Driver: San Francisco was Ubisoft’s answer to open world racing in 2011. At the time, Test Drive Unlimited 2 held a monopoly in its niche. Given Driver’s history of mostly mediocre titles, San Francisco came completely out of left field.
Eight years later, open world racing games aren’t doing so hot. Test Drive is nowhere to be seen, The Crew has largely disappointed, and Forza Horizon, while good, hasn’t changed much in years.
We’ve been blessed with some great racing games through the years, but none are as surprising as Driver: San Francisco. One of the best open world racers of its time, you can bet the game has aged remarkably well.
The Shift mechanic
The primary gameplay mechanic that helps Driver differentiate itself from its competitors is Shift. Protagonist John Tanner finds himself in a deep coma, suffered after mob gangster Jericho crashes him into oncoming traffic. Tanner doesn’t realize straight away that he’s in a dream, but he does discover a certain superpower he’s picked up.
In San Francisco, you can Shift into any vehicle in the world in order to help make missions easier to complete.
Chasing some street racers and need to take them out quickly? Jump into an oncoming semi-truck and give them a taste of colliding with a 40-ton eighteen-wheeler.
Amid an epic race but a few yards short of beating that Lamborghini ahead of you? Try diverting the traffic a little to make your opponent’s finish less trivial.
This mechanic drives the difficulty behind missions and events as you locate suitable vehicles for different purposes. However, while fun, Shift itself might be too strong and not at all well-balanced. Most missions aren’t hard to complete because Tanner’s ability to shift allows him to do almost anything. Since this world is his dream, it’s not an exaggeration to say he is practically godlike within it.
The only time I struggled with missions was when they involved frustratingly artificial difficulty. Nasty rubber-banding during races and overly-aggressive police spawn rates make it feel like my actions aren’t important at times.
Rubber banding always ruins any form of racing as it means only the last 10 percent of a race matters. Everything before that is just a case of keeping with the pack.
As for the police, the way they only ram you and ignore opponents can get irritating quick. Other racers zoom away in their expensive sports car while you have five police Corvettes smacking you up left and right.
That’s a lot of cars
Unlike its predecessors, Driver: San Francisco puts a lot of focus on making the California experience feel authentic. A big part of that is its 130 licensed vehicles, ranging from everyday cars, sports cars, classics, trucks, and even a VW Baja Buggy.
Each vehicle has three stats: speed, strength, and drift. At first glance, San Francisco seems to have too many General Motors cars. However, once you play a little more and begin unlocking more diverse vehicles for purchase, there are some surprising yet welcome inclusions.
There are three Group B Rally Cars, underappreciated classics like the Lamborghini Jalpa and family MPVs like the Dodge Grand Caravan. Of course, there’s also the usual array of supercars, muscle cars and luxury SUVs that you see in just about every racing game.
Given its California city setting, it’s nice to see so many vehicles you wouldn’t see in real-life San Francisco. Game developers can often get too tied up with the idea of realistic portrayals, but going off the rails here definitely benefited the final product. There is a genuinely exciting feeling about wandering the city and stumbling across an Aston Martin Cygnet of all things. I’m not sure the Cygnet has ever been in another major release before or since Driver. Moments like this are unique to this game and not something I experience often elsewhere.
The PC port
Unfortunately, Driver: San Francisco’s sub-par PC port is difficult to overlook at times. It runs fine at up-to-a-locked 120 FPS, but the lack of a detailed settings menu makes tweaking Driver for your system very difficult. Frame rate is tied directly to refresh rate, so those with monitors that support above 120hz are limited.
And don’t even think of playing with a keyboard — this is a controller-only kind of port. Obviously, keyboard bindings exist, but the driving feels unbearably bad with binary inputs. Most cars end up oversteering and losing control more often than not. Not that driving on a pad is exactly legendary, either, but it’s at least functional.
Thankfully, in 2019, any kind of modern PC should be able to run Driver: San Francisco at high settings with anti-aliasing turned on. This means the issue of not being able to adjust the setting in-game but rather only at the menu shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
I could only find native support up to 1920×1080 resolution and 16:9 ratio. Workarounds do seem to be possible, although not practical. Raising the resolution would be unlikely to make much of a difference anyway, as Driver: San Francisco is a fairly ugly game, even for 2011’s standards. Certain areas look very aged and rough. It screams “I’m an early seventh generation console game,” even though it was released over half a decade after the Xbox 360’s launch.
Given the current lack of single-player-focused racing games on the market, taking a step back in time and playing some classics seems well worth it. If it’s classics you are looking for, then Driver: San Francisco is one of your best options.
Driver: San Francisco elevates itself above otherwise mediocrity thanks to its Shift mechanic and impressive vehicle list. The troubled PC port is not bad enough to ruin the experience. If there is one major negative, it’s by far Driver’s sub-par visuals.
Then again, who’s playing a game released eight years ago for its looks? Check out Driver: San Francisco if you get the chance. It’s one fine open world racing game.