Test Drive Unlimited
- Innovative Approach to the racing genre
- Massive Environment and road system to enjoy and explore
- Not all innovations equally well executed
- Lack of online players at times
Test Drive is a franchise that goes back to 1987, some of you may remember racing a sports car alongside the cliffs of some mountainous path chased by police cars using the C64’s joystick.
In all fairness test drive was probably the first game that brought this type of experience to gamers and it’s clear that many other racing games copied its concepts in the years that followed.
But the racing genre nowadays seems to force us into the hollywood movie genre aimed at teenagers driving cars with neon lights and fluorescent mag wheels.
Racing in a hotted up car that looks like a billboard with more wings then a plane isn’t really the type of racing experience that everyone is after so when Atari provided me with a copy of Test Drive Unlimited for review I expected it to finally be a racing game that reintroduced high end sportscars, sure we have seen these cars in racing games before but there is a lot more to TDU then you might first expect.
TDU certainly offers class in its vehicles that range from driving exclusive German Automobile to sensually curved Italian sport scars, but the variety also includes the more exclusive British and American sports bolides as well.
TDU call’s itself a M.O.O.R, a Massively Open Online Racing experience! What does that mean, an MMO with cars? You will get the idea when you reach the end of the review but TDU certainly introduces some very unique concepts to the genre that are very similar to those that exist in the MMO space.
You can argue that TDU is a racing game but even more so it’s a game about driving and cruising through towns, cities and countryside in total freedom
And the location where all this takes place is the Hawaiian island of Oahu which is laid out in extensive detail. Whether every suburban road on the island is indeed here I could not tell you but the main road and freeway network is certainly present as are all the major areas of the island, Honolulu city, the airport, the docks, you name it.
This sense of freedom makes going for a relaxing drive an equally enjoyable experience as actual racing. Since Midtown Madness and even Grand Theft Auto to some extent there hasn’t been anything that offers this free driving experience.
TDU off course is no GTA, its ambitions lie clearly elsewhere, its only similarity is the concept of picking up missions along the way by driving towards a variety of hotspots that you can choose via an overhead map. Missions is somewhat of a strong word really, if you get bored with cruising alongside Waikiki beach then these missions are the ones that will force you push the pedal down, there is a variety of choices which range from delivering parcels, delivering a vehicle, dropping of supermodels at their plastic surgeon clinics (joke), give hitchhikers a ride and off course straightforward racing.
The delivery missions despite their description all come down the same thing where you need to get from point A to B in the shortest possible time, you could argue that the missions themselves aren’t all that exciting from a content point of view but at the end of the day the game is about racing not about missions where you need to get out of your car and start a turf war with some rival gang.
And despite their shallow content the missions get you racing alright, getting your passengers to their destinations will require you to be fast and precise as the time limit has very little margin for error, bumping into other vehicles or roadside objects doesn’t sit quite well with your passengers either, too many bumps and they will eventually tell you pull over.
The racing scenario is a standard line-up of cars racing through a street circuit, the racing component is where TDU does something fairly unique, the whole single and multiplayer experience become totally intertwined. TDU is not purely a single player experience, the multiplayer component is always there, if you want to do some pickup missions you are doing them in single player, if you want too do some racing you can choose where you want to go on your map, a single player or a multiplayer race.
The whole thing works very well and it also allows you to not only create your own races but also your own circuits on the island’s road network.
Another nice touch in the multiplayer concept is that while driving freely around the island you will all of a sudden notice another sport scar travelling towards you amongst all the AI traffic, it’s another player! Now in an MMO game bumping into other players is nothing new but in a racing game that has such a single player feel about it having these multiplayer encounters without you specifically having to connect to a multiplayer game is quite refreshing indeed.
And if you want to have a quick bumper to bumper with another player it’s as simple as flashing your lights.
It is a shame that Microsoft still hasn’t delivered on it’s promise of live anywhere as this game would greatly benefit from both PC and Xbox players being able to play together online.
All the above actions will net you with some assets, most things will provide you with cash that you can put towards new vehicles off course, but also things like real estate around the island. As nice a touch as the real estate is, it’s real aim is to provide you with larger properties that come with larger garages allowing you to store your additional cars with engines large enough to leave their own mark on the global warming phenomenon (luckily it’s all virtual here so pump as much fuel as you want!)
Purchasing a new car actually requires you to go the showroom, it’s not exactly superbly executed but still manages to give the purchasing process an extra touch.
The cars themselves look very attractive indeed and are very well modelled, apart from colours though there aren’t really a whole lot of options available to give your car a unique look but in all honesty they don’t really need it, would you really want to have a neon light hanging underneath your Mercedes?
If you do get sick of the colour of your car you can still go to the spray shop to change it and there are some tuning garages available as well if you want to add something extra to your vehicle.
A great concept that TDU introduces is that of an online marketplace, there does not seem to be a shortage of the latest models of sportscars in the showrooms but if you want something that is exclusive or vintage you will need to go to the online marketplace, you can sell your car to other players and vice versa. There is always a massive amount of cars for sale ranging from a few thousand up to a few million dollars. Pricing is determined by a few concepts like extras and mileage. Mileage does not seem to affect the performance of the vehicle but it certainly affects the price.
The concept basically is one of if the car is no longer being built today then there are only that many available through the game.
And as much as you may purely enjoy driving around the place you will be longing for new and additional cars all the time, not just cars, you’ll want exclusive property, clothes, and maybe even a few motorbikes!
And off course the only way to get all these goodies is by doing missions and acquiring cash, the MMO grind is introduced into racing, but it’s all good fun!
There is a also a progression line throughout the game from amateur to expert and the game boosts your ego with informing you of your collector status when you acquire lots of vehicles or seasoned traveler status when you have done lots of miles.
You can also start your own club or join a club with likeminded racers and create club events. There are also diners where you can set challenges for other racers to compete in for money, they typically come with an entry fee and a cash price if you succeed, it’s a good way to make or loose money.
The AI in the game is a bit of a hit and miss, if you want to race others then go for the online racing option, AI racers don’t tend to be all that smart. The game also has the highway patrol, if you cause too many accidents they come after you but they are somewhat too easy to get away from, it only gets hard when they put up roadblocks and I did end up with a $66,000 fine once being responsible for damage to 13 police vehicles, ouch!
The most annoying thing about the police is that they don’t really come after you for speeding or running red lights, you can race past a police car at 200 kph and they don’t seem to mind. Your own car never takes any damage either, which is good and bad. I would indeed be frustrating to have a damaged car while cruising but having options for car damage and police behaviour would have been good.
Graphically and environmentally TDU looks very good both on PC and Xbox, there is no doubt that the PC version looks significantly better supporting high resolutions and anti aliasing. Trees in a racing game have never looked this good, gone are the cardboard ones and the grass and tree branches nicely sway in the wind. Reflections on the hood of your car are the best I have ever seen, they are not just random but they actually match the surroundings you drive past, trees, buildings, overhead lights in tunnels, perfect!
Sadly enough Honolulu is a real ghost town, not a single pedestrian is to be found on the street, the biggest shortcoming however is the lack of a replay mode, although not essential it would be nice to be able to admire or be horrified by your own driving (in)abilities.
The PC version was released almost 6 months later then the xbox version and although it doesn’t have any additional gameplay features as such I am glad to say that at least it’s not a typical console port where everything is aimed at using a gamepad.
What makes the PC version even better is that it has excellent support for steering wheels up to Logitech G25, and the enjoyment of the game using a wheel is undeniable. As a matter of fact owners of a PC steering wheel should probably not even think twice about getting this game.
A nice touch if you have a G25 is that you can force yourself to use the H shifter or shifting pads in a way that matches the vehicle.
Not only does the PC version support a wheel, if you have a trackir you will find built in support for that as well, so you can look around while cruising, there is one more feature that you have available on the PC and that is the ability to play your own MP3’s so the combination of all these certainly gives a new meaning to the word virtual cruising.
But even those who do not own a wheel should not hesitate to give TDU a go as you can certainly use other devices like joystick or keyboard and you can look around with your mouse.
I hope that test drive is indeed a test and a preview of what more we can expect to see in the driving genre when new ideas are introduced and I have to congratulate Atari for investing into the development of a game that brings innovation to a genre that has been repeating itself for decades.
TDU has taken up over 60 hours of my time since I started playing it and although the execution of all of it’s creative ideas is not always perfect, it successfully manages to deliver a very enjoyable and extremely addictive experience that I have no problem recommending to anyone. Whether you are a hardcore realism racing fan, enjoy casual racing or someone who never plays racing games but just find yourself interested after reading this review, I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed with Test Drive Unlimited.
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