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Official Review: Driver: San Francisco

If there was ever only one game that got me really interested in racing and driving (and cars in general), it was Driver. As much as I liked other racing games as a kid before the release of the original (Gran Turismo, the original Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, etc), Driver, despite its simplicity, was the most fun I had. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I went and bought Driver 2 around the time that came out, and proceeded to get Driver 3 on its release. Parallel Lines I never bought, but I did play through it and thought it was pretty interesting (I’ve never tried ’76, though).

In my opinion, Driver 3 was straying away too far from what made the series great. Driver was never really about on foot action (even in Driver 2, all you could do was just get out and commandeer another car), and the additions of weapons in 3 cheapened the experience for me (though blowing stuff up with the grenade launcher was always fun). The only thing I spent the most time on was the Film Director mode, and being able to upload your videos so other players can download and watch them (the driving mechanics were still great at least).

But enough reminiscing. After a hiatus, Ubisoft and Reflections has come to rejuvenate the franchise. Driver: San Francisco has just released, and if there was ever one city that defined an awesome driving setting, it would be San Francisco (except, oddly enough, there are no trollies, even though the tracks are there). That, and the game took the focus back to in-car action. The only questionable thing long time fans of the franchise have been concerned about was the Shift feature, which is a very integral part of the game (and will be discussed). How does the game stack up?

If you’ve had an interest in this game, or wanted an understanding of what to expect from the title, you’ll want to keep reading. Keep in mind, there might be a few contextual spoilers, but I’ll try to hide them as best I can.



The game takes place about six months after your shootout with Charles Jericho in Istanbul (in Driver 3). John Tanner and Tobias Jones (the protagonist and his buddy, respectively) have tracked him down in San Francisco. Jericho has since been apprehended and is going to be transported in a prison van. Well, he manages to escape (you may have seen the pill of acid in the trailers, but I’ll let you find out how he got it) by overpowering the transport truck’s guards and taking the wheel himself, after a mercenary shoots a rocket from a news helicopter. Yeah, pretty far fetched and ridiculous.

Anyway, Tanner begins chasing after him, and in a hidden area behind a building, he loses track of Jericho. Tanner begins driving down a narrow alleyway accessible from that hidden area. Jericho shows up from behind in the stolen prison truck and chases after the duo. At this point, you take control of the wheel and you must continue driving down the alley to try to escape him, but you run into traffic, causing a big wreck, and, eventually, you get t-boned by a large truck.

This was what set up the rest of the game. It turns out, Tanner winds up in a coma. And while in that coma, he doesn’t realize it’s all in his head. Going back to his Challenger as if the wreck never happened (but the escape did), Tanner begins his pursuit of Jericho, using his new special abilities to try to locate him. And that special ability is being able to switch to other people and take control of their bodies, but to anyone else, you look and sound like the person you’re in control of (of course, when you’re playing, you can only hear Tanner’s voice as opposed to the person itself).

The one thing I like about the story is mainly the cutscenes. They’re a mix of CG and in-game, with a lot of them running at the same time, in kind of like a comic book-style layout on the screen. With the decent voice acting, it makes for a pretty cinematic experience in its own right. Unfortunately, the story is pretty short. I think that may be due to the focus on multiplayer as well (which will be discussed later). If you skip most of the activities (racing, getaway, etc) and only do the ones that help you progress, you can get through the whole story in a day.

[spoiler intro=”Story Detail Spoilers”]A lot of the story, despite being all in Tanner’s head, derives from the TV news reports in the hospital room. Since Jericho is on the loose, news reports about his escape, and things being stolen, etc play on the TV. Subconsciously, Tanner can hear these reports, and creates his own variation of the story in his mind, in an attempt to stop Jericho from doing whatever it is that he’s doing. In my opinion, this was a very creative way of going about a storyline in a world that doesn’t exist; I can’t really think up a better way to do it).

Speaking of the activities, the ones you have to do between missions, which are marked yellow on the map, can sometimes flesh out the story. Some of them still don’t, but do offer some character interaction in an attempt to do so. One duo, for instance, offers some comic relief as Tanner takes over the body of a racer new to the scene, trying to win money to pay for his friend’s college tuition. Well, throughout the game, they get more and more involved as the racer continuously wins races thanks to you, and the commentary between the racer’s friend and Tanner is pretty funny.[/spoiler]

One thing that can be pretty cool (but annoying in some respects as well) is the recap of events between chapters. At least, I think its between chapters, as I can’t really tell since I don’t unlock a chapter trophy until a couple missions after the recap sequences. Anyway, they’re done really well and help bring you up to speed on the story. Unfortunately, what makes them annoying is that they will all play, even in one sitting. It might have been better if they would run the storyline recap when you load the game as opposed to watching them between every chapter.

Near the end of the game, things start getting weird (including a pretty ridiculous story mission, as you’ll see when you play the game, a similar challenge will unlock after you beat it). Of course, it begins making a little sense because, as the player, you do realize he’s in a coma, and has to recover sooner or later. Given that there isn’t much of a surprise that he’ll eventually recover, when you’re doing missions outside of the coma, none of his Shift powers will be usable. At this point, it feels more like the old Driver games.

Also, story missions will become unplayable after completion (as will the dares mentioned in the Gameplay section). You can, however, start a new game using “New Game Plus”, which starts the story over with all of the stuff you’ve unlocked previously. A great way to replay the game if you’ve already unlocked everything previously.

[spoiler intro=”Spoiler: Possible Future?”]At least the end has the potential to spawn a future title, as the prisoner who paid Jericho $30 million to break him out must have some connections somewhere, or is a very powerful person himself. It’d be safe to assume that if he will be the main antagonist in the next Driver, it would have to be in a completely different city since, obviously, the law is going to be looking for him in San Francisco.[/spoiler]



Of course, one of the biggest additions to the franchise is the Shift feature. As mentioned earlier, it allows Tanner to take control of any other driver’s body (as well as grant him a number of “powers”). It does get pretty integral to the game, but I feel that, even though it works really well, it almost makes the game no longer feel like Driver. I mean, not using the special abilities or shifting, it still does (since the game still has that awesome vehicle handling), but once you need to use those? The Ram and Boost abilities make it feel more like a Burnout game than a Driver game.

With that said, using the Shift ability does have some advantages. Losing a race by a large margin? Jump up ahead of the other racers and steal an oncoming tanker to ram them, possibly ‘expiring’ them from the race (if you can manage to destroy all your opponents, you’ll automatically win). Although this can cheapen the experience, it’s there if you so choose to use it. You can, of course, just ignore your abilities altogether and just race old school style.

Another thing, the game doesn’t just focus on racing. There’s still the trailing challenges and activities you’ll do, stunts to complete, getting involved in police chases (as either side of the law if you’re so inclined), etc. Given that, since the game all takes place inside of vehicles, you can’t really complain about a lack of variety in the first place, since there is only so much you can do in a car. Don’t go expecting it all to be fresh, either, as there are plenty of challenges and activities that offer the same old-same old and can become repetitive. Some force you to drive certain vehicles at least, so you don’t always have to worry about not having bought/brought a fast enough, or competitive enough, car to use.

Which brings up another point. You can purchase a number of vehicles in your garages (these garages are scattered throughout the city, which you must buy as well; they also unlock new challenges, activities, and cars as well). There are about 140 in all, most of which are, thankfully, licensed. Only the large vehicles are custom. Each has a pretty distinctive handling style, too, so you might just find yourself a favorite car in there (though I’d bet most people would opt for the Zonda, I still enjoy driving the muscle cars the most). The one thing I think should be added is being able to pick the color you want to use when you select a car at a garage. It is all random. Also worth mentioning, the only 1970 Challenger in existence is yours, which you unlock in your garage at the end of the game, and it only comes in one color combination.

Scattered throughout the city are all the aforementioned activities and challenges. These range from wrecking signs, to team/solo racing, to getaways and takedowns, etc. A lot of them are themed, too, so you’ll often be placed in the car that they give you. There are also Dares (stunts and the like) that usually make you use the vehicle you last selected in your garage, if you decide to start these from the Shift map. If you bought a school bus, and selected to use it after buying it, you’ll be using it here. And will be disappointed in your results.

As for the speed and stunt dares (and a few “wreck this many objects” types as well), in my opinion, the hardest ones were wrecking into objects within a given time, and doing that blasted 150m jump. At least once you enable these types of challenges, you can do them anywhere on the map, which becomes integral in some cases. The spoiler below will tell you the best way to complete the ones mentioned above.

[spoiler intro=”Hints”]After thinking about it, the object-destroying dares are amongst the easiest (save for the 60 off road/alley objects in 60 seconds, which is easier to do with Shift and finding alleyways scattered throughout the map and continuously using it to switch to different alleys and different cars). The Golden Gate Bridge, from one end to the other, has pylons lined down the median. You can do these ones real quick after shifting to a car on the bridge after immediately activating the challenge.

As for the 150m jump, there is a cliff edge somewhere on the map that might make this very easy, but when I completed it, I did it the hard way. Using a fast car, one capable of hitting over 205MPH, I would get on the freeway and keep my speed up to around 200MPH, find one of those car transporters, use the Boost, and fly off into the air. Unfortunately, it won’t register the jump a lot of times because you hit a car on the way down. Assuming you land cleanly, and don’t bounce back up to restart the jump meter, you’ll get credit for the jump.[/spoiler]

Most of what you will focus on will be on the Shift map, where, essentially, Tanner believes he is floating above the city. You’ll start out at about street level, but the more you progress in the game, the further out you can zoom. Given the sheer size of the city, being able to zoom out to see about ¾ of it at a given time is great, especially if you decide to do challenge grinding like I did. Usually, these new zoom levels go hand-in-hand with unlocked parts of the city.

The points you get in the game basically act like currency. This is what you’ll use to purchase garages, cars, and upgrades (not car upgrades; more like upgrades for your abilities). Some of the upgrades you can purchase are for extending the radius in which you can see the movie tokens. Level three makes it super easy, as you will be able to scan through the map (just before the whole-city level) and easily locate them to unlock the movie challenges (which are missions based on famous movie chase scenes from the likes of Bullitt, Vanishing Point, the Cannonball Run, etc). It does feel like cheating in a way, though.

Now for my biggest peeve with this game. What I loved about the older Driver games was how police reacted to your actions. As in, when you break the law, they go after you. In the older titles, if you did a burnout next to a cop, they’d go after you. Hell, they’d go after you if you ran a red light. In Driver: San Francisco, you can be going 200MPH in oncoming traffic and get in a wreck in front of a cruiser, but as long as you don’t hit the cop car, they don’t bother with you. What’s up with that? I loved doing things to piss off the police in the older games. Now that has been taken away from me.

One last thing to hit up on. It’s 2011. Why do some games still not have the ability to map your own controls? I’ve also heard plenty of people complain about there not being any wheel support, too. Personally, I don’t mind, as wheel support would have been difficult to use with the Shift feature, but I digress.

[tab:Film Director]

Film Director

This is going to be a pretty short section. One thing I loved about Driver 3 was the ability to edit replays/playing sessions and upload the clips to the online database. You were able to upload somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes of gameplay for others to download and view (at least it seemed that way; it was definitely a bit of allotted time). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here. You can save up to 5 clips, but each clip only allows for about 5 minutes of saved video. Not only that, it also automatically puts the old film effect in your videos with no way of turning it off. It gets worse, though.

If you want to put an edited video online, you can only do about 30 seconds to a minute (depending on file size). Not nearly enough time to document an awesome chase sequence. Stunts? Perhaps. Not only that, it feels a lot more limited than Driver 3’s. Some cameras will automatically change due to the fact that the car isn’t close enough for a shot, as cameras can only be so far from the vehicle. I tried doing a shot where I went over a ramp and about 6 police cars hit it as well and were flying all over the place. Well, the perfect shot was blocked by this problem. I might have been able to do a closer, zoomed out shot, but I’ll have to try it again. If it’s a radius problem, the radius should have been expanded at least a little more.

This made it annoying to the point I would give up on editing a clip (it does allow you to revert the camera, though; just make sure your camera isn’t outside of that limited radius). The timing marks for camera angles started to not work properly to overwrite a camera, and even glitched out at one point editing the length of a shot, too. Maybe with a little more time on the Film Director mode, I’ll get the hang of it, but right now, its simply annoying. It is most non-triumphant that you can only upload a very limited length of film clip, though. Also, if there is a way to see clips made by others in-game, I can’t find it anywhere. If its not available, for shame. I loved watching videos made by others while playing the game.

I did manage to make a quick, 45 second burnout clip, but the site you go to to watch the videos was down, thus, I do not have it available for viewing in this review.



Multiplayer is another big addition to the franchise. When you start, you’ll notice the multiplayer menu is basically Tanner’s car driving around. From here, you can edit your profile, check your stats, etc. You can also invite friends here and join parties. Unfortunately, Free Ride is only available from within your party in the multiplayer menu, and there’s really no public lobby. This was one of the things that made Midnight Club: Los Angeles pretty fun online (as well as Test Drive Unlimited).

Anyway, you’ll progressively unlock items as you gain online points (XP), including new cars for the Swap power (as will be discussed in a minute), new icons/avatars, etc. From the looks of all the stuff available for unlocking, you top out at level 40 (I haven’t yet seen anyone above 37, but it does go to show how quickly you’re able to gain XP; after only a couple hours of play, I managed to reach level 11). Not sure if you’ll eventually go beyond that.

The aforementioned powers are available in most online modes. I mentioned Swap, which allows you to basically turn your current car into another car (there are over 60 you can unlock for Swap with XP, but you only have 2 slots, the second of which unlocks a few levels higher than the first). There is also a ‘weapon’ that allows you to ‘zap’ an opponent when you’re in Shift, and another that allows you to spawn a car (probably the more useful power). Like most things in multiplayer, it requires you to reach a certain XP level before it becomes available. Game modes also require certain XP levels, but I might have unlocked all of them in about thirty minutes or so. Keep in mind, like the Ability bar, you also have a Weapon bar that fills up before you can use one of these (and it takes a little longer).

If you’ve played the demo, and were like me, you likely enjoyed the “Free for All” modes, which included Trailblazer (where you have to follow a lead vehicle and stay in its trail to collect points) and, probably my favorite mode, Tag (except, when you’re ‘it’, everyone goes after you). Even though some modes are locked out until you reach the proper XP level, you’ll likely continuously come back to this game mode, which, in turn, gives you more XP and you’ll eventually unlock the other modes quickly. You might also remember the qualification rounds in between. In the retail version, there’s a couple more, including Drift, but its pretty limited (though not a big deal).

Besides Free for All, there are a few other modes as well, including regular, old school racing (with Sprint GP (short races set in a series) and Classic Race, neither of which use Shift), Shift-based racing events (one to see who can collect the most checkpoints, which is pretty fun; the other is kind of hard to use Shift in, as you have to do 3 laps and checkpoints are very close together. It really only comes in handy when you’ve wrecked your car beyond repair at least), and, of course, team based events.

As of this writing, I haven’t been able to play very much of the Team Race events (since when I wrote this, it hadn’t released in North America yet, and when I played, it was really late at night in the EU and almost no one was on; the relay race was pretty fun, however), but I have played more of the Team mode. It included Blitz (which is a base defense/attack mode, and is a lot of fun) and Capture the Flag.

In Capture the Flag, it can get pretty intense. Most of these competitive-type modes make the cars much more damage-prone (compared to single player), and in this mode, that’s even more apparent, as you have to wreck the flag carrier’s car to force him/her to drop it. If you pick it up, of course, you have to take it back to your base. With the Shift ability, you’re either going to have an easy time, or a hard time with it, as timing your Shifts are everything (as is team work, really).

The only real problem I have with multiplayer is that you can’t play a variety of modes without having to leave the room. You’re either stuck with “Free for All” modes, or “Takedown”, etc. It would be awesome if you could add as many game types as you’d like to a multiplayer playlist, whether that includes solo-based modes or team-based, or everything in between, as some modes go by really quick and can easily become repetitive. You can add people to your party, of course, but if someone isn’t on your friend list, you’ll have to add them to it and invite them to your ‘party’.

A lot of single player challenges also have leaderboards. You think you might be hot shit behind the wheel. Well, you can prove it by comparing best times with your friends, or worldwide. Turns out I wasn’t as hot shit as I thought. My best leaderboard ranking I’ve gotten so far was 14th place.

Anyway, do you know someone who enjoys some split screen action? Well, the game has that, too. The split-screen modes are a mix of competitive and co-op modes, and can provide a bit of fun for a duo in the same room (though you can’t bring that person with you online and do split screen there). Maybe you might have that car crazy girlfriend that doesn’t like video games, and this might get her into that? Or a gaming girlfriend you want to be more interested in cars? This might work out in either situation. Of course, if you have that girlfriend who isn’t interested in either, you’ll probably never use split screen, or you’ll just have to find a new girlfriend. Unless you have drinking buddies that come over. At which point, shenanigans shall ensue.

[tab:Graphics and Sound]

Graphics and Sound

Now that we have the bulk of the important stuff out of the way, we’ll focus more on the technical side of things. First of all, the game’s graphics are pretty crisp, just not great. Car models are done quite well at least. The game also runs very smooth (save for a few hiccups, mainly when there’s a lot of particle effects like fires/explosions; it doesn’t become unplayable, only a little choppy).

One of my favorite additions to the series is the first person camera. I can’t really explain it, but something about driving in first person in this game just feels…right. It would be cool if it had a blurred/blackout effect when you wrecked like in Need for Speed: Shift, but besides that, it looks good (though rear view mirrors with reflections would have been really cool). I could actually feel a pickup in adrenaline in this view.

I also love how the smoke envelopes the tires on a good burnout. Though I’d like to have seen the tire smoke stick around a little longer, there is something really cool about making perfect circles in an eternal burnout. With that out of the way, I will say that there are jaggies in the game’s models. As a result, its not the best looking game available, but given the scale of the city (and its detail for that matter), overall, it still looks good. It’s just painfully obvious in cutscenes as to which scenes are CG and which are in-game.

I have noticed some issues and glitches, though. I don’t know what happened, but I hit another car or something while I was coming down from a jump and bounced back up really high. It had only happened to me once, though. There’s also the glitch I mentioned in the Film Director section, which was weird (I would go to move the length of a camera angle and it wouldn’t do anything and the right stick icon would pop up on the left hand side of the left stick).

Of course, there is also the clipping through people a la Driver 1 and 2 (which I often found to be a fun little personal challenge, seeing what the furthest I could get a car to clip through someone was). Like those titles, people scramble out of the way of your car (except their screams are more easily heard than the few bits of lines the past titles had), thus resulting in the inability to cause vehicular manslaughter. Sometimes, when they jump out of the way, they don’t jump far enough, so they’ll do another sidestep and it just looks weird.

As far as sound goes, it does sound like some cars recycle sounds from another (it might also be because of very subtle differences I am not noticing, but its not a big deal). The muscle cars sound decent at least. Most games don’t do a very good job of capturing the sound of raw power I guess. The other sounds in the game, such as crashing noises, sound great, especially on a good surround system. Did you hit that scaffolding in the alleyway? Listen for the tumbling pipes behind you as you pass under it, for instance.

The soundtrack itself is a lot of Black Keys and music that sounds like something you’d hear in past Drivers (in fact, one instrumental sounded like a song out of either the first or second game). I was never a big fan of the music in the games (save for a good chase sequence scores; the remixed chase sequence music for Bite the Bullet was a good take on the music used in the chase in Bullitt). Of course, if you’re not a fan of the music choices at hand, the game does support custom soundtracks. Driving through the back roads, listening to Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze”? Yes, please.

[tab:Final Thoughts]

Final Thoughts

As far as trophies go, most are pretty easily attained. There are a few multiplayer-specific trophies, but they shouldn’t be much of a problem as they aren’t anywhere near ridiculous. There is also a ‘hidden’ easter egg that unlocks the old Garage mission from the original Driver. Just get a DeLorean and hit 88MPH. Simple as that. You can access that (and other challenges) through your garage. And yes, it is still hard.

With that said, and regardless of the problems I did come across, I still would love to see more come from this game. One thing would be the ability to create your own checkpoint and standard races, and be able to play them online as well. Also, like the U-Play challenges, I would hope for more challenges and activities to eventually become available, including more Shift-less ones (more movie-based challenges would be great, too). That, and more cars available through DLC. A Chevy Nova? Plymouth Barracuda? Buick GSX? What about more cars from the ’50s like a 1958 Plymouth Fury (Christine)? In fact, Plymouth should have been in there anyway. That’s my opinion.

As far as the game itself is concerned, I would recommend playing it. Honestly, I am enjoying it quite a bit, despite some features that ruin it as a Driver game. Driver was never a series meant for everyone, but I feel a lot of stuff was put in this game to appease to a larger audience, so more newcomers will likely enjoy it than there would be true purists who will refuse to get it because of these changes. I do hope that future titles would go back the the series’ roots, though. As good as the game was, it didn’t really feel like a Driver game. Another great game by Reflections, at least in my opinion, that was ruined by the aim at a larger audience was Stuntman. The original one was tough as nails. A real challenge. But I loved it. After renting it, I went ahead and bought it. The sequel? Way too lenient.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the game and will likely play it for quite some time (especially online). I just hope some changes can be made eventually to make it better and possibly feel like Driver again. A mode that allows you to turn off Shift? Longer clips for Film Director uploads? Police vision cones and a sense of the law? The ability to mix and match game types online? Possible DLC for new cars, challenges and activities? All of these would be great additions/fixes to the game. Also, why doesn’t the game have hidden car locations for you to search for? I miss those…

I don’t consider myself a franchise purist, but I’ll give it a chance, despite me having some purist thoughts on the game. The Shift features and powers, assuming we’ll see another addition to the franchise, shouldn’t make a return (unless some of the Shift-focused online modes prove popular). I mean, it was definitely…fresh for the series, but kind of took the character of Driver away from it.

Personally, I would like to maybe see another multi-city title again. If not, there are a lot of single cities that would work for a setting (Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York, etc in the USA at least), but should maybe try the other side of the law. In fact, being undercover in past titles was a lot of fun, too. In this one, since it seems the cops don’t care, and your primary focus is to simply capture a crook (rather than get involved in an undercover operation, which requires you to do illegal activities), it played too much like a buddy cop flick with a ‘revenge’ overtone to it. Don’t get me wrong, it was still enjoyable. I just think it would be interesting to see something more like Parallel Lines and you actually play a driver. It was a good way to potentially end the Tanner and Jericho saga. Who knows, though. The connections and power Jericho has, he’ll likely make a return, just like he always has.

[tab:The Score]

The Score

[review pros=”Perfect Setting
Driver Physics
Good Variety of Cars
Fun Multiplayer
Cutscenes are Stylish and Well Done
Custom Soundtrack Support
Many Extra Activities/Challenges, etc” cons=”Shift Too Different for Series (though it works good)
Soundtrack is ‘Meh’
Film Director is Limited
No Multiplayer Playlists
Can’t Choose Car Color
Cops Non-responsive to Illegal Driving” score=79]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Driver: San Francisco provided by Ubisoft.