Reviewed: September 25, 2006
Released: September 5, 2006
Iíve been a ďTest DriverĒ since the franchise began with a single 3.5Ē floppy disk. My race driving career has taken me through such historic classics as:
So where is this history lesson leading you might ask? Well, obviously, to Test Drive Unlimited the tenth (by my count) and easily the best in the series. In fact, this has quickly risen to become my second all-time favorite racer on the Xbox 360 next to Burnout Revenge.
Test Drive has always tried to reinvent itself with each new iteration, but with Test Drive Unlimited Eden Studios and Atari have actually redefined the racing genre and set the bar so high that it might be some time before anyone else can follow in their tire tracks.
There is so much to talk about with Test Drive Unlimited but much of its appeal all boils down to sheer scale and scope of gameplay. The game is huge, taking place on the Hawaiian island of Oahu with thousands of miles of highways, mountain roads, and city streets and all accented with some of the most lush scenery and vistas of any driving game ever created.
Beyond this impressive and elaborate network of roadways, you will also get to experiment with more than 90 vehicles ranging from classic muscle cars to exotic imports, nimble motorcycles, and even the latest in contemporary designs like the new Saturn Sky.
There are 220 offline challenges spread across Oahu ranging from traditional racing to speed and time attack challenges. You also have courier challenges, vehicle transport challenges, hitchhiker challenges, and top model challenges. If there is one thing I learned about Hawaii in all of this itís that there are a lot of supermodels that donít own cars and they will hitch a ride with any stranger in a cool car.
But all of this is just the single player portion of the game. Test Drive Unlimited features a new concept dubbed M.O.O.R., otherwise known as Massive Open Online Racing. While not as regulated as a typical MMO, Test Drive Unlimited puts anyone with an Xbox Live connection into a shared online game space, so as you are tooling around the island you are likely to encounter hundreds of other real-life racers in real-time where you can challenge them to real races in any of 98 online challenges.
This is where Test Drive Unlimited excels Ė in seamlessly blending the online and offline components in such a way you donít even realize itís happening. In fact, when the servers do occasionally go down the human population of Oahu is quickly replaced with AI bots that are also up to your flashed-headlight challenges.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves we should probably start at the beginning, which just so happens to be the ticket line at what I assume to be LAX. It is here that we see the first in numerous creative concepts by simply moving through the line of potential passengers to pick your player model. There are a few male and female choices and these can be customized further a bit later in the game.
Once you have chosen your driver you hop on the plane for a nice intro movie and plane ride to Hawaii where you are promptly deposited at the car rental lot for the second brilliant concept. You must rent your car for the tutorial. Choices are few but fair and range in speed, style, and price. You are also given two rental periods, each with their own price, giving you the incentive to save money by completing the tutorial that much faster.
The tutorial drive is a fairly short trip to the local real estate office, so you can probably get by with the 8-minute rental and save a few bucks. Now itís time to buy a tropical crib, but with your limited funds you can only choose from two at the moment, a cottage or a townhouse. For now, it doesnít really matter, but later in the game you will start to acquire numerous pieces of real estate. The main advantage to this is that each house comes with a garage and a set number of spaces, which ultimate dictates how many cars you can own at one time.
Now that you have a house you need a car Ė after all you canít drive that rental for the rest of the game. Itís time to pick your first location from the map. The interface in Test Drive Unlimited is a bit awkward until you figure it out. Itís all based on the D-pad so tapping to the right pops up the map while tapping to the left brings up the radio. While the radio interface is displayed tapping to the right changes stations and double tapping changes songs, while up and down change the volume.
There is also a Chronopack; another clever device accessed from the D-pad. It allows you to setup various driving aids as well as record performance data so you can compare stats with other cars in your garage. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you figure it out a wealth of functions is a thumb press away, and you donít even have to take your eyes off the road.
The car physics are realistic enough and they certainly vary with each of the vehicles. The controller offers decent analog steering and the triggers serve as gas and brake. My one and only complaint is the awkward reverse mode that requires you to brake to absolute zero then release and re-squeeze the left trigger to go in reverse. Itís almost quicker to tap the Back button and reset your car on the road and suck up the time penalty than try to reverse out of a bad situation.
I must admit I am looking forward to testing this game with Microsoft upcoming steering wheel. I did play it with the Mad Catz MC2 wheel, and it worked well enough, but the controller just worked better for me. Perhaps Test Drive Unlimited just has that tilt toward arcade physics versus sim.
Itís probably worth mentioning that the motorcycles, while appreciated as part of the line-up, are nowhere near as functional as the cars. Their control is horrible and I avoided driving them unless it was a prerequisite for the challenge. Obviously, the designers know more about cars than they do bikes.
The beauty of Test Drive Unlimited is that there is no story and no mission structure. Itís you, in your car, on the open roads of Oahu. You decide what to do, when to do it and whom to do it with. If there is any structure at all it lies solely in the economic systems, which requires you to own various classes of cars to participate in various events. You start off with a Class F ride and move on up through A and the G muscle cars. And once you have located all the car dealers on the island you unlock the motorcycle showroom and can then explore Oahu on two wheels.
So a sample session of gameplay might go something like this. After buying your house and your car you are put into one race challenge. Once that is completed you start driving around the island. You can drive multi-lane highways or screech through twisty mountain roads or get stuck in rush hour traffic in the larger city areas.
As you drive around you will spot various icons on the map and matching symbols in the 3D world. You can access these events provided you have a qualifying car. The map is scattered with blue icons representing single player events, yellow icons for multiplayer races, and gray icons for model, hitchhiker, and transport missions.
Driving these poor supermodels around Oahu is a great way to collect clothing coupons, which you can then spend at numerous clothing shops around the island. Pick from sportswear to more exotic outfits or even get trendy with some Marc Ecko designs. You can always change your clothes and accessories back at your house as well as access your garage and your recent news items and events.
Hitchhikers, supermodels, and most importantly, the vehicle transport challenges also come with a clever risk-reward system. When you are giving somebody a lift the ingrates not only demand you get them there within a certain time limit, you have to drive cleanly as well. That means no hitting other cars and no driving off the road Ė not even two tires. There is a meter along the edge of the screen that slowly deplete with each infraction reducing your overall reward or possibly ending the mission. Completing a ďperfectĒ mission usually gets you a bonus like an extra coupon.
The big payday comes in the vehicle transport missions. Here, you get to drive exotic cars you probably canít afford to own at the time, and you must drive them 8-15 miles to their destination, only now that clean driving meter is assigned the dollar value of your fee and any scratch, dent, or tires touching grass or dirt counts off the dollars at an alarming rate. The nice thing here is that there is no time limit, so you can drive that Lamborghini like your grandma going to church, and if you get there without a scratch you get a 50% bonus to your fee. This can really add up fast.
Time, speed, and racing events all vary in length. Some are only a mile or so and take 1-3 minutes while others like the 118 mile ďTour of the IslandĒ will take at least 20-30 minutes of real-time in the fastest of cars. At any given time there can be dozens of available races, although you might have to switch cars or even buy a new one to qualify to enter.
One nice feature is that if you donít want to purchase a car (or donít have the garage space) for a specific race you can go to any of the rental agencies and rent the car you need, assuming they have it. Speaking of availability, many of the car dealerships will often be out of stock on some of the more exotic cars. Simply put in a request and you will be notified via the in-game email system when that car is back in the showroom.
The multiplayer game is not only flawless; it is perfectly integrated into the solo game experience. At any time while driving around Oahu you might see other human drivers. As you get close enough you can even hear them talking over Xbox Live. You can flash your high beams and challenge them to an impromptu race. Here, the challenger picks a starting and finishing spot and the two cars race for rank and optional cash.
There are also nearly 100 multiplayer challenges scattered about the island. When you trigger once of these events you can then pick from a ranked race or a quick race and the servers will search for available opponents. This can be a problem depending on when you are playing and how many others are online at the same time. It also seems that most gamers are sticking to the southern end of the island, so completing the multiplayer events to the north and the massive interior is hit and miss.
Of course, if you really want to get organized you can create your own Car Club, or join somebody elseís if you donít want to pony up the big bucks to start your own. Send out invites to everyone on your friends list (it will even tell you if they own the game) and then you can start to challenge rival car clubs in an entirely new element of clan-based racing.
And finally, you have the Drive-inís where you can gather and create your own set of unique challenges and even offer prizes to those who can beat your challenge. Each Drive-in offers a lengthy list of challenges and you can easily spend just as much time here as in the main game, and this is where the big money is to be made.
For those who like to tinker with their rides, there is a tuner shop where you can purchase kits for your cars, but these are pretty much pre-set increases in stats, and you really canít tweak your own settings. Still, itís better than nothing and often, a tuned D-class car might just keep you from having to buy a C-class car before you are ready.
The game is simply massive and will easily take a month or more of consistent playing to even finish the solo portion. One of the achievement point goals is to drive on every section of road on the map. Itís easy to figure this out since the roads on the map turn blue after you have driven on them, but this will still take hours and hours, even using the teleport function of the map. But even this cannot be abused since you can only teleport to areas where you have previously driven.
I should probably touch on the Oahuís finest, those boys (and girls) in blue who patrol the streets but only enforcing the law when it suits them. Racing through red lights at 200mph wonít even cause these troopers to look up from their box of donuts, but if you smash into too many cars or run over pedestrians or God forbid Ė hit one of their cars, then watch out.
Your wanted level is indicated with a series of three shields. One shield will deplete rapidly further infractions will cause that to rise to level two where it gets harder to lose the cops. If you get to level three you had better break out the checkbook. A distance meter shows how far the cops are and in what direction. You can always lose the cops by driving off the road, but your wanted level only depletes when you are on pavement. Even worse Ė all of your previous infractions from other chases you may have escaped from are all tallied up for the final bill when you inevitably get caught by the cops.
For the most part, Test Drive Unlimited is a breathtaking experience when it comes to the visuals with the one glaring exception being the character models. The initial character selection quickly turns into the lesser of six evils. The women arenít particularly hot and the guys are generic at best. Even with facial tweaking and hundreds of clothing coupons, I canít make my female driver as attractive as I want. The models are just low in polygons with flat textures and creepy facial details. The same goes for all of the rest of the characters in the game. In fact, they all look like they were built using the same base model with subtle random features substituted in.
But honestly, this is a racing game so who cares about the driver or the pedestrians. The cars look fantastic, equally as good as those in Ridge Racer 6 which are still some of the best cars on the Xbox 360 for sheer smoothness of design and polish of paint. The real treat here is the detailed interiors and yes; there is a drivable cockpit view that will make PGR fans envious. You can explore these interiors in detail in the car showroom where you can open the doors and even play with the power windows.
The island of Oahu is certainly a fresh change of pace from the typical settings we are often forced to drive. This is truly a paradise and you can easily get caught up in the scenery and lush tropical environments. Best of all, the entire island is yours to explore regardless of where the road takes you. If you spot a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance there is nothing stopping you from driving that Ferrari through the trees and tall grass right up to the base of the falls.
While relatively self-contained, the island of Oahu offers several variations in themes and designs. You can find yourself in typical city environments for squared off racing through city blocks, or you can find yourself racing at top speed on four-lane highways through the center of the island or twisting through curving mountain passes to reach a lighthouse on a cliff or an observatory on a mountain peak.
The official game guide comes with a massive poster map that literally looks like something youíd pull from your glove box. And best of all, even with thousands of miles of roads, you can literally drive anywhere on this island for as long as you want and never see a load screen. This is the epitome of streaming technology.
The game races past at blistering framerates. I opted for the 720p mode, which kept things just slightly smoother than the 1080i mode but not quire as crisp. There are all sorts of nice flairs like virtual tours through the houses you can buy and a rather addictive photo mode where you can pose your car and snap pictures using all sorts of lenses and special effects.
Of course the coolest effect in the game is the seamless animated transitions between the 3D world and the 2D GPS map screen. Zooming in you can see the ocean rippling, boats cruising, and even watch airplanes taxi down runways or fly across the map.
My only complaint is that there is no night driving and no rain. Come on Ė this is Hawaii. It rains four times a day, and why does my night and day cycle have to end and start with sunset and sunrise? I know my cars have headlights Ė I flash them to instigate races.
Test Drive Unlimited comes with a decent, if not somewhat small soundtrack. 30+ songs might sound like a lot but in actuality that is just over two hours of music and some of the larger races can eat up a big chunk of that. Plus, not all the music is going to appeal to everybody. Iím a big fan of most genres, but the track selection was either too obscure or just plain wrong for me. Out of the 30-some tracks, I found about six I could really enjoy and another ten I could tolerate. You can create your own custom mixes using your own music provided your play list is named ďtestdriveĒ.
The speech is forgettable, often as awkward as the character models, and itís not really geared toward gender so you can hear some provocative dialogue when the female supermodel tells your female driver how ďhot and bothered and sweatyĒ she is and that she should car her sometime. The most annoying voice in the game is the GPS, but at least that can be toggled off.
The rest of the sound package is pretty much engine noises, tires screeching, and metal crunching in collisions. The engine sounds vary with the style and size of the car so you have the growl of a muscle car to the whine of a Jaguar and everything in-between.
Test Drive Unlimited is massive, both as a single player game and as an endless online multiplayer experience. And best of all, those two arenít segregated. You can drop into a multiplayer challenge just as easily as you can a solo race and thanks to handy AI bots, the multiplayer can continue even if the servers arenít working at the moment.
There are some clever Achievement points with this game that will require you to own various numbers of cars and properties as well as ranking up and driving certain amounts of miles. Joining or creating a car club gets you some points as does collecting certain makes of cars or buying certain clothes. There is never a shortage of objectives in Test Drive Unlimited.
Test Drive Unlimited is a bold new vision for what has become a rather stale genre. I had high hopes for this same multiplayer concept with EA attempted it with Motor City Online, only to watch that fail miserably. Now Atari gets it right, by combining a solid solo racing game with a substantial multiplayer component and blending them together so well you canít really tell when you are playing online or off.
There are a few issues that could have been given some more attention. The character models definitely need an overhaul and the motorcycles should be removed entirely. You typically canít use a car-racing engine to drive a motorcycle game, or vice versa, so pick your genre and stick with it.
Sadly, Test Drive Unlimited is probably the closest I will ever get to Oahu, but thanks to Eden and some of the best environmental visuals I have seen this year, I can comfortably say I have already been there. And even though you might eventually finish this game someday, the multiplayer will keep you coming back for frequent visits. There is truly no limit to the enjoyment and endless challenges you will find with Test Drive Unlimited.