Developer: Melbourne House
Release Date: March 20, 2007
Playing Test Drive Unlimited on the PS2 gave me an unusually strong feeling of déjà vu. It took a little time to nail it down, but I figured it out: It reminds me a lot of when I played Driver on the original PlayStation.
Both games arrived fairly late in their respective console's life cycles, both feature open worlds that exceed the technological grasp of the hardware they ended up on, spending much of your time avoiding the cops, looking around is done with the trigger buttons, and there are half-hearted attempts at realistic geography and landmarks. Additionally, there are repetitive and often ugly textures, painfully basic building geometry, a subdued sense of speed, lots of pop-up and draw-in, no right analog stick gas/brake, and mediocre sound effects. They've both had better outings on later hardware generations already and even had better-looking competition on the same platforms (Gran Turismo, NFS, Burnout), so you'd be tempted to ask, "Why bother?"
Sure, if you plunked down the crazy cash for a PS3 or X360, you're playing this game in high-def glory and don't give a spit about the old-time version squeezed onto hardware that's sub-par for what the game is trying to accomplish. But for the 80 million or so PS2 players out here still trying to squeeze some joy out of their current investments, TDU gets it done. It's another case where not having the best and the brightest effects doesn't hinder the fact that it's not only a competent racer, it damn near redefines the genre.
Step off the plane with your avatar in sunny Oahu, pick up a rental car, and get to the auto shopping. The game is more about living the life of a race driver in paradise than just navigating menus and selecting races from a tournament tree. This is reinforced by the fact that you have to drive to every location and event you want to attend on this big island the first time you go there, but allowing you to skip the tedium by warping there each subsequent time, if you so choose. You also have to keep earning money to buy more houses as your garages fill up.
The in-game GPS navigation always keeps you on track to your next event, location, or any point you choose on the map. Want to just put some miles on your fancy new wheels? Pick a far off point on the island, the GPS will set you the quickest route, and then you're off. No pressure, no deadlines — just explore and cruise. These are the least stressful moments in the game, and are where much of the multiplayer action will happen. I didn't have much luck finding races at the drive-ins where online players congregate, but I did get into several impromptu create-a-race situations with players I just happened to be passing by on the freeway.
However, a few goofy design decisions limit the feeling of really exploring the island. For example, several objects that would pose no challenge to a car barreling down the road in real life — or even in most other games — bring you screeching to a halt, including lampposts and some road signs, curbs, and even tiny bushes. There are tiny walls dividing a golf course from the road that you should totally be able to drive right over, but forget it. Little things like this can throw annoying wrinkles into a race, dumping you from first to last in a hurry if you don't know what to expect.
The overall racing feel isn't quite simulation, but it's not really arcade-y either. Power slides (a.k.a. drifting) can be very tricky to do, and it changes with every car. Forget about the beautiful slides you pulled out in Burnout Revenge. Put a tire in the grass on Oahu, and you're liable to stay there for a while trying to reorient yourself. But on the other hand, if you're hauling it down the freeway and need to take an unexpected exit, you can use the guard rails to steer your way through steep curves, losing little or no speed. Collisions with other cars are often comical, where giving them a little nudge will send the car flying into the air. It's handy when you drop them on one of your competitors, but it's rarely predictable enough to be used deliberately. And speaking of realism, did I tell you about the time a cop "lost" me when he was driving right beside me? True story.
In addition to winning money toward purchasing new cars and buying new houses, the other most important number in the game is your experience. In keeping with the MMO theme, you gain ranks (Amateur, Rookie, Pro, etc.) to unlock new event types as you gain XP, which is acquired simply from driving more and more. There's a catch, though. You can't just drop a brick on the accelerator and come back in an hour and have gained a level. You have to keep your tires on the road to be earning steady XP, and drifting, drafting, or catching air adds on more points. This isn't about dangerous driving, though, you Burnout addicts; TDU couldn't be less like Criterion's flagship series if it tried. You're rewarded here for driving skillfully, not idiotically — or at least as skillfully as you can within the oddball arcade/sim hybrid control setup.
TDU is a game you can get lost in, if you can put aside the lack of visual luster for a moment. While the blah appearance of everything makes it difficult to recognize different areas of the island on sight, it's still fun to look around, find random races and other events, and keep checking back on the map to see how many of the literally hundreds of events you've driven past (and thus can warp back to whenever you want).
It's a game you'll likely spend a great deal of time with in any given sitting. With this in mind, and how much you can sink into the game without even thinking about it, why there was no apparent option to reconfigure the controls at all — namely putting the gas and brake to the right analog stick — confounds me. After a few hours with the game, my thumb had a sore dent in it from holding down the X button. Instead, the analog stick is used to look around, something equally well accomplished using the trigger buttons. Considering your thumb will be on the X button for gas, it's not wise to lift your finger to the stick to look around. It's an awfully dated design choice, one step up from steering with the d-pad.
Speaking of the d-pad, this is where you manage many of the in-game options on the fly. You can survey the area when online to see what players are nearby and lock onto them, adjust the radio options, put your windows up and down (yawn), or adjust the braking and handling automation, which, no matter what setting I had it on, always felt about the same.
But let's talk about the radio for a second. Out of the probably 50 songs here, I found about five I could tolerate or that felt appropriate and not narcoleptic for a racing game. They're sorted by genre (techno, country, rock, classical, etc.) and you can mark your own faves and make playlists, but it's all uninspired, unlicensed music that was better left off most of the time. What really cracked me up were the tunes in the Classical section. Ride of the Valkyries? Brandenburg Concerto? The Four Seasons? Do people really race to that stuff? I didn't.
All of these quibbles aside, the MMO aspects of the game are what make it stand apart, and luckily, the developers took good notes from other games. There was something about World of Warcraft that kept me drawn in for hour after hour, trying to just finish one more quest or get one more level. This is something TDU emulates admirably. Your experience score is always on the screen, ticking up, just dangling the next difficulty level barely within reach. The auto-GPS option instantly charts a course to the next nearby racing event that you qualify for, either in rank or vehicle. This, paired with the generally enjoyable driving feel, makes it difficult to unplug. Just follow that blue line, and you're onto the next race or challenge.
Moreover, the variety and sheer number of events are really impressive. Some dare a few new tricks as well, like the speed traps. This is a pre-set section of road with speed cameras set at specific points along the way, and the goal is to average a certain speed when passing all of these cameras. The mean of these snapshots is calculated at the end, and you're usually within just one or two miles per hour of the gold medal score, egging you on to try and try again until you nail it. Penalties are taken for going off-road as well, so it really forces you to learn every vehicle's unique handling and speed specs.
Other events include racing clubs, where you race each member one-on-one till you become president (granting you free upgrades), and straight up four-, six-, or eight-car races, available on Easy, Medium, and Hard, which determines the pay-out at the end of the race for the top three. The harder you race, the more you make, doubling with each increase in difficulty. Then there are point-to-point races, where you simply have to get to the end in a specific amount of time or less. This is where using the guard rail as a guide comes in handy, if cheap. The auto-GPS rarely points you to similar events over and over, which keeps things fresh.
The two main differences between racing on- and offline are that online, there are no cops, so the other cars around you (i.e., players) tend to bash into you a lot more. Having police online would have been a nice deterrent to players just being jerks to one another, but maybe next time. There were a scarce few actual races going on in the online world, despite around 120-140 players being on at the different times I played. But by far the most common thing I saw was racers playing tag or a kind of demolition derby, despite the game's complete lack of damage modeling or effects. You have the option to host or search for other games meeting specific criteria, but most of the people I saw didn't bother coming online with anything but the best cars in the game. If all you have is a Ford Mustang, good luck rubbing elbows with the Lamborghinis and McLarens.
There is a friends list in the game, and using it to send and receive invites is pretty easy, and thanks goodness for that since there's no way to communicate once in the game. There is no text or voice messaging; all you can do is get within about 10 yards of the given car and flash your headlights. If he accepts, you set your points and start the race. If not, well, keep on cruising around.
The reward system is a little different online. You generally don't compete for money or pink slips (which would have been cool), but just against the world record for that track. They aren't sorted by vehicle class, and it won't tell you much, other than the name of the person who set the record, so if you don't have one of the best cars in the game, don't even think about creaming that high score.
The overall strength of Test Drive Unlimited on the PS2 isn't in its presentation — these sights and sounds are far better on other consoles — but the scope of what it set out to do in the first place, which was to really bring about the next evolution in the genre. Driver feebly built a vision of automobiles roaming through realistic cities that GTA and Midnight Club later more fully realized, and now TDU raised the bar once again, moving from one city to a large island with several cities. It's not as pretty as many of the other games mentioned here, but it's good enough to keep me playing and looking ahead to what's inevitably next. Whole countries rendered? Race the world? Someday, and when we get there, TDU must be noted as an accomplished, if not exceptional, stepping stone on that path.
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