that here. They’re fast, fun, intense and exciting. I don’t even know what to call this but it’s probably my favorite open world driving game. I guess you could call it an open world racing game which is a genre that has expanded quite a bit over the years, but in Driver: San Francisco, racing is only some of what you can do.
I would absolutely recommend Driver: San Francisco to anyone. It gives players a lot of things to do in a fun open world sandbox ripe for vehicular mayhem. It’s fun, addictive, and ridiculous. It feels like a return to form with an interesting twist. It’s easy to jump into and can be hard to put down. Definitely check it out.