It’s taken a while to get around to reviewing Test Drive Unlimited 2 – not because we haven’t been playing it, but partly because we wanted to make sure we cover all the angles after a slightly animated response from some people to our list of issues with the game. So in an effort to make sure we’re fair, we ended up not writing about it – a situation we’re rectifying now for posterity and anyone who hasn’t already made up their minds.
The Test Drive series actually began in 1987, beating Need for Speed by seven years. And the decision to reinvent the series resulted in Test Drive Unlimited in 2007. It’s impossible to mention the sequel without referencing both the ambitious achievement of the first game in providing an open world MMO car game, and the fact that it had a number of problems with bugs. That time, the ambition definitely won out, with issues being relegated by the enjoyment of cruising round Hawaii with the window down and the radio on. We all have fond memories of awesome moments in TDU, and it’s got a special spot saved in the history of racing games.
So hopes were pretty high for Test Drive Unlimited 2 – after all, several ambitious ideas were mentioned in previews and interviews around the TDU launch which never made it into the game, so there were almost endless possibilities. And despite the fact the console hardware has remained the same, internet speeds and gaming innovations have moved on a lot since those days – although we might have been happier pre-Farmville.
But were those hopes met?
First the good news – graphically Test Drive 2 looks pretty good. Something with the geographical size of TDU2 requires the occasional allowance for draw distances, but in general the looks are pretty nice, and any shortcomings are pretty bearable. Certainly your first reaction will be to enjoy the world and scenery as it rushes past.
Handling hasn’t ever been a major selling point of the TDU games, and things have stayed the same for TDU2. Moving onto the more advanced settings for the handling model does improve things, and in general it’s not bad enough to be a major issue, but it occasionally gets frustrating during the licence test sections. Out on the open road you can hustle along at a fair pace whilst feeling in control.
The addition of Ibiza is a nice expansion, giving a bit more space and variety, even if air travel is a little bit of a hassle in the game (although nowhere near as bad as the reality of airports). Obviously picking two fairly warm and sunny locations does mean that the jump isn’t as pronounced as if they’d picked somewhere more radical, and some of the scenery on both islands does look fairly similar. Hopefully the Isle of Wight or the Scilly Isles are next on the list for inclusion.
There’s a reasonable selection of cars – although the car list has drawn some complaints on this site about a lack of variety. It would have been nice to have seen more classics and legendary cars, as those are the ones which really get the emotions going as you cruise around – and they’ve also got more variety in interiors etc. But you get a classic Mustang early on if you fancy a muscle car, and you’ll soon be able to afford the classic E-types etc, even if the Ferraris might take a little longer.
And there’s certainly enough content to consider it value for money. In addition to the plot-based racing elements, there is more opportunity to take on a variety of challenges around the islands, whether it’s the traditional time-based random challenges, finding photographic spots, or discovering wrecks to unlock additional cars. You could argue that the extra missions tend to be ‘find x location’ but if you don’t like those type of challenges and some leisurely drives around the island, then you’re probably not really a TDU fan in the first place. And there are some lovely touches, such as the road signs actually giving useful information when you need to find a town.
In terms of online gaming, the random encounters with the closest players on the server are some of the most interesting experiences the game has to offer, as whether they’re enjoyable or not completely rests on the other player. We’ve had high level players intent on just ramming us off the road every few seconds to the point of frustration turn into them leading us to a target location when they realised we were lost and looking for a wreck.
Club racing and multi-player racing are still there, along with setting time trial routes for online competitors, and all are functional – although the club element still has some foibles and glitches.
And that leads us nicely into the downsides, which we’ve previously covered in a reasonable fashion but are worth restating.
First up, the plot and all characters involved are terrible. TDU2 hovers somewhere between aspiring for the humour of Grand Theft Auto, and plumbing the depths of the world’s campest and worst soap opera, and never quite manages to reach either target. Every character is a bad stereotype, including your valet-turned-racer, and it’s hard to fathom why you’d be trying so hard to join a racing fraternity which is often akin to hearing nails down a blackboard.
The voice acting doesn’t help – it appears that pretty much every character is somewhere in between camp and creepy, and the amount of repetition in the introduction screens for races will make you weep ‘The Wilder brothers are at it again’ in your sleep.
Add in the fact that you’ll be bouncing off the rev limiter for large periods of time in cars which really start to grate, and the fact that you’re given a choice of just two radio stations, and it’s a flashback to the days of playing music on a stereo to accompany your gaming. In previews for the first TDU, Eden talked about streaming real radio stations into the game, and that would have been a great solution, even if it was an option for those with enough bandwith. Alternatively, if you’re going to create ‘humourous’ fake radio stations, they have to be as good as those in Grand Theft Auto. These aren’t.
The plot is a nice idea, and race school licence tests aren’t a bad way to introduce elements of the gameplay and car handling – but there are far too many, with too many challenges, and with too many elements which highlight the fact the handling model isn’t great on accuracy and car control. If you’ve got a vague car handling model, I’d suggest skipping the ‘slalom through tight cones in the rain’ tests for example.
And the addition of F.R.I.M is similarly challenging. In the offline mode it works quite well to entertain and earn some extra cash as you drive around the islands, giving you bonuses for near misses, high speeds etc. But when you’re always connected to the nearest players, and their instinct is generally to barrel into you as soon as they see you, the only way to actually enjoy the F.R.I.M accumulator is to either avoid anyone on your map like the plague or play offline and defeat the point of an MMO. Plus, and this is a matter of personal taste, it does also feel quite hard to ignore, which means you lose that relaxed, cruising feeling of TDU, because you’re constantly thinking that really you should be earning some cash. It’s akin to someone constantly telling you that you should get off the sofa and do something productive with your life.
The overriding feeling is a lack of polished ambition. There are numerous other bugs, including some which can kill your save game and leave you trapped in your garage (As happened to me 3.5 hours in). You can find some audio bugs, including some bizarre engine noise related ones. The tuning and upgrades sometimes make your car slower. The map is still an absolute pain in the ass to use. Some achievements are only available in the casinos which were exclusive for pre-order copies of the game. The ‘tail my girlfriend’ missions have a terrible difficulty curve which essentially require you to know in advance when the target vehicle will be accelerating quickly. Every single item of clothing and styling appears to be taken from a parody of metrosexual clubbing gear. And that voice acting deserves another mention, just because it’s so painfully bad, and yet never so bad it’s actually funny or enjoyable.
That last paragraph may seem like we don’t enjoy Test Drive Unlimited 2, but that isn’t true. There are truly magical moments, such as the sun coming up as your drive down the coast road in a gorgeous supercar, but the problem is that we were delighted by that in the original Test Drive Unlimited. And although a side-by-side comparison with the earlier game reveals more of the improvements that have been made, four years have passed, and the bar for a lot of games has been set higher and higher. Eden are still to be applauded for doing something radically different with driving games, and doing it successfully enough to come back with a sequel – Criterion may have also managed it with Burnout and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but Bizarre Creations failed with Blur despite their PGR experience, and Black Rock Studios (formerly Climax) had similar problems with Split/Second despite their previous form with the original Xbox MotoGP games.
Summing up TDU2 reminds us of another car porn experience, when the Top Gear presenters describe their adventures as ‘ambitious but flawed’. If you can overlook the numerous bugs, the terrible characters, and the painful audio, then there’s a lovely slice of car-based exploration with some enjoyable online racing, and some bearable single-player races and challenges. But as much as some people absolutely love and adore it with a passion bordering on obsession, there’s a larger number of people who are desperately hoping that Test Drive Unlimited 3 might be the game we’ve been hoping for since the original was announced.