Reviewed: July 9, 2002
Released: June 11, 2002
I’ve been a “Test Driver” since the franchise began with a single 3.5” floppy disk. My tour of duty has taken me through such historic classics as:
While the franchise started off strong it was quickly left in the dust by EA’s Need for Speed series that managed to release a bigger and better title each time Accolade would release a new Test Drive game. I still played each new Test Drive out of some compelling obligation (yes – even in 1990 I was a gaming freak-a-zoid), but as the series kept growing my desire to play each new release waned and after a horrible experience with Test Drive 6 I sword to never touch another Test Drive game.
Well who was I foolin’? As soon as I heard that Test Drive was coming out on the Xbox something snapped in my head, and I knew I had to see this new game despite the fact it was still being developed by Pitbull Syndicate, the perpetrators behind every Test Drive game since the series started sucking (that would be TD4 and everything after).
Previous games in the series have always been geared toward a driving simulator rather than a game. The Xbox version of Test Drive attempts to reinvent the franchise by introducing flashier gameplay that hearkens to the arcade action of Project Gotham Racing or Midnight Club. I’m assuming this drastic change in design is responsible for the lack of a number after the title. Pitbull is obviously trying to disassociate itself with the previous blunders and start anew.
Test Drive offers a good, yet typical selection of racing modes. You have the quick and single races along with multiplayer split-screen challenges and the Underground (story/career) mode. The Underground mode is the main part of the game, and will be occupying most of your time with this title.
Test Drive Underground puts you behind the wheel as Dennis Black, a new rising star in the illicit world of street racing. Before you go screaming about a Fast and the Furious rip-off, be aware that this game is much deeper than that movie – at least on some levels. The underworld is populated with some interesting drivers who liven up the races with playful banter and challenging driving AI. There are 16 unique personalities and I found every one of them to be clever, fun, and simply delightful.
These opponents all have their own strengths and weakness and you will race against the same group in each city. This affords you the opportunity to learn these weaknesses and exploit them in the later and more challenging levels. This added element of racing strategy is a most welcome addition to an otherwise typical arcade racer.
You begin your life of crime in San Francisco racing for the mysterious Mr. Clark; only seen on the video monitor, he is just a slight upgrade of the Angels’ Charlie. Rather than assigning mysteries to bimbos, Clark assigns you cars, races, cash, and the occasional tidbit of advice you could probably get in a fortune cookie.
You start off with some night driving around the deserted streets of the city by the bay. I hate driving at night; both in games and in real life, but I managed to make my way through the first few races and found the cars handled quite well. The control scheme is quite intuitive and after I learned how to finesse the handbrake I was winning race after race.
Races vary between linear courses, circuit courses with multiple laps, and drag races. Adding to the already-suspenseful nature of illegal racing, some events will be tipped off to the cops meaning you need to keep an eye on that radar detector. Unlike past games that featured cop chases, these guys don’t single you out of the pack. On multiple occasions I have been able to slam my opponent into the curb and watch him get pulled over and busted in my rearview. When the cops do decide to target you it will take every ounce of your driving skill to avoid getting rammed out of the race.
Races earn you money and humorous comments from your opponents. Pink slip races will reward you with opponent vehicles that you can add to your ever-growing stable of cars. When you finish a city you will also unlock 4 bonus cars. There are 40 cars to collect in the entire game giving you a great deal of variety and freedom in your racing.
The Underground mode is further expanded upon with the implementation of a few mini-games. Drag Racing puts you on a straight stretch of road in a fast car with a manual transmission. It’s all about properly timed shifting if you want to win these sprint races. You also get to don a uniform and get behind the wheel of a cop car. Chase down and smash into the pack of racers until they can’t drive anymore to win this game.
While the control is rock solid the physics leave a bit to be desired – even for an arcade racing game. Maybe I am too used to games like Rallisport or Project Gotham, but Test Drive just seemed to have a substantial absence of gravity. Even after mastering the touchy handbrake, the cars still drive like they are on ice. This does lend itself to some dazzling displays of cars in flight when you drive off a typical San Francisco street hill at 120mph, but it also creates some annoying crashes, flips, and general mayhem; especially when the aggressive crash-hungry cops join the fracas. Big air and spectacular crashes make for good TV spots and opening movies, but not necessarily good gameplay.
Test Drive has some good graphics but nothing outstanding and nothing that even begins to approach the quality of first-gen release titles such as Project Gotham. The cars are modeled well but the textures are flat and uninspired. There is also some substantial flickering in the backgrounds that is more common to a PS2 game.
The levels themselves are quite detailed with accurate scenery and streets taken right from the actual cities of Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Building textures are adequately detailed and vary enough that they don't repeat too often, yet simple things like the cloudless skies are painfully simple. It all blisters by at a smooth 60fps, so even thought it's not as detailed as it could be, it is fast.
Given the power of the nVidia graphics chip, I was surprised to find this game was using the old trick of mapping reflections onto objects rather than rendering them in real-time. Not only are these reflections out of synch with the rest of the action; they are not entirely consistent. Some things reflect while others are obviously missing.
Special effects and extra details are hit and miss. You can see nice subtleties like lens flares on lights, and trash that blows around the streets as your cars streak by. You can even see the drivers inside the cars during the replay and they respond to the motion of the car in a realistic fashion. But you also have the glaring omission of car damage or any type of special effects during crashes. You can flip your car 32 times, bounce off a building, hit a truck and land on your wheels and keep going without a single dent or cracked window.
It seems that a whenever a developer realizes they have a mediocre title about to release they run out and secure enough big-name artists to hopefully blind the gaming public. After all, Alice Deejay, Aurora Borealis, Bubba Sparxxx, DMX, CRUD, Ja Rule, Junkie XL, Saliva, Young MC, and Moby wouldn’t lend their musical talents to a bad game…would they?
Sound effects are all pretty average. Tires squeal and engines whine but you won’t be able to hear any difference between a Vette, Cobra, Viper, or Jaguar. And there should definitely be a big difference between these high-end sports cars and a good throaty roar of Skeeter’s GTO or Resse’s Camaro. Crash noises are uninspired, but so are the visuals, so no great loss there.
While the game makes some reasonable use of surround sound there is no Dolby Digital support, so the 3D effects are rather limited and even with a thumping soundtrack my subwoofer never tingled once. The center channel is never used directly unless you are forcing a mix from your main speakers.
The voices are all pretty good and highly distinct. You have the sexy Lisa Lux whose voice is always full of sexual innuendo, and the stoned valley dude, Reese, who should probably be in rehab rather than behind the wheel. Mr. Clark has that deep powerful voice suitable to a figure shrouded in mystery throughout the game. Of all the characters, the only voice I found to be lacking was mine. Dennis Black just didn’t sound like a tough street racer.
The career mode tied together with the interesting story is a great idea and the mini games add to the novelty of this title. You can expect 20-30 hours of typical racing action with Test Drive, and the multiplayer racing may add a few more hours onto this. Unfortunately, there just isn’t a lot of substance to this game and once you are finished there is little reason to replay it.
Well once again I find myself disappointed with another Test Drive game. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I did have some high expectations after seeing the TV spots on MTV and the simple fact that this was on the Xbox. As a game reviewer I should know better than anyone that ads are cleverly engineered to make anything and everything look better than it is, and just because a game gets put on a great system doesn’t make it a great game.
Test Drive is simply a lackluster effort by all involved. This game could have been so much more, but with mediocre graphics, sound, and limited gameplay potential, you are left with an average arcade racing game. The only problem is that there are some great racing games already out there, and when it comes time to plunk that $49.99 on the counter, games like RalliSport, Burnout, and Project Gotham are more deserving of your dollar.