Driver: San Francisco Review

After over a seven year hiatus, Ubisoft’s much vaunted Driver series is back.  This is the first Driver game on this current generation of consoles, and naturally it comes with some new twists.  So with this in mind, is this the first big title after the slow summer season?  Let’s shift this review out of neutral, smoke the tires and find out.

I was blown away by the original Driver back on the PS2.  I tried Driver 2, hated that one and I completely ignored the third game (Driv3r).  Driver: San Francisco picks up several months after the last instalment, Driv3r.  Both the main character Tanner and his nemesis Jericho appear to have survived the events of the last game and we are treated to a very well presented opening cut scene that sets the basis for the story of this newest Driver.

Gone is ability to get out of the car as it has been replaced by the new premise of being able to “shift”.  Being able to shift  allows you to take control of any car that you see on the street.  It’s a neat idea, but this paranormal angle doesn’t seem a natural fit for a driving game at first.  I will admit I was extremely wary of this after playing the demo, but once I got into the game I was able to see how it is integrated it makes a lot more sense now.  Shifting acts as part of the storyline and is also how you navigate from point to point around the game world.  Think Burnout Paradise for something comparable.  While shifting has ties to the story, it basically allows you to navigate the world map as well as find events and challenges much in the same way you could do in Burnout Paradise.  A nod to a previous game?  Perhaps.  Bottomline, shifting is a very convenient means of travelling around the city map without having to drive from event to event.

Given the time with the game that I have had, I have to say the presentation values are top notch.  The story is engaging and Ubisoft has done an extremely good job in putting it all together in a package that reminds me of the police dramas found in the early 80’s.  Driver: San Francisco is definitely a game that other developers should look at as a benchmark for telling a story while engaging the player at the same time.  Well done.

As you play you are introduced to the world of San Francisco in small pieces.  The same goes for the various event types that are available.  There are Tanner missions, which progress the campaign, along with race, stunt and dare events.  There are also city missions.  The non-story event types are worth playing as they unlock new cars and options as well as earn you XP towards your overall gameplay.  These event types also come in waves.  After each story mission involving Tanner a new set of other event types open up.  Ubisoft sort of forces you to play some of these alternate event types by not making any Tanner missions available until you complete a set amount of the other event types.  So you can’t just power through the campaign and ignore everything else.  Of the different event types offered I enjoyed  he dare events and city missions the most.  The dare events might be something like use boost for “x” number of seconds or drive a certain distance with no collisions.  Fun.  Yes, for a while.  Things do start to get a little repetitive though.  Original?  Not really.  This game reminds me of Burnout Paradise too much to give it full value for originality.

There are also various collectibles littered around the game world.  If you were an orb collector in Crackdown or a 120 star collector in SM64 you’ll be happy here.  Ubisoft does play nice and includes the collectibles on the main map too.  Driver: San Francisco also comes with a film director mode that allows you to record your exploits.  Not a new feature for the series but definitely a welcome one.

Key to any driving game is how the vehicles handle.  Driver: San Francisco has a decidedly arcade-like feel to things and this fits perfectly within the scope of the game.  The reason I think this fits is that I don’t believe people are coming to this party looking for a sim-based driving game.  The name of the game here is to drive like you see them do on TV and in the movies.  That means hanging the ass end of the car out around every corner, smoking the tires and doing pretty much everything that would land you in jail in the real world, unless you live in Vancouver where you would just get ticketed for a couple hundred bucks and your car taken away for a week.  I’m just sayin’.  Regardless, the controls are tight.  Like any driving game, you need to take some time to get used to how the game handles and I think Driver: San Francisco handles perfectly for the type of game it is.

Thanks to some issues with Ubisoft’s new Uplay system I was unable to give this one its proper due online.  What I can tell you is that this latest Driver offers an excellent amount of online game modes, 11 in all.  You can’t access them all from the get go though.  Several modes require some time with the single player campaign before they come available.  From the looks of things, DSF offers some game types that we haven’t seen since the likes of Midtown Madness 3.  This could be a very good thing.  Stay tuned.  We’ll revisit this one in a couple of weeks with some additional and in-depth impressions of the online play.

Given that our review is coming in right around, or just just after launch, there has been an update on Launcd Day regarding Driver: San Francisco’s online playability.  Due to a printing error on the insert of some copies Ubisoft has elected to provide the Uplay Passport content for free for all users.  When players begin DRIVER: San Francisco they are prompted with the Uplay Passport menu. The menu has 4 options:  “Purchase Uplay PASSPORT,” “Activate my Uplay PASSPORT,” “Start my 2-Day Free Trial,” or “Remind Me Later” There are two ways to access these online features:

  • 1.       Select Start My 2-Day Free Trial, which will not expire, OR
  • 2.       Select Purchase Uplay Passport, which will be provided at no charge.

Either option will unlock the 11 multiplayer modes and the Film Director feature on either Microsoft Xbox 360 or Sony PlayStation 3 versions.

For the most part, Driver: San Francisco’s graphics are pretty good.  There are definitely a few flaws though.  Overall, the game looks extremely crisp and things move along at a steady frame rate with very few stutters.  Occasionally you might see some slow down when being chased by a horde of cops and they’ve got you boxed in and there’s chaos with all the other regular traffic, but this is far and few between.

There’s plenty of traffic around, maybe too much so.  At least I thought that a few times when involved in a high speed chase!  The sidewalks are littered with pedestrians, none of which you can run over though, preserving the game’s Teen rating.  So the city comes across as very much alive.  That said, things overall don’t look all that realistic.  I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the lack of a really detailed lighting system like you see in games like GRID or DiRT.  Maybe it’s just average textures in the environment.  Regardless, the city doesn’t look as life-like as some other games out there.  I don’t want to sound like I’m nitpicking here, but it is something that stood out to me.  With each negative comes a bit more positive and the tire smoke, while not to the point of billowy, is excellent.  Watching the tire smoke curl around the tire and seep from the wheel while during a drift is a joy to view.

There are a few other graphical issues including a degree of screen tearing and a lot of NPC cars (can I call them that?  I just did) doing strange things.  Maybe this is an AI issue but you will see other cars swerve oddly, teleport slightly from one spot to another and do crazy things like catch weird amounts of air over small hills.  These are just minor quips though and only the teleporting cars that got in my way affected gameplay.  Car models are good and the standard views apply to Driver: San Francisco.  The game defaults to a third person view but the first person views are definitely equally playable.  That includes the in car view which is outstanding.

Did I mention that I loved the presentation in this game?  Yup, but let me tell you more.  The cut scenes are top notch.  Not only do they look good (the character models are fantastic) but they are also presented in a TV show sort of way that I really, really enjoyed.  Forgive my lack of expertise when it comes to directorial terms, but Ubisoft employs various techniques such as screen wipes between scenes and dividing the screen up into multiple parts to great effect.  This is such a good example of how great presentation can make a game that much better.

One more minor gripe?  Tanner looks far too much like Nathan Drake.

Equally important as part of presentation is the game’s sound.  With regards to that, first off there is a ton of music with a 1980’s vibe to it all.  It fits perfectly in the game but after a while the soundtrack started to blend together.  In terms of he cars, Ubisoft has done an excellent job of recreating the sounds of the licensed cars that are included in the game.  Having owned a 350Z, I always use the Z cars as a reference point if they’re included in a game.  The 370Z in Driver: San Francisco sounds great.  Actually, it is one of the more truer representations of what I actually remember the car sounding like when I was driving it in any game that I have tried this in, including Forza.  That’s high praise.  Finally, the game’s voice acting is above average, even better than most games.  The voice actors do a good job of using inflection in their voices to convey a sense of emotion.   A lot of games miss the mark here and this is another example of how seemingly simple things can add to the presentation values of a game.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  As someone that put over 80 hours in to completing Burnout Paradise 100%, the similarities to Burnout are too many to completely overlook.  As its own game though, Driver: San Francisco is a solid game.  There are a few minor quips here and there, but overall it’s a good, fun game with great presentation value.  The story may be a bit of a stretch but this is a video game people. This one might have some serious legs with the online game modes too.

The Good


The Bad