In the old days (like, you know, last year), when a console game was wrapping up development and was moving on toward release, gamers would have to rely on the buzz coming from the media to determine whether it was worth picking up. However, when it came to Test Drive Unlimited, Atari took the time to work up not one, but two separate demos for Xbox 360 owners to download, letting them check out the game for themselves.
In a lot of ways, this killed the buzz, because while the media kept playing their unrestricted beta copies and raving about how cool the open-ended nature of the game is, gamers at home stuck in the demos’ tiny corner of the island were thinking: “WTF!? This game sucks!”
As it turns out, both parties were right. Test Drive Unlimited has some amazingly fun and addicting areas. However, it has no shortage of painfully mediocre aspects too. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad, and by a surprisingly wide margin.
Mix and Match
The premise of TDU is on one hand fresh and exciting yet on the other predictable: take the core of a massively-multiplayer online RPG, which are all about zillions of individual missions scattered about a wide-open terrain, mix it with the Test Drive franchise, which has always been about exotic cars in exotic locales, and see what comes out.
The product here is what Atari is calling Massively Open Online Racing, or MOOR. The game offers all of the island of Oahu (plus a little extra) for you to explore. Like any MMO, the game is populated by NPCs (in this case school busses and SUVs and the like), and, if you happen to have Xbox Live, is also full of honest to gosh real people driving around like complete hooligans.
As you log in you’ll see cars with text above them, Xbox Live usernames, indicating a car that’s driven by a real person. You can ignore them all and complete any of the game’s seemingly endless array of missions on your own, or you can follow one around and challenge them for a race with a flash of the headlights. If they accept, set your course, and off you go.
This is when the game really gets fun. While you’re unfortunately stuck just racing from point to point (you can’t set individual waypoints), the space between those points are usually full with traffic. Flying through a barrage of traffic at 200+ mph with your buddy right on your tail doing the same is one of those great gaming experiences that you’ll remember for years to come.
Glitchy, but Rewarding
Like many other MMO’s, TDU has no shortage of problems, many of which surround the game’s servers. They’re constantly disappearing from the network, likewise causing your human competition to vaporize. However, where most MMOs leave you high and dry when they go offline, TDU is still quite addictive online or off.
As mentioned above, the game offers many, many missions of many different sorts. There are straight races against AI competitors, timed-events that task you to lap a set course or get from A to B in a set time, or other, more special missions. Some find you picking up hot supermodels and giving them a ride, some have you playing delivery boy for packages, while other, more lucrative missions task you to deliver exotic cars for clients.
Each mission completed earns you something, be it money or credits to buy new clothes. Money is of course what you’ll be after most of the time, and there’s no shortage ways to spend it. Cars and bikes are the obvious choice, but you’ll need to store them all somewhere, so you’ll find yourself doing a good bit of real-estate shopping. Thankfully, Oahu seem to be buyer’s market, as a nice 3,000 square ft. bungalow overlooking the ocean with an eight car garage comes in at around $300,000.
I suppose the housing boom couldn’t last forever…
Earning Your Keep
Money and cars don’t come as quickly here as they do in other “gotta catch ‘em all” style racers like Gran Turismo, but if anything that lets you appreciate the somewhat limited but generally high quality selection of autos available here. The $40 US price point is set to leave gamers with some money left to buy subsequent downloadable car packs, the first of which should be arriving soon. However, the game’s out-of-the-box assortment will leave many would-be collectors quite happy. While Japanese marques are somewhat underrepresented, there’s certainly no shortage of Italian, German, or American vehicles to satisfy, whether you like the deftness of a Lotus or the somewhat less subtle approach of a Saleen.
Cars all handle more or less as you’d expect, and while this game has no pretensions of being a sim, cars feel very good here, more or less on par with that fun yet predictable feel of Project Gotham Racing 3. Autos are, for the most part, relatively easy to drive on the limit and break away fairly tactfully when you cross it, making for lots of fun slides and tire smoke.
Motorcycles, on the other hand, are completely insane. Trying to keep the MV AGUSTA F4 1000 Tamburini on the road at full song is like trying to ride a hive full of pissed-off bees; it’s loud, painful, and would rather fly than drive. Overall bikes are fun to ride but just don’t feel quite right, which given the game’s focus on four-wheeled vehicles is not too surprising.
Crashing is one place where the game disappoints somewhat. Collision physics are good; if you slam into an opponent or a passer-by their car (and yours) will react as you’d expect. However, while the unbranded cars driven by the NPC’s of Oahu will crumple and fall apart with every impact, your vehicles stay perfectly pristine, regardless of how big a truck you come together with.
Some sort of visible sign of damage, even just scratched paint that you have to pay to fix, would have been nice. However, the game does give incentive for keeping it clean in the form of police enforcement. Yes, the law makes an appearance, but that too is a little disappointing. You see, you can go sailing by a police officer on the shoulder of the road, traveling at three-times the posted speed limit, and she’ll ignore you. But, clip her mirror on the way by, and look out for a chase.
Every time you crash into someone if an officer is nearby your wanted rating goes up. Cause enough havoc and they’ll come try to chase you down, eventually putting up road blocks and trying some dastardly maneuvers to get you to stop. But, in true videogame fashion, once they’ve pulled you over and hit you with a (usually steep) fine, you’re free to go wild again.
While being pulled over for every little driving infraction would definitely slow this game down, it seems very strange that ridiculously excessive speeding is completely ignored. The game would have been better off with fewer yet more serious police officers, ones who weren’t afraid to chase you if you’re hitting triple-digits in a school zone…not that I’d ever do such a thing.
One of the more debatable aspects of TDU is the graphics, which are an odd mix. The game’s various showrooms are a definite high-point. Wandering around them and examining the cars is genuinely exciting as you switch from external to internal views, opening and closing the doors, even honking the horns for fun. Cars are lusciously rendered inside and out and just looking at them makes you feel like a kid in a very big toy store that exclusively accepts Monopoly money.
However, hit the road, and things are, on average, much less awe-inspiring. Sure, there are some beautiful sunset effects to enjoy, and the vegetation of Oahu is surprisingly lush. However, building and terrain textures often disappoint, and should you find yourself exploring the 200mph region (and you will) you’ll notice an awful lot of buildings and trees popping into view.
It’s in this 200+ mph realm that you’ll notice the big problem with the graphics: minimal sensation of speed. Part of this is due to the game’s fake motion blur. In PGR3, when things move quickly they realistically spread out as you’d expect. In TDU, as you accelerate anything toward the side of the screen starts to blur. It doesn’t matter if it’s a car to your right going the exact same speed as you; it gets stretched out as if you were perpetually flying by. Lame.
On the audio front things are similarly dichotic. Engine notes are surprisingly rich sounding, not always perfectly accurate but raw enough to get you juiced up for a drive. Bikes in particular have that endless screaming quality that in real life makes you want to find that limiter in every gear. However, the musical selections are a mashup of random solid gold classics, Beethoven, and no-name techno. Rip some of your own CD’s to your 360 and you won’t have to worry about it, or just do what I do: mute the radio and dig the engine notes.
So the game has its bugs, like text you can’t read on non-HD screens and quirky servers. It has its curious shortcomings, like the inability to take pictures during a race replay and no way to easily meet up with your friends online. And, it has its humorous moments, like when you realize that damn-near every working inhabitant of Oahu, whether a police officer or a real-estate broker, is a babe with an air-headed smile.
But the game has so many great moments, like engaging in a 230+ mph race around the entire island, that you’ll overlook all of those problems and just want to spend more and more time with it. It is, like many fine autos, far more than the sum of its parts.
Many, many thanks to dedicated reader PhatheadWRX for kindly providing the many screenshots used in this review.