The best open world driving game is back to reclaim its title after nearly five years. But can Eden Games and Atari still compete with the powerhouses of the racing genre by offering a truly unique experience?
Sometimes you just want to drive.
You grab your keys, get in the car, leave everything behind and just go. No goal in mind, no known destination, you don't need one. With the windows down and the music blasting you drive toward the horizon in hopes of finding the indescribable. And you'll know when you've found it, when you've gone as far as you need to. Whether you're the proud new owner of a freshly laminated license or a road warrior with decades of experience the allure remains the same; unbridled freedom and endless possibilities. In the world of video game's that is Test Drive Unlimited.
Test Drive is one of the oldest driving franchises in gaming but its relevance has somewhat escaped the mainstream in the past five to ten years. Test Drive Unlimited saw relative success as an early Xbox 360 release that was almost too ambitious for its own good. Open world driving, persistent online interaction and solid social foundations paved the way for Test Drive to have a much longer shelf life than other games, at least in play time if not for sales. The sequel aims to smooth over the cluttered interface from the first game, make co-op and competitive driving more accessible, and further the fantasy of living the high life. In many ways Test Drive Unlimited 2 masterfully succeeds, it's just that at the time of this publishing the game is also up to its neck in connectivity issues, faulty features and game corruption bugs. So as of right now, buyer beware.
When One's Not Enough
Like its predecessor Test Drive Unlimited 2 starts you out with nothing on an island full of playboys and racing hotties that are living large with million dollar mansions and high priced super-cars. The story is a simple rags-to-riches setup but it doesn't go much beyond that. After the opening twenty minutes whatever story there is gets told through juvenile and annoying cutscenes that play when you enter tournaments. Regardless, you're introduced to a bunch of homogeneous characters that, based on appearances, spend their days perfecting their makeup and Valley Girl accents - and none of it on driving. And that's just the guys you meet...
You then choose which effeminate character you're going to be and move on to a tutorial of sorts (you can alter appearances by finding a plastic surgeon). It's here you get accepted into the Solar Crown Championship, a series of racing tournaments and cups to determine who's the best racer. As awful as the voice acting and writing is I'm half inclined to believe there's some inside joke I'm missing. In the grand scheme of things it's easy to overlook, but in the future I really hope Eden just spends the time or money to hire a real writer to bang out a real script, or leave it out entirely.
The reason you're here, though, is for the driving and Test Drive Unlimited 2 gives you a preposterous amount of road to do it on. Players are required to take license tests to open up specific championships; classic, off-road, sport, and super cars. Unfortunately, some players may find the tests more difficult than the actual championships especially since the game disregards weather and night/day conditions (dynamic weather) and doesn't alter reference times accordingly. Return players will notice that there are no Motorbikes anymore, which is a glaring omission that is without explanation or excuse. The content you do get has a level cap of 60 which is broken into the games four main categories; Competition, Collection, Discovery and Community.
The Competition category nets you 15 levels if you complete the 25 major single player tournaments, 8 license tests, 5 duels and a number of multiplayer races. Tournaments tend to have between 6 and 8 races each, which altogether is a satisfying amount to keep most players busy offline. Placing first on each course is worth ten points, and you just need to have the highest total after you've completed all the races. Oddly, the three major Island Cups hand out points, too, but you have to finish first anyway or you can't move on. It's a poor design choice that will frustrate players that run up against a race type they aren't good at.
Collection is a simple category that unlocks almost naturally as you buy houses, cars, clothes, paint jobs, stickers and get the odd haircut or a little nip tuck. Yes, you can get plastic surgery - it's actually the games way of letting you customize your character anytime you want. The majority of this stuff comes easy and won't take much effort or thought. The more dedicated fans should be happy to find that there is a ton of items on both islands to let you customize your experience. That doesn't translate to the nuts and bolts under the hood - you can't tune downforce or gear ratio - it's purely cosmetic.
The Social portion breaks down as you might expect. You level up by having or making friends in game, for joining an online club, doing co-op challenges, taking part in police chases and doing Community Racing Center challenges. The community has a lot of potential, but so far it's been unrealized. Players can create challenges from virtually any point on the map and upload that to the CRC for other racers to try. The biggest social addition to TDU2 is called TDULife, a profile that tells you the level of a player, how many cars and houses they have, and so on. It's an excellent networking tool in-game and just one of TDU2's many improved social elements.
The most time consuming category to level fully, and coincidentally my favorite, is Discovery, which partially involves just driving around until you've discovered every possible road. But Test Drive's extensive charm is derived from the beautiful landscapes of both Ibiza and Oahu (the Hawaiian gem from the first game). Recreated from real maps, both islands are elaborately constructed to match up to their real world counterparts and serve as your playground. A few optional challenges make island exploration a lot more fun and rewarding, like finding enough wrecked cars to unlock specialty vehicles or completing a series of photo challenges that earns you extra cash and gives you something to decorate your houses with. Discovery is rounded out with Events, side missions that appear randomly for a limited amount of time. Unlike the first game's 180 MPH in Heavy Traffic money making method, you can't replay events as a means to earn cash.
Unfortunately, right now a huge part of the social interaction, Clubs, isn't working at all. Clubs are a place to join up with friends, compete against other teams, or race some inter-club challenges against other team members. The original Test Drive Unlimited also had a Trade feature so players could buy, sell and trade vehicles that they'd acquired. That's gone now. You can sell some vehicles but only if you're attempting to buy another car at the same time. Even still, being stuck with one of the unsellable cars makes the early game very frustrating, especially because the game doesn't tell you which cars can't be sold before you add them to your garage. Clubs are scheduled to go live when the next patch is released. If it works as intended, then the game will be significantly more enjoyable for everyone and would deserve a higher score.
But clubs aren't the only feature not working right. The Casino Online, a pre-order bonus or purchasable DLC, is a casino that lets you play slots, cash game poker, sit-and-go poker and roulette. You can also sit in on some leveled poker tournaments that may net you some specific rewards of in-game items. The games play like they should, it's a good way to earn money or cars, it's a good place to meet players, and it even lets you buy someone a drink. But guess what - it doesn't work properly all the time either, causing you to sometimes lose money or worse - losing an Audi R8 which can be won playing slots. Though I got my fair share of action early on, I noted myself that I was never paid out at the roulette table. This would be much less frustrating if it wasn't paid or pre-order DLC, or if the game gave you a faster way to earn cash.
Ready, Set, Hold On a Second...or Two...
TDU2 also suffers from some very strange lag at the starting line. Sometimes the computer just jumps into a lead and your car refuses to move for two seconds. Other times you'll blast off the starting line and the computer never catches up. It's funny because it isn't the notorious racing game rubber-band AI that you get, its inconsistency and TDU2 has too much of it for its own good. Handling of the cars has its fair share of ups and downs, too. Ultimately, trying out different cars for a few minutes is enough to get used to any quirks, and the full assistance, sport, and hardcore driving aid choices reign it all in so that players can find a satisfactory control scheme. But if you're a racing aficionado don't be surprised if you find Test Drive's handling to be lost somewhere in no man's land between arcade and simulation.
One of TDU2's most appealing factors is that it populates the world with other gamers that you can challenge with a flick of the headlights. However, players aren't able to quickly change between cars so you have to turn down most instant challenges because they're lopsided. It's irritating that you either have to go to your house or enter a tournament just to switch what car you're driving. Players should have access to their car list at all times without needing to find a workaround. Consider the time it takes when the car you want is locked away in a garage that's on the other island...that happens a lot.
While we're on the topic I should probably tell you that the car roster will disappoint many return fans and anyone else that expects a list even a fraction of what Gran Turismo or Forza put out. Due, I'm sure, to license fees and other studio's locking up exclusives, the car list from the first game has dwindled significantly, leaving out lots of Corvettes, all Lamborghini's, Pontiac's, Lexus', Cadillac's, Shelby's, and Saleen's. I'm sure there's more that real car-geeks could point out but hopefully some of these will be made available later - though, given the rocky release, asking players to pay for more cars would be a little insulting. I was happy to see an off-road element brought to the game. It would, though, be nice to have more actual rally cars to buy, but the development team does a wonderful job making sure there are a ton of dirt tracks and muddy mountain tops to drive on.
The Long Way Home
The engine powering TDU 2 is obviously an older one, but even still Oahu and Ibiza are beautiful. These tropical paradises can evoke a sense of wonder and excitement, but they fail to reach that next level. You'll see dynamic weather, believable traffic flow and thoroughly varied architecture from the ocean side country homes to the downtown skyscrapers that lends it a personality that is unlike any other game, but the original. However, if you're a self-professed graphics whore you'll probably balk at the outdated environments that can't compare to the modern racing heavyweights. It's a reasonable complaint considering the time since TDU1, it was hard not to expect a big upgrade.
No matter what you were expecting it's hard not to appreciate the sheer size and ambitious nature of TDU2. To uncover every road, event, car dealer, tuner, and store would take dozens of hours, and that's without ever touching the championships. The most astounding facet of the game's performance is that it never needs to load anything while driving around. You can drive down the highway, decide you want to pull up the map, select an area and get transported there in just a few seconds. In fact, there are few times you ever need to wait for the game. Flying from one island to the other and when loading up a championship event are usually the only real load times. So it's a trade off, less pure technical power for a mostly seamless drive. I'll take that.
In a lot of ways Test Drive Unlimited 2 is everything fans of the series would have wanted: the overhauled user interface means no more fumbling through the menus, there's a second huge island to explore, it's easier to connect with other players, and it looks better. But the fantasy is shattered by the smaller selection of cars, fewer events, unintuitive car management, bad acting and writing, and a handful of bugged features that need to be fixed. Following a very frustrating trend we're left with yet another game that doesn't work properly on the day of its release, making my job difficult. Do I rate it for what I can personally overlook, or grade it for what it is today, or how about what it might be after a patch? Nothing is ever a guarantee.
Looking at things objectively, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a few steps away from being an amazing game, but those steps are mostly problems that detract from what makes the game so great. It's the opposite of other open world arcade racers and the counterpoint to racing simulations; a laid back driving game that's as much about cruising around the stunning world as it is about beating the field to the finish line. Test Drive Unlimited 2 has the potential to be a deserving fan favorite that gets stronger down the homestretch, but without immediate TLC by Eden Games and Atari it could just as easily stall out.