The Test Drive brand has come a long way since it appeared on the Amiga back in 1987. Even back then it was a pioneering piece of programming, presenting an ‘accurate and astounding driving simulator’ with five super-cars – all on one single floppy disk!
Of course it wasn’t without its faults. For example, hitting a small pebble at 20km/h resulted in a cracked windscreen and an instant Game Over screen. The other drivers on the road were all rendered in black and white with miniature heads and the game was obsessed with splattering your windscreen with bird poo. But Test Drive went on to spawn over a dozen more games over the next two decades, leading up to the next-gen incarnation entitled Test Drive Unlimited in 2006. Realistic graphics, a huge roster of cars, massively multiplayer online modes and free-roaming acres of road were all impressive, but it ultimately failed to entice a lot of gamers due to the game’s clunky and cheesy storyline.
Unfortunately the latest sequel, Test Drive Unlimited 2 hasn’t remedied that. Immediately into the game, players are eye-balling a surreal and poorly rendered cut-scene of a pool party filled with cardboard cut-out looking people in repetitive animation routines. The game’s storyline follows a rags-to-riches fantasy where you go from a poverty-stricken, caravan-dwelling valet to a multi-million dollar racing car driver living it up in the sunny island paradise of Ibiza. It’s a timeless concept and something many of us can (sort of) relate to, but it’s the execution of the story that leaves you bewildered and slightly annoyed.
It turns out you are one of these robotic Sims 3-esque party goers and, after you choose which one best suits (they’re all terrible), you find out that the party is hosted by your new employer, Tess Wintory. Tess, who looks like one of those bikini-clad background extras in CSI: Miami, is a host of a reality TV show that revolves around exotic car racing in Ibiza. Despite a stroppy and spoilt Daddy’s girl exterior, she sees some potential in you after your driving skills are put to the test in getting her to the studio in record time. Before you know it, your dreams of a luxury life-style driving cars are suddenly within your grasp as Tess gives you an opportunity to compete in tournaments for uber cash prizes and glory. Soon you’ll be hoarding a collection of flash new cars, purchasing lavish beach-side apartments and splashing out on designer clothing.
On the surface, this superficial plot is fine for any racing game (or Vin Diesel movie). But it’s the presentation that makes the intro jarring, filled with plastic character models, abysmal voice acting and dialogue that’s more cheesy than a tour of the Mainland cheese factory.
But Test Drive’s strength lies on the roads with your hands behind the wheel of some of the world’s most mouth-watering cars. TDU2 delivers with a stunning array of metal beasts from Aston Martin, Audi, Bugatti, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ferrari, Ford, Jaguar, Lotus, Fiat / Alfa Roméo Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Pagani and more with each brand featuring a variety of models. For example Ferrari feature thirteen of their modern-day cars including the Ferrari 458 Italia launched in 2009. Even Volkswagen make an appearance with their iconic Beetle and affordable Golf GTi. Atari have announced that the game contains over one hundred different cars and although most border on the exotic and rare, there are plenty of ‘regular Joe’ vehicles to try out too.
The driving experience is certainly no Gran Turismo 5 though. The more arcade-like feel to racing is far more appropriate to TDU2 and it allows players to jump into the seat of their favourite car and just enjoy themselves. You’ll be able to traverse a whopping 3000+ kilometres of the islands of Ibiza and Oahu (the setting of the first game), both of which have been re-created via satellite data to replicate the roads and landmarks. For those who played the first TDU, Oahu has been remodelled with extra detail to ensure that this game is a completely new experience. This sequel also includes an all-new off-road driving experience where 4x4s and SUVs will let you venture into the dirt tracks of the two islands to soak in the more treacherous sights of the tropical paradise. For added realism, TDU2 also includes a full 24 hour day and night cycle and even dynamic online weather effects. Cruising under starry night skies or pulling up on a hill to watch a glorious sun-set are all part of the atmosphere. Those gamers criticising the game for not having an accurate and demanding racing simulator will be missing the point here.
Even with that said, the driving experience is varied and fairly well thought-out. Different cars behave differently and players will enjoy the progression of upgrading cars and working up to the drool-worthy exotics. Players will be able to purchase cars with moola earned in competitions, sponsors and even online racers where virtual money can be gambled. All of your rides are stored in your garage allowing you to take them for a spin, or even just walk around and eyeball their detail at your leisure.
Like the previous Test Drive Unlimited, there is a large emphasis on social interaction with the MMO engine that runs in the background. Other fellow racers, all of whom will be scattered around the two islands, will pop up on your radar allowing you to engage or communicate with them. Simply flashing your head-lights will prompt a request for a race or you can simply tail-gate them until they finally give in. There is a huge amount of detail lurking within the game and, as players progress, they will start to unlock more and more activities. For example you can pop into a barber to get a haircut, drive strangers around the city like a taxi, complete photo missions, find wrecked cars around the island or just get into trouble with the local law enforcement for some adrenaline-pumping police chases through Ibiza. If you’re feeling extra rich you can spend a ridiculous $1500 for a car-wash by a trio of scantily clad women. It made me wonder who washes your car if you choose to be a female player though. With the multiplayer on, I even stumbled across a cluster of boy-racers all doing wheelies in the middle of the street. It’s little touches like that that keep you coming back for a little bit more.
There is still room for improvement though. Despite the 4+ year gap between the two games, there are numerous annoying aspects and glitches to TDU2 that I hoped had been ironed out by now. On top of the irritating cinematics and clunky non-driving gameplay elements, the game continues to feature some unpredictable AI when racing computer drivers. Some of the races you’ll engage in seem completely random, with opponents zooming ahead from the starting line and often winning the race before you’re past the second check-point. The in-car radio offers a disappointing two stations to choose between and the game is still plagued by fairly major server issues that detract from the promising online experience. Amazingly though, even with all these niggles and with a decent steering wheel (I strongly recommend the Logitech G27), TDU2 is still an enjoyable experience. It could be marketed as the perfect solution to any mid-life crisis because for many, it's the closest we'll ever get to hooning around sunny Ibiza in a Jaguar.