Developer: Eden Studios
Release Date: September 5, 2006
Test Drive Unlimited may turn out to be the game that Atari bets its future on. Strapped for cash, the company has been selling off IPs left and right, most notably the Driver franchise (to Midway) and TimeShift (to the late Vivendi-Universal, now Sierra). Early looks at the game were skeptical, and in particular the first demo released to XBox Live drew mixed responses. Eden Studios and Atari have put in overtime polishing the game and now, finally, it's ready for a September release.
The preview build is essentially complete at this point, and the final shape of Test Drive Unlimited is simply unlike any previous driving game. It may not even be proper to consider it just a driving game, since it blends in many elements of online play from FPS and the MMORPG genre, along with elements of the GTA-generated sandbox genre. The final result feels familiar, but is not quite like any game you've ever played before. It is perhaps one of the purest expressions of gaming as the exploration of a virtual world ever made, and definitely the purest you can play on the Xbox 360. Atari has taken to calling this new genre "MOOR", or "Massive Open Online Racing", and that seems to describe Test Drive Unlimited as well as anything else you could call it.
A game of Test Drive Unlimited begins in an airport, where you select one of seven people who are standing in line at an airport to become your avatar for the duration of your game. Once you've picked out that character, you'll see him or her fly to Hawaii in a cut-scene. Upon arriving on Oahu, you rent a car and then go through the game's tutorial phase, which consists of little more than driving to a car dealership so you can buy your first car. In that period you quickly adjust to the wonderfully simple driving controls. Pulling back on the right trigger is like stepping down on the gas pedal. Tapping the left trigger once applies the brakes, and tapping twice sends the car into reverse. The left analog stick steers while the right stick allows you to adjust the camera somewhat (though it snaps back to a central view once you remove pressure).
You can choose from a variety of default camera angles by tapping the right bumper, which includes a variety of third- and first-person views. Probably the most unique is the "interior" view, which lets you see your car's dashboard and your character's hands moving appropriately as you drive. The left trigger button lets you briefly use a camera view that shows you your care from the front. The D-Pad lets you call up some optional controls, like the windows and whether or not you listen to one of the GTA-style themed radio stations in the game. Face buttons handle detailed, advanced functions like shifting gears up or down, using your handbrake, or simply turning on your headlights.
The driving controls in Test Drive Unlimited are not realistic in any strict sense of the term. Most cars have preternaturally good brakes and you won't find yourself needing to bother with shifting gears too often. Still, there is a sense of precision to them that you would be hard-pressed to find in other racing titles, particularly ones that aren't strictly simulations. Driving through urban areas to find your first car dealership, for example, you'll find that traffic actually obeys fairly realistic traffic laws. You can actually match your speed to surrounding traffic simply by eyeballing the traffic pattern and listening to your car's engine. You need to stop at red lights, especially if there's a line of cars waiting, and at stop signs. Likewise, it's actually safer to yield at yield signs.
This may sound dull, but there are very few racing games that offer control schemes precise enough to even roughly simulate what it's like to drive in a city environment. In most games that even bother with traffic lights or signs, it's either impossible or every difficult to actually obey them. Test Drive Unlimited doesn't force you to drive safely at all times, as you can speed or drive offroad if you like. You may get fined if you wreck a bunch of cars, but that's about the worst of it. Still, there is something satisfying about playing a driving game that allows you to simply cruise around while driving like a normal human being. It adds a lot to the verisimilitude of the experience even when consciously you're aware that the controls and other elements of the game are really quite fantastic.
The next thing you'll probably notice while making that first drive to pick up your first car is how beautiful Oahu is. The in-game simulation would probably not be convincing to someone who had lived on the island, and at times TDU's inhuman within-meters accuracy to the road layout of the real Oahu seems almost constraining. There are large portions of the island with no interesting locations to drive to, and the vast majority of your stores and other locations are focused in Honolulu, on the southern portion of the island. A GTA-style "not Hawaii really" island might have made for a more balanced experience. Still, the immense faithfulness and beauty of the real-world visuals is overwhelming.
You can kill hours in TDU just cruising around to examine the details in the buildings that cluster along the roads, or the varying sorts of palm trees and other local flora, or watching the sun set as you speed along a beachside highway. In third-person camera views, you can also see the way light plays off of your particular car's design, and can if you like simply park your car and examine the details of your ride. You may be tempted to do this with your rental car, which is going to be an extremely high-quality model you won't be able to buy something comparable to for quite some time. The car brands are all real-world makes and models that are reproduced down to the finest details for both the exterior and interior. You can even tune and customize your car using the manufacturer's actual optional parts, interiors, and paint colors.
You begin the game with $200,000 dollars, although you won't be able to buy any truly outstanding cars with that yet. What you can buy is limited by your license in the game, and your license only improves as you participate in activities like races, time trials, and missions to assign other citizens. The activities you participate in can be online, multiplayer challenges or solo challenges against the computer. As the game begins, though, you won't be able to spend more than around $40,000 dollars on a car. You can buy from a wide array of real-world manufacturers, primarily American companies with a few European manufacturers whose cars aren't actually available in the US mixed in. Fords, Audis, Alfa Romeo, Pontiac, Chevrolets, and unique and classic cars can all be purchased. After purchasing your car then you'll go to purchase your first house, which goes through your next $150,000.
Your house lets you store multiple cars in one handy location, and you can also sort through things like news, photos of your cars, challenges you've created for others to play online, and customizing your avatar's appearance both with sliders and clothes you've purchased at shops. Once you have your first house and car you'll participate in an easy solo race to let you get used to completing activities, and you'll win a little bit of money. Once that's done, you're free to explore and do whatever you like. If you play the game online, which is required to get the full effect, then you can go to joining clubs, interacting with other players, and trying to amass money to buy more cars and homes. If you're into motorcycles then you can begin buying bikes and customizing a set of biker gear for your avatar.
A game like Test Drive Unlimited was not possible for any console until this technology generation. Whether it goes down in gaming history as an artifact of its times or a massive innovation in game design remains to be seen. In the meantime, it's a very interesting game at an affordable price (only $40) that offers a lot of possibilities to gamers who love the socializing possibilities of online interaction. Playing Test Drive Unlimited online really feels like exploring a sort of virtual world thriving with other people. It may not appeal to everyone, as its goals are wholly free-form unless you opt to go for Achievements and there's no narrative to try and give any structure to what you do. It's really a game where you just simulate getting into any car you want and driving as far and as fast as you like without being constrained by worries like gasoline or cost of living or anything else. It's not the sort of completely blatant wish-fulfillment video games usually deal in, but it's definitely a relaxing sort of escapism.
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