Developer: Eden Studios
Release Date: Q2 2006
Built for the X360 and PC, Test Drive Unlimited is positioning itself to take the pole position as the next-generation video game of the driving genre. French developer Eden Studios is trying to give you a real, movie-life feel in the game with a huge sandbox map, driving, shopping, real estate, and dealerships to buy your wheels. Toss in some extra side plots, and it sounds like a great game, but that is a lot to do from a development standpoint. Can everything that Eden and Atari have together make this grand vision a reality?
We were curious, and this week, we finally got to get our hands on Test Drive Unlimited and take it for a spin. Indeed, Eden Studios has created a sandbox environment, with natural boundaries. If you've been following Test Drive Unlimited, it's been well known that the location of the game is Hawaii. We were told that it was "the Big Island," but it seems that our French friends have not been to the middle of the Pacific. It's got the North Shore, the busiest airport, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and Aloha Stadium, which makes this sandbox Oahu! No offense to its bigger neighbor, but little Oahu is much more exciting for an environment if a game is truly going to attempt replication of reality. Test Drive Unlimited takes the whole island as a game map, with over 1,000 miles of streets and highways for cruising and racing pleasure.
In and of itself, driving around Oahu was like a trip down memory lane. In comparison to one recent title which replicated Manhattan, it doesn't have the level of detail necessary where Test Drive Unlimited would need to get a waiver for almost every building, but it is easy to discern locations and places that look quite similar to reality in Oahu. We cruised from Pearl, past the airport and Aloha Stadium into downtown Honolulu, then on to Waikiki and out to Diamond Head, where we got lost trying to get into the crater – again, just like the last time in real life.
Given that experience, it seems Test Drive Unlimited has the blacktop for the game locked down, but, with a sunny home like this and an open map, Test Drive Unlimited needs more than a pure progression from race to race in order to work – it needs a story.
The story of Test Drive Unlimited is life, and the start of a good one. Get off the plane as a transplant to the island, rent a car, buy a house, get some clothes, and figure out what to do in paradise. By most people's standards, that's a pretty good gig. This is where the saying, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it," comes in pretty handy.
Begin by designing your character, from skull size to skin color, to the shape of your nose. Character creation will become quite a comprehensive utility for making a character look like – well, like everyone wished they actually looked.
Step on over to the rental agency for some wheels, and the action begins. It's a good idea to go buy a house right away, and don't worry about space; the smallest place any agent will sell in Test Drive Unlimited has a four-car garage to store the first few ponies of a car collection. The house we got was a little shack, but it was only $160,000 for the place, which is a total steal for Oahu's normal prices.
With a base of operations, the sky is the limit. There will be many options for racing, with offline races pre-positioned throughout the island, but that's only the beginning. While online, players with similar skills and cars will also appear on the roadways of Oahu in Test Drive Unlimited. Flash your lights to challenge or accept, and the race is on. Supporting up to eight players at once, this instant challenge is the way Test Drive Unlimited creates the spontaneous racing experience.
If the pre-existing offline challenges or the instant online challenges aren't enough, players will be able to launch the challenge editor. Instead of a map editor, Test Drive Unlimited will incorporate a mechanism for players to sponsor their own challenges. Decide on the course, set the entry fee, and decide how big a purse to pay to the winner. Voila! Homemade challenge!
With races easily found all over the island, you should take some time to shop to make your character trendier, and then stop by a dealership. With over 125 models licensed in the game (will they have a Skyline GT?), there are many dealerships from which to choose. The showrooms are already extremely well rendered, and the cars are all waiting there for everyone to drool over. Win enough cash racing today, and take home an Alpha tomorrow with all of the dealer customizations you can afford. We were looking for an independent shop to make some additional modifications, but it doesn't seem to be in the works for Test Drive Unlimited.
With all of this focus on creating a movie life-like experience, it is prudent to note that Test Drive Unlimited is not a driving sim. In fact, it currently leans very strongly toward arcade indicators when it comes to handling. There will also be motorcycles in Test Drive Unlimited, but only one bike was available, so we'll have to wait until the number of models increases for sampling.
All things considered, Test Drive Unlimited is a very ambitious undertaking and is surely a lot to compute, even for the X360. There is still a lot to be done, but the guys from Eden Studios appeared determined to get everything right in the short time they have left. As dusk approached while I was white-lining through traffic on my bike after the event, one question came to mind that I did not get to ask, "Will there be a 24-hour day/night cycle in this moderate replication of reality?" We will have to wait and see, but it's almost scary to visualize traveling more than 100mph on some Oahu roads in the dark. That would be a challenge to live for!
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