The post-GTA III sandbox game revolution left the Driver series in tatters. While the first two entries were heralded for their ambition and pushing of the PSOne’s tech and pioneers of 3D sandbox games, its third entry failed to satisfy fans and wound up feeling like a low-rent GTA game, while the fourth attempted to right some wrongs, but still fell victim to falling behind the times. After a five-year break, the wheelman is back with a game that does far more than follow the leader. Even with the Saints Row series raising the bar in terms of sheer content and GTA IV bringing a more realistic approach to things, Driver: San Francisco manages to not only do something new, but also deliver a top-notch game as well.
Taking place after Driv3r, Driver: SF opens with Jericho being led to prison, only to escape with the help of a crazed woman wielding an RPG. Tanner pursues him, but winds up in a coma due to his car colliding with the paddy wagon commandeered by Jericho. However, in his subconscious, he’s still pursuing Jericho as if he isn’t in a coma, resulting in confusion from his partner, and the newfound ability to “shift” his spirit into someone else, allowing him to drive any car in the game at pretty much any time with a press of a button.
This may not seem like a huge deal - after all, you can carjack in sandbox games and do the same thing, right? Not exactly. The spirit system’s real-time nature is a huge game-changer, and in ways you wouldn’t think about without having played the game. During chases, you can either try to catch up and ram a vehicle into oblivion slowly with a standard sedan or sports car, or try to shift into a massive truck and knock out your rival in just a few hits. The key to Driver: SF is that it doesn’t try to out-Saints Row that series or out-GTA that one - it just does its own thing while also delivering a satisfying sandbox experience.
There’s a lot of variety here, too. You’ve got both traditional track-based and open-ended checkpoint races like Midnight Club or Burnout Paradise, stunt challenges, object-smashing challenges, and hilarious ones where your goal is to cause someone to have a heart attack by driving like a maniac. There isn’t much new done here, but the presentation is unmatched because any of the ones involving other people have pretty funny setups to them.
You could inhabit the body of a crook in Jericho’s gang and have some bizarre conversations with his ally, who wonders why you look like the crook, but talk like a cop. Or take the place of a driver’s ed student out for revenge on his instructor. Unlike other sandbox games, there’s actually some context and a bit of backstory to the activities, and that adds a lot to the experience. These things don’t just seem like random events, but events with some sense of importance as a result of the quick cutscenes. It’s a little change that really freshens up the old “take person X to place Y” setup for these types of things.
One big change is the elimination of out-of-car missions. Just like the first two games, Driver: SF’s gameplay is entirely in-car, and it winds up being a better game for it. The developers never really nailed how to do that stuff, so it wound up really dragging the games down, but they excelled at fast-paced car chase action, and that’s what this game delivers. The cars control like a dream, and have found a happy medium between Saints Row’s super-loose controls and GTA IV’s realistic ones. The handling here is the best I’ve experienced in a modern-day sandbox game.
Driver: SF’s online experience is the first one in a sandbox game that has hooked me for hours on end. I love the use of practice races to set up starting positions in other races, which like the main game can be either on set tracks or more open. The classic schoolyard game of tag, only with super cars, is incredible, especially with the shift feature allowing you to easily move ahead if you take one bad turn, or just get screwed over by another player. If that happens, you’ll be overjoyed when you get your revenge and tag him. You can also either chase racers or be chased by the cops, just like the main game, and it’s a blast here. Again, the shift feature completely changes things up, so if you’re used to this kind of thing from NFS: Hot Pursuit, there’s something new to experience here even if you think you’re sick of that concept. My online experience was a joy too - no lag during the races, even with everyone shifting all over the place.
The new Google Earth-inspired overhead map is incredible. You can zoom and in out of it at will, and with the spirit system, you can either hop into anyone else’s car around to make things snappy, or just avoid car travel whenever possible and just go from event to event with the maps on-screen cursor, which could stand to have a turbo option at times. However, while doing that will speed your progress up, you won’t be able to earn XP for driving like a lunatic, which is an absolute blast. XP allows you to upgrade some things, buy garages, and also buy vehicles, which are all now licensed.
The car selection is pretty meaty, especially for a sandbox game. In keeping with the series’ playable action movie vibe, staples like Chargers and Mustangs are available, as is the DeLorean, and you can even use some vehicles in unlockable movie-inspired events. These challenges are some of the game’s toughest, but also the most rewarding and thrilling at times. There’s even a perfect recreation of the original game’s notoriously tough tutorial mode, accurate down to the paper checklist in the corner.
Visually, Driver: SF delivers the goods in most regards. The environment looks tremendous, with a lot of detail being evident in everything - including shop signs you don’t really even see unless you’re slammed into a corner near them during a race. Character models are intricate, with individual hairs being visible on heads and really nice-looking clothes too. Even Jericho’s dashing orange jumpsuit looks good because of how much care went into it. Reflection effects off the vehicles look incredible, and the cars themselves are finely-detailed and look exactly as they should, which is important since you‘ll be spending 99% of your time in the game staring at a vehicle.
I’d recommend spending some of that time gawking at them in the cinematic thrill cam mode, which simulates movie-style camera shots and really brings out the car models’ beauty more than the standard behind the car view. Sadly, while the cars look great, you can’t customize them. The Saints Row series has definitely spoiled sandbox gamers in that regard, and here, Driver: SF falls way short by not offering you up anything to truly make the car your own. I suppose that makes some sense given how the shift system makes car usage so temporary, but it is disappointing to not be able to at least change the cars you bought in the game.
Driver: San Francisco’s soundtrack falls short of the one in Parallel Lines, which featured an incredible ‘70s soundtrack that was easily one of the best ever as far as nailing a time period in music form in a game. This soundtrack has a lot of good music that’s easy to listen to, but none of it sticks with you for very long. Thankfully, the rest of the audio is very good. The sound effects, especially car crashes, sound awesome, and the voice work is very good as well. Everyone plays their part well, and treats the characters seriously even given the ridiculous nature of the coma storyline at times.
All in All, Driver: San Francisco is a successful rebirth for the series. It does all the things right that past games did, and corrected the worst parts of the past two games by simply eliminating. Less is more for this series, and the refocused gameplay gives the whole game a well-crafted feel instead of just having a few things that are very good and a massive part of it being clunky. There’s nothing clunky here - the core gameplay mechanics work exactly as they should. It’s the best-looking sandbox game out there, has solid audio, and easily the best online modes of a sandbox game as well. However, if you’re used to having a billion things to do in your games that DON’T involve cars, like being able to bowl, play pool, etc., this might not be a must-buy right now, but I’d recommend that anyone who loves the first two Driver games to pick this up ASAP, and anyone on the fence wouldn’t regret a $30 or so purchase.