Reviews: It's a test you'll look forward to taking.
Have you ever wished you could hop on a plane to some beautiful tropical island, live in a big fancy house and do nothing but cruise around in an expensive exotic car all day? Unless you've won the lottery, this dream is way out of reach for us common folk ? until now, that is. Test Drive Unlimited lets you live that exotic dream and you don't even have to pay for gas.
TDU is billed as a Massively Open Online Racing (MOOR) game which, similar to MMORPG's, is an open free-roaming environment filled with potentially thousands of online players you can race against. It's a cool concept that completely obliterates the line between single and multiplayer (assuming, of course, that you have an Xbox Live Gold account), letting you seamlessly enter single-player, multiplayer or custom races created by other players at any time.
Livin' the good life
TDU does an excellent job of making you feel as if you're among the super rich. The game starts in an airport where you select your online character and board a plane to Oahu, where upon landing you immediately buy a nice house and a car. Afterwards the island is yours to explore ? the entire
island. Developer Eden Games mapped all of Oahu including 1000 miles of roads, making it one of the biggest maps ever in a video game. And wow, it looks and feels impressive. When you drive a mile, it feels like you've actually driven a mile, not some compressed pseudo-distance. The island looks fantastic, filled with lush foliage, banyan trees and famous places like Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Waikiki and so on; in fact, those of you who know the island will probably find many familiar landmarks. Birds, butterflies and leaves will occasionally flutter across the road, jumbo jets will roar overhead and big angry clouds will roll in from the Pacific. And you're not just limited to the roads either; you can do doughnuts in golf courses, zip through fields and forests, and plow across the beaches. Combine all this with great graphics and smooth streaming (there are no load times) and you'll really feel as if you're in paradise; the only thing that's missing is a lei around your neck and some pineapple juice in your hand.
The only problem is that the environment is quite lifeless. The roads are filled with a nice variety of NPC cars (ranging from sedans, SUVs, trucks, buses and even fire engines) but there are no pedestrians; in fact, you can't even control your own character since all out-of-car events are cutscenes. Of course, this might be a blessing in disguise since the people look and move like animatronic mannequins, which is a little disappointing for a next gen title. Also, the weather and time of day never changes; it's always day time, it never rains and only gets cloudy on occasion. Admittedly, these are minor gripes but they would have added a bit more life and realism to the environment.
Of course, most of the time you will be concentrating on the road as you zip along Oahu's pleasantly wide highways at triple-digit speeds. There are over 100 licensed cars from exotic manufacturers like Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar, Koenigsegg, McLaren, Maserati, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Saleen and Shelby, with a few unlockable Ducati and Kawasaki motorcycles thrown in for good measure. Despite the impressive lineup of manufacturers, there are several notable names missing like Porsche, BMW and Honda/Acura.
To build a big collection, you'll not only need to earn lots of money by winning races, but must also buy several homes with lots of garage space to store your wheels. Homes range from nice bungalows and condos to multimillion dollar estates overlooking the ocean. Sweet!
While your character looks fake, the cars look absolutely fantastic with accurate manufacturer's details right down to the brake pads. The paint looks an inch deep and dynamically reflects the environment around you. Cars are purchased at dealerships where you can view the manufacturer's specifications, rotate and zoom the camera all around the exterior and can even sit in the driver's seat for a first-person view of the accurately detailed interior, complete with proper switch placement and horn sounds. You can take it for a short test drive ? during which you can even race it if you want ? and if you decide to lay down the cash, you can choose from real manufacturer paint colors and wheel options. If your scratch is a little short, you can visit a rental agency to drive your dream ride for a limited time.
Some cars are unlockable or are so rare you can't buy them right away. Instead, you have to reserve them and dole out the cash when they become available, or you could try buying it off of another player. Players can put their vehicles up for sale, which could be quite lucrative if you have a rare model with performance upgrades. The list of cars for sale is quite huge but you can use filters to narrow it down to a specific model. Still, it would be nice to add a few more filters to find only upgraded cars, for example.
You purchase performance kits at tuner shops but unfortunately, these kits are simple arcade-like upgrades that only boost your basic attributes of speed, acceleration, handling and braking. You can't tweak specific components like your suspension and engine, which will no doubt disappoint the tuner crowd. You also can't even create a custom paint job, a glaring omission for a game that is supposed to let you live the life of a super-rich street racer. In fact, your mannequin ? er, character ? has more customization options than your cars, with 34 adjustable facial features and a ton of purchasable clothes. Hey, this is a driving game; I don't care what my non-controllable character looks like ? I want to create my own custom ride. Hopefully they will rectify this situation in a sequel.
Each car performs uniquely with a mix of realistic and arcade-like physics, depending on how you set the adjustable driver's aids (which make a huge difference in the handling). The speeds feel real and not exaggerated like many racing games, though the blurring effect out your side window enhances the feeling of rocketing down the road (fortunately you can adjust the intensity of this blurring so it doesn't obscure the beautiful scenery). The map streams nicely but you will experience noticeable pop up of distant objects when going really fast, but don't worry ? you won't have cars magically appearing right in front of you like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
One cool feature is the ability to take a picture at any time; simply pause the game (even in mid-race), select the camera, and rotate and zoom around your car to take the perfect picture. There is an option to upload your pic to the TDU website but unfortunately this feature isn't working at the moment. What I would really like is the ability to use your pics as your Xbox Live dashboard backgrounds. Now that
would be cool.
Life is a highway
Gameplay is a blast with a nice variety of race difficulty and layout, ranging from relatively straight empty routes to twisty traffic-filled circuits to a brutal 118 mile race around the entire island. For the most part, the traffic is relatively light with just enough cars to be challenging and not annoying. But it's not all about racing; even just going for a leisurely cruise around the island to explore and sightsee is quite enjoyable. In fact, you'll have to explore if you want to find races, dealerships, tuner shops, diners (where you find custom challenges), real estate offices ? basically everything in the game. It's a nice idea that adds a touch of realism and makes you venture out into the MOOR world where you'll mingle with other online players.
The MOOR concept generally works well; you can easily spot players by their gamertags floating above a distance counter indicating how far away they are from you. You can challenge any player to an ?Instant Challenge? race by flashing your headlights at them; if they accept, you slap the finish line wherever you want and then hit the gas. You can also ask if they would like to meet in a multiplayer race or simply have an impromptu doughnut competition. Sometimes, however, finding people can be tricky and getting them to race you trickier still.
When you do enter a race, you are ?instanced? from the online MOOR; in other words, you are moved to your own separate version of the map to prevent other players from interfering. Neato.
Races are broken up into Challenges and Missions. Missions are single player only and consist of four types: Courier (deliver a package for a shady character within the time limit), Vehicle Transport (deliver a special car back to a rental agency) and Hitchhiker and Top Model (drop off a hitchhiker or snooty model to their destinations within the time limit). The first two pay loads of cash upon successful completion but the last two only reward you with clothing store credits, so there's not much incentive to complete these. My favorite is Vehicle Transport because these let you drive cars you may not be able to afford yet or are rare and currently unavailable. These missions are quite relaxing since they're not timed, so you can cruise around at your leisure.
But this game isn't about being a deliveryman and so you'll spend most of your time in the Challenges. There are three types: Race (head to head, be the first to cross the finish line), Speed (earn the highest average speed through several radar traps) and Time (get the best time through the course). Some Challenges are restricted to car class, manufacturer and even specific model; others are unlocked when you level up (leveling up is pretty basic; the more Achievement points you unlock, the higher your level).
Challenges are found as you explore the island; simply look for a glowing icon in the road or check your overhead map, which has a very cool animation that zooms in and out from car level to bird's eye view every time you open or close it. Select a race from the map and a helpful GPS system will tell you how to get there. You have to drive to each Challenge or Mission location at least once but afterwards, you can avoid tedious return trips by simply selecting it from the map for an instant teleportation back. Nice.
Unfortunately, even paradise has its problems and in this game, that problem comes with flashing red and blue lights. Careless driving will alert the police, who use a three-level alert system similar to GTA; hit a car and you'll get a half-level warning but not police attention. If you drive around for about 10 seconds without hitting another car, this alert will disappear; but if you hit a car again within this time span, you'll activate the full level and cause a nearby police car to chase you. You can easily avoid the police by outrunning them, but hit any more cars and you'll bump up the alert level. Hit the maximum level three and the police will set up roadblocks and pursue you relentlessly. If they manage to stop you, you're busted ? but fortunately, your only penalty is a hefty fine; so far my biggest is $47,500. Ouch. Well, at least they don't confiscate your car, which would be far worse.
The problem with the police system is that it's more of an annoyance than a challenge, especially in races. Yes, some races have the police system activated and a couple minor scrapes will have them chasing your tail in no time. The strange thing is that the police are completely oblivious to you running red lights, driving the wrong direction or speeding at triple the limit; but Heaven help you if you ding a couple bumpers. They're generally quite easy to avoid at anything below the maximum alert level but still, it's an annoying distraction that ruins the fantasy life illusion the game is trying to present.
It also ruins the fun out of smashing into NPC cars, which can be banged up quite nicely. The best part is your car suffers no damage whatsoever, so you can slam head-on into a truck at 200mph and crumple it up while your car won't even get a scratch. No, it's not realistic but the point is to focus on the fun of driving and not worry about things like repairs ? which makes the police system that much more irritating.
All Challenges except Time (which is single player only) can be played in online multiplayer or in Club races. Clubs are essentially clans that you can join or create for serious competition. You can also create your own Challenge for single- and multiplayer; simply lay out your route, adjust factors like checkpoints, traffic, race type, entry fee, prize money and so on, and upload it for your fellow racers to compete in. You keep all the entry fees but have to pay out the prize money from your own pocket, so it would be best if you won your own challenge.
All alone in a crowd
My biggest criticism is the difficulty trying to play with friends. There is no split screen or System Link, so you can forget about inviting friends over for some good old fashioned head-to-head. Instead, the only way to play friends is online and even then, it can be difficult to find each other. Sometimes you will end up in a different server than your friend, so even though you are both sitting in the exact same spot on the map, you might not be able to see each other. Having your friends join your club could solve the problem, but what happens if they are in another club and you just want to cruise around together and not compete in official races?
As fun as the various Challenges and Missions are, they can get quite repetitive ? but to be fair, this is a problem for all racing games. Fortunately the circuits are quite varied in their layout but restricting the location to a single island limits the variety in scenery ? it's beautiful scenery to be sure, but nothing like going from snow to desert to urban.
The audio could use some more oomph too. The engine sounds are supposed to be authentic but some of them sound like sewing machines. The radio has a nice variety of music but the selection is limited so the playlist is quite repetitive. One nice touch, however, is the inclusion of classical music; this quickly became my favorite station since no bass-heavy head-banging rocker can compete with the William Tell Overture or the Ride of the Valkyries when you're barreling down the road at triple-digit speeds. Try it and you'll see what I mean.