Developer: Melbourne House Studio
Release Date: March 21, 2007
Test Drive Unlimited originally debuted on the Xbox 360 last summer, and was released with quite a few technical problems apparent in the online play. These issues were eventually taken care of via downloadable patches, and fans of the series were mostly receptive toward the game. It was fairly different from your average racing title because if you connected into Xbox Live while playing, you'd be privy to a perpetual online world where you could challenge other players to races on the fly. Everything else about the game, such as the pacing and the money gathering, highly resembled the style of gameplay present in most MMORPGs; therefore, Atari coined the phrase "Massively Open Online Racing." Atari had intentions from the start to release Test Drive Unlimited on multiple platforms, and after a marginally successful PlayStation 2 version late last year, the franchise has now been brought to the PSP.
Sony's handheld gaming unit is infamous for presenting control problems with a bevy of gaming genres, but, luckily, racing is not one of them. Since a racing title doesn't really need two analog sticks to keep you pointed in the right direction, a PSP port was an overall great decision. The handheld format is perfect for the racing genre, as the gameplay style is designed for quick and easy pick-up-and play sessions; although that's not entirely what you're going to get with Test Drive Unlimited. Much like the home console versions, Test Drive on the PSP moves at a deliberately slow pace. You can still pick up the game and play through a few quick races for a brief session, but you're going to have to invest a lot more time into it to really make any sufficient progress.
The game begins with a cut scene of your controlled character catching a flight to the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and afterwards, you'll choose between several different cars you can take out as a rental and then move to the streets with enough cash to buy your first vehicle and your first house. Once you have those necessities locked down, you can check on your computer at home for messages regarding new race challenges or club invites. You're able to explore the entire island of Oahu from the start, and while you drive the streets, your GPS system will guide you toward races in which you can compete for cash and fame, referred to as Master Points; you can also manually set a target location on the map if you're looking to join a club and work your way up through the clubhouse ranks. The game's progression revolves around navigating the map, winning races for cash to purchase better cars and homes, and building up your driver's ranking by racking up Master Points.
When you're playing the game offline, your only options are traversing the map, racing against CPU opponents, or aiming for the fastest clear time in time trial courses. If you take the game online, though, you'll see other players cruising around Oahu, signified by a name in text above their vehicles, whom you can challenge on the spot or sometimes find competing in the races scattered across the map. With the inclusion of other players, online play has much more to offer in the way of longevity, and, ultimately, much more enjoyment. There's no need to write off the game if you don't have a wi-fi connection readily available, however, because there's still plenty to do either way. Online's just the more prominent, and more gratifying, way to go.
One of the big differences between online and offline is the inclusion of police cruisers while playing offline. Test Drive Unlimited's controls aren't necessarily bad, but as with any racing game, it doesn't allow you much control over your acceleration, and while going at faster speeds, you're susceptible to the occasional auto collision here or there. Either way you play, there are plenty of NPC-driven automobiles crowding the streets, which means there's an abundance of potential fender benders waiting to happen.
During offline mode, if you're caught speeding, driving the wrong way down the freeway or even scraping against another vehicle on the road, you'll alert any police cruisers in the area who will then track you down and dog your every move until you pull off to the side of the road. Unfortunately, this leads to a rather frustrating series of events, as anytime you're pulled over for a violation, you're ticketed and stuck with a rather hefty fine. If you're trying to build up enough cash to purchase a car from the next tier of vehicles, these fines can quickly take their toll and put to waste any prize money you won competing in your last event.
Considering that you literally have to drive from event to event across the very large map, you're rarely going to be able to make it from one event to the next without any collisions taking place. Therefore, every time that you win a race and take a step forward, as soon as you make the slightest mistake traveling to your next event, you're going to take another step backward. In the world of MMORPGs, this is known as falling into a time sink, hence the reason why Test Drive Unlimited is aptly titled as a Massively Open Online Racing game, as it carries a lot of similar characteristics to the MMO genre.
Of course, you can make building up cash easier if you're able to finish every event in first place in the higher difficulty settings, but that's not always going to happen. One of the game's most prominent flaws lies in the imbalance of difficulty from one setting to another. In easy mode, you can practically lap your opponents every single time, but if you turn up the difficulty a notch, to medium, you're usually lucky if you can finish higher than third.
This easily presents a problem, since the amount of money awarded to you for finishing in third place on the medium difficulty is usually the same amount you receive for finishing first in easy, and what compounds the issue even more is the fact that you don't really earn that much at all for finishing either way. Your average prize for first place in easy (or third in medium) is around $5,000, while the average traffic violation will run you $2,000. If you take into consideration that the second-tier vehicles start at around $175, 000, it's quite obvious that you're going to have to sink a lot of playing time into this game to advance at all.
The grind of driving from race to race may wear on you after a while, but at least you'll have some nice visuals to look at while you're at it. The island of Oahu is represented accurately, from one side of the island to the next, and it does look fairly stunning on the handheld console. There's a lot of variation between car models, and a wide assortment of cars to purchase from real car manufacturers, all across the globe. There's not much in the way of effects, damage-wise, and it's always daytime, but if you're only in it for some good clean racing, you're not really going to notice the absence. Instead of coming up with original music, Test Drive Unlimited is packed with licensed music tracks from a bunch of relatively unknown indie artists, and they get the job done. The music isn't going to keep you enthralled, but on the bright side, it's not going to distract you, either.
In the end, it all comes down to what you're looking for in a racing game. Test Drive Unlimited for the PSP has the potential to keep you playing for months on end, as long as you don't sit down for extended sessions. You can play through a few races, save your game and pickup right where you left off at a later time, without running the risk of boredom setting in prematurely. This game will easily appeal to car aficionados, as there are plenty of cars to choose from, multiple ways to tune and upgrade your vehicle, and all of the races take place wherever the start-up point was at on the map, so there's an insurmountable number of "unique" courses. The game's biggest detractor is that the offline play will inevitably turn into more of a grind than a pleasant experience, so unless your house has w-ifi, it's not really a worthwhile purchase. Test Drive Unlimited is also purely a simulation racing game, so if you're more into the arcade racing style, you're better off sticking to the Burnouts and Need for Speeds of the racing genre. However, if you have a readily available wi-fi connection and simulation racing is your bag, picking up this game should be an easy decision.
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