Over 10 years on, Driver San Francisco’s multiplayer is still unmatched

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Driver San Francisco

Update: Since publication, Ubisoft has delayed Driver San Francisco's server shutdown from 1 September to 1 October.

On 1 September, Ubisoft is shutting down Driver San Francisco’s online servers on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. This is a travesty – we’re about to lose one of the best online multiplayer driving games ever made.

Before the servers shut down, I made it my mission to collect every multiplayer PlayStation trophy – the Platinum trophy is unobtainable without them. Luckily, I managed to get all 16 multiplayer trophies with just a few days to spare in case you were wondering. It speaks volumes that an 11-year-old PS3 game still has an active online player base.

Revisiting Driver San Francisco allowed me to rediscover its ingenious online multiplayer. Over ten years on, Driver San Francisco still offers some of the most fun, inventive, and intense multiplayer in a driving game. There’s nothing else like it.

Shift unleashed

It’s all thanks to the innovative Shift mechanic; a true game changer that makes online matches exciting and unpredictable.

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Driver San Francisco Dodge Challenger R/T
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You play undercover cop John Tanner, the series’ long-running protagonist. After a horrific accident in the game’s opening chase mission leaves him fighting for his life in a coma, Tanner gains a supernatural ability to “shift” into other cars and possess the driver Agent Smith-style. You then play the entire game in Tanner's dream world.

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As well as marking a tonal shift (pun intended) for a series once grounded in reality, this opens a whole new realm of gameplay possibilities.

The multiplayer makes smart use of the Shift mechanic. This is best showcased in Tag mode. Here, the objective is to catch the leader by hitting their car and stealing the tag. The player that holds onto the tag the longest wins.

To balance the game, the tagged player can’t use Shift. Meanwhile, other players can teleport into cars anywhere in the city on the fly.

There’s an element of strategy here: do you Shift into a truck and try to hit the lead player head-on to steal the Tag? Or find a fast sports car to catch them up? Or spawn next to them in a saloon at the risk of being stuck in a slow car when making your getaway?

Driver San Francisco screenshot
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There's a foreboding sense of tension for the Tagged player knowing that anyone can spawn into a nearby vehicle at any moment to take you out - be prepared to suddenly avoid oncoming trucks appearing out of nowhere.

Takedown is another highlight. The objective is simple: one driver is in a getaway car and everyone else is in cop cars trying to destroy the getaway car. Again, Shift turns a standard cops and robbers mode into a glorious frenzy, with teleporting cop cars attempting to take you out at every turn.

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Shift also solves a common problem with online racing. In other games, the race is practically over if you spin out on the first lap. Single-player racing games solve this with rubber banding, which slows down the AI so the player can catch up.

In Shift Races, however, you can Shift into another car and get back into the action swiftly. This means you still have a chance of winning even if you fall behind.

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Driver San Francisco screnshot
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If that fails, you can also hinder other players with Mario Kart-style weapons like Impulse, which spins out other player cars. As weapons need to recharge, pulling off an Impulse attack on a moving car is tricky and takes a lot of skill.

With a whopping 19 (!) different multiplayer game modes, there’s something for everyone. Team-based matches like Blitz and Capture the Flag encourage cooperative play, while the traditional Classic Race and Sprint GP modes disable Shift. Even without the ability to swap cars, standard races are a lot of fun, rewarding pure driving skill as you dodge heavy traffic.

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Will Driver San Francisco ever get a sequel?

Driver San Francisco received glowing reviews on release in 2011, with critics praising the Shift mechanic, comedic storyline, and Hollywood-style car handling. Despite this, sales fell below expectations and we haven’t had a new Driver game since apart from the dire Driver Speedboat Paradise mobile spin-off. Driver San Francisco deserves a sequel, but Ubisoft seemingly has no plans to revive the franchise.

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One likely reason for this is that Ubisoft is prioritising another open-world arcade racing series: The Crew. With The Crew 2 proving popular and a rumoured sequel in the works, Ubisoft probably can’t justify launching a new Driver game as it could cannibalise The Crew’s sales.

Since the release of Driver San Francisco, Ubisoft Reflections now works as a support studio for Ubisoft franchises like Watch Dogs and The Division, meaning a Driver sequel is unlikely to happen.

However, the community is crying out for a new Driver game – Ubisoft’s Twitter posts are often flooded with comments from the Driver Madness community demanding a new Driver game. There's clearly demand, yet Ubisoft barely acknowledges Driver’s existence these days.

Driver San Francisco Dodge Challenger R/T
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Driver San Francisco celebrated its ten-year anniversary last year. This was a missed opportunity for Ubisoft to remaster the game and introduce the series to a new generation of players.

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To make matters worse, you can’t even buy Driver San Francisco anymore unless you can track down a used physical copy. In 2016, the game mysteriously disappeared from digital stores likely due to licensing issues and has never been sold since.

This prompted YouTuber and former Polygon journalist Nick Robinson to launch an online petition pleading Ubisoft to re-list Driver San Francisco. At the time of writing, the petition has over 158,000 signatures.

Esports and sanctioned races in iRacing and Gran Turismo have revolutionised online sim racing. But since Driver San Francisco, Need for Speed’s social media-inspired Autolog system, and the open worlds of Burnout Paradise and Forza Horizon, arcade racers have lacked innovation when it comes to online multiplayer.

Driver San Francisco main art
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There are a few exceptions: GRID Legends’ Hop-in Multiplayer lets you seamlessly take over AI cars (maybe Shift was an inspiration here) in online races without the need to wait in lobbies.

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Next year, Wreckreation from the creators of Burnout will let you create your own tracks and game modes in a vast open world with friends. But right now, Driver San Francisco's thrilling online races and chases are unmatched.

If you still own a copy, do yourself a favour and experience Driver San Francisco’s frenetic multiplayer while you still can. Trust me, you’ll have a blast – this is some of the most fun you can have in a driving game.

Let’s hope the community can find a way to restore the online servers so more players can discover this multiplayer masterpiece.