Test Drive Unlimited was a year or so ago, selling itself as not only a “CarPG” but a “Massively Multiplayer” one at that. I overlooked it back then, passing it off as the same as the EA ilk of NFS games, but a year on and a price cut later and I’m happy that I got the chance to prove my misconceptions wrong.
The format of TDU is unlike anything I’ve seen in a recent game, to the same scale - the whole Hawaiian island of Oahu has been rendered for you to drive around in, and boy is there a lot to do. First you choose your character, buy a house, rent a car to drive around in and then start cruising the streets for challenges, with the help of your GPS.
Unlike a TomTom your GPS doesn’t send you the wrong way down one-way streets but is essential to getting around the island. Tap right on the D-Pad and you’ll zoom out to a huge satellite map that is teeming with icons of every sort, from car dealerships and clothes outlets to races and time trial locations. Select one and you’ll zoom back into your car and your GPS will have a route mapped out for how to get to that event. You need to drive to any icon which you have not driven to (or past) before but after you have you can quickly ‘teleport’ there next time, saving having to drive ten miles around the island to get around. Of course sometimes you’ll want to drive all the way to your destination – but the sheer fact that you can zoom straight there is a great feature.
There are plenty of challenges in the single player game and will take you a while to get through them alone. These range from simple races and time trials to elimination races and the PGR-a-like Speed Trap challenges, but luckily there are no cone challenges in sight. The other more original challenges appealed to me more, however. These were one-way races against the clock but involved picking up a passenger, either a supermodel or a hitcher who is surprisingly clean, and taking them to their destination without shaking them up too much. This means that you’re against the clock and something like a ‘scare-o-meter’, which depletes if you run off the road, or collide with other vehicles. There is also a really good long-range challenge that pops up every so often that puts you in charge of a fast car (usually a Ferrari or some other dream car) to deliver over 8-10 miles away with no time limit, but the fact that the money you get for delivering it goes down the more you damage the car. You start off being really careful but after a minute you can’t help flooring it and speeding through the traffic, which is pretty hair-raising.
Online is where the game is meant to shine, with an online community of drivers that drive around the island in real-time looking for an impromptu race. As in the single-player, when you seen an AI driver milling about, flash your lights at a driver and you’ll get the chance to make a race that is any length you want and as many checkpoints as you want (even around the whole island itself!), which is the beauty of having the game set on a free island instead of preset tracks. There are plenty of community options but now there are far fewer people playing online, so bumping into other racers is not as common as it was.
The graphics, even a year on, are still quite beautiful and although the in-car view (which is the best way to play TDU) looks a little dated. The cars are modelled nicely and the environments are quite beautiful. In particular the lighting and road effects are very nice. Nothing really slows down either, no matter how many miles you drive nothing has to pause and load (like Oblivion) and there’s no stuttering either, which is quite impressive.
The handling is a bit of a problem, though as it is pretty inconsistent and can range from smooth and responsive to jerky, heavy and cumbersome. A lot of love has been put into some cars, especially Ferraris which handle nicely, but some are just a complete arse to drive, even if they are a particularly good car normally in-game here they’re way too sensitive on the steering. And the bikes, which you get further into the game, just feel a bit tacked-on and quite horrible to ride, too twitchy to be fun, or believable.
One problem with the handling that is universal is what happens when you crash-you’re basically out of the race. There’s no damage but I you crash into something (especially head-on) it takes a while for your car to respond in general but then trying to get it into reverse and then back into forward gear is so bloody cumbersome it would have been easier to get out and push…
Test Drive Unlimited is a good game because of its flexibility - you can complete challenge after challenge, challenge the computer to custom PvP races, go online and race real folk or just cruise around the island with the windows down and the radio on. It really is up to you.
The graphics (for the most part) still hold up after a year and there’s plenty to do. The only main problem is the handling, which is hit and miss at the best of times and will put off a lot of gamers. There is also a lot more competition now with Forza 2, PGR4 and about 50 NFS games that EA have released since last year, and another one on the way soon. But with a reduced price tag under the ‘Classics’ range it really is a worthwhile title to pick up, if only to ride the coastal roads and relax to the see breeze…