What a difference a few months can make. When the first demo of Test Drive Unlimited was released during E3 this year, the overwhelming concern for the game was unanimous. “Gee, I hope they tidy this up before launch!” But with the latest code of Test Drive Unlimited finally surfacing just before its release, all doubts about the game can be laid to rest.
The framerate no longer stutters and shifts between 30 fps and 60 fps; it stays at a constant rate throughout. The handling of the cars has also been improved, and it no longer feels like you're constantly driving on ice. The game's online integration has also been fine-tuned, and finally the entire island of Hawaii feels alive.
This is terribly important because Test Drive Unlimited prides itself on being a MMORG: a massively multiplayer online racing game. Free-roaming driving games are nothing new; Midnight Club, Need for Speed: Underground 2 and others have all executed well the concept of driving around to find new challenges. But neither of these games have ever had the competition as real thinking opponents.
There are some flaws with the way that Test Drive Unlimited deals with the MMOR system. For example, checking into online races merely opens up an online racing lobby. Like other online games, you can choose a quick match or a custom match. Unfortunately, like other online games, these depend on the host to commence them, and if they’ve gone away to get a cup of tea or whatever, you’ll find yourself idly waiting for the game to commence. More often than not you’ll find yourself dropping out to find another match.
However, the instant challenge mode is far more gratifying and is easily one of the best aspects of the game. Drive along side an opponent, honk your horn a few times, issue a challenge, set the route, and away you race. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s incredibly fun. The ability to seek “Revenge” after a race is a nice addition as well.
Of course, even thought the island functions as a mammoth online lobby, there is still fun to be had simply cruising around the exotic environment. The textures aren’t that hot, and there’s a bit of fade-in at times, but considering the game offers an entire island without loading, it’s an acceptable concession.
Additionally, as a semi-casual affair, there is no damage modeling for player-driven cars. Smashing into oncoming traffic will leave them a smoking wreck at the side of the road, but the player will come out unscathed. Seeing the adamantium cars come out as fresh as when they left the dealership can be a little jarring, but the fun of the game would be completely ruined if players were left to crawl along the roads because they had one head-on collision.
However, the real fun comes from the freedom afforded to the player. There is no real limit to where you can travel and sometimes heading down to a gravel car park to pull donuts and stunts with others can be more gratifying than racing. It remains to be seen, however, how the offline experience would hold up. The game shines online, but without the human competition, the game doesn’t really offer a lot that hasn’t been done before.
MMO games certainly seem to be shaping up to be the way of the future, and it’s immensely refreshing to see an MMO game that doesn’t focus on dwarves who run around in groups attempting to kill giant rat after giant rat in an attempt to one day reach some epic dragon that only supernerds can beat. Test Drive Unlimited not only offers a different take on the MMO concept but also offers an accessible experience that will be as worthwhile to light players as it is to the hardcore.
If the game can offer an entire island that doesn’t grow stale, and if the online integration is fine-tuned to perfection, then Atari could have themselves a winner. If you enjoy racing games and you have an online Xbox 360, you will definitely want to check out NZGamer’s upcoming full review to find out whether or not the full game lives up to the promise the preview code shows.
The Good: A persistent online world that truly feels alive.
The Bad: The multiplayer races still depend on a single host.
The Ugly: The offline experience is lacking.