Test Drive Unlimited Review
Written : Sunday, July 29, 2007
By: David Pitchforth (GT: DaveyPitch)
Racing games are a long time staple genre for every console. You’ve got your arcade racing games (the Burnout series), your simulation games (such as Forza Motorsport), and you sometimes get combat racing games (like Full Auto). Every now and then, a game comes along that tries to do something different than previous games. Often this comes in the form of a new feature not seen before, like the Crash mode in Burnout. Sometimes though, we get a game which creates a genre all of its own. That’s where Test Drive: Unlimited comes in, creating a brand new section for driving games – Massively Open Online Racing (MOOR).
"But I was only going 170MPH Officer"
The game begins with your custom character taking a flight to the island of Oahu, the 3rd largest of the Hawaiian Islands, which has been fully modelled with over 1000 miles of road to discover. You arrive with a little bit of cash, enough to buy yourself a little home and to get yourself in a car. You start in one of the southern parts of the island, and you’ll have no problems finding a race or activity to take part in, thanks to the handy map and GPS system which will guide you wherever you need to go.
The variety in the races and activities will keep you going for some time. You have your standard lap races and point-to-point races of course, along with the usual time trial kind of races. Alongside that, you also have two types of speed check races – one in which you have to reach the required top speed within the time limit, the other in which you have to pass through various speed cameras and make sure your average speed is greater than required. These are all pretty standard and nothing out of the ordinary as far as driving games are concerned, though some of the races will place a damage limit on you, meaning you can’t go off the road too much, or attempt to nudge everyone out of your way. These limits force you to drive properly, though in some circumstances they are overly restrictive and can get in the way of having fun.
What is slightly out of the ordinary, are the extra activities you can do. You can pick up a model and take her to her destination within the required time limit, give a guy a lift and get him where he needs to go, or deliver a parcel of questionable legality to its destination, as well as returning cars for people. All of these offer you a different experience from the usual races. Delivering the models and hitchhikers successfully will reward you with tokens you can use to purchase new clothes. The number of tokens received depends on the difficulty of the mission and how well you drive, with penalties for going off-road. The item delivery missions are timed, but damage isn’t a factor here. Simply get there in the time limit, and a pretty nice cash reward will be waiting for you. The same can be said of the car delivery missions, though you’ll get a bonus (equal to half the full reward) if the car arrives without a scratch on it. This often means you’ll be driving slower than you’d like (assuming you want all the money), but it’s still a good test of skill trying to get there as fast as you can while keeping the car perfectly safe.
"Do the clothes really make the man?"
Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the multiplayer side of things yet. As long as you have an Xbox Live Gold account, you’re connected to multiplayer from the moment you start the game. You’ll see numerous other players driving around the city, and you can simply ignore them, or flash your headlights at them and challenge them to an instant race. The number of players you’ll see at once will always be kept to a fairly low number so as to keep the speed high, but as you move around the island players will disappear from your view and new ones appear, so you’ll find that you often won’t see the same player again in a session. If you have it in your heart to start a car clan however, fear not, as TDU gives you the option to lock your friends to you so you can all play on the same server, even if it can be a pain to get everyone to show up on the same server initially. Along with this are the usual multiplayer races, with the same types available in multiplayer as in the single player. You can also join or form a racing club, where you can either race your club members, or challenge another club for bragging rights. You can also create and share a custom race of your own design, and race any of the others that have already been uploaded.
So, now that you know what you can actually do, how does the game play? Thankfully, it plays very well, after an initial learning curve. The cars handle and feel slightly different than any racing game I’ve played before. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but they don’t handle quite like a pure racer, nor do they handle like a simulation game. They almost seem to drive from the middle of the cars, rather than the wheels, which makes it feel like turning is limited. It takes a little bit of time to get used to how they handle, which may require you to simply drive around the island for a while. This to my mind is one of the strengths of the game. While you can simply jump around to any of the races/locations you’ve discovered on the island, it’s a lot of fun to get there under your own power. Set the GPS to your destination, put some good tunes on, and drive there as fast or as slow as you like. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time without the pressure of the races or activities. You won’t want to do it all the time of course, but when you’re in no rush to get there, and in the mood for a relaxing drive, cruising around the island can be great fun. One thing to watch out for though is the police. They can be a minor irritant when you’re driving around the island, and a major pain in the backside if you happen to encounter them during a race. They’re a strange set of cops though. Fly past them at 170MPH in an Enzo and they won’t bat at eyelid at you, but brush against another car and they’ll soon be on your tail. Getting away from them can be fairly easy at times – just stay ahead of them – but if you keep hitting cars while you’re trying to escape they’ll become more determined to stop you, which can include the use of roadblocks ahead of you. Get pulled over and you’ll get smacked with a fine which can reach five figures or more. This generally won’t be a problem though, as you’ll find you accumulate a large amount of cash through the game with which to expand your housing and car collection.
"The scenery makes cruising enjoyable"
I can’t review a driving game without mentioning the actual cars that are available to play. As you’d expect from a game of this type, there is a good number and variety of cars to buy. There are 90 available at the start, and while you can purchase more via the Xbox Marketplace, it’s still not a huge amount when compared to other games of the genre (Forza 2 has well over 300). They do all handle slightly differently though, and you can instantly feel the difference between the AWD Gallardo and the RWD Enzo. There are also some bikes to buy in the game, and while they seem like a great idea, they simply don’t handle well enough to be hugely enjoyable. In a straight line they’re near unbeatable, but on a tight twisty course you can’t manoeuvre as well as you should be able to. They almost feel like an afterthought to the game; something put in to appease the gamers who wanted them in there. Hopefully in the inevitable sequel the handling will be tightened, for the cars as well as the bikes.
You can spend a good bit of time upgrading and customising your cars and bikes however. While it doesn’t go anywhere near the depth of Forza, you can take your car or bike to a tuning shop and buy one of three available upgrades for it (Stage 1 to Stage 3, with Stage 3 being the best). The upgrades will all improve the cars handling, braking, speed and acceleration, though one problem I’ve noticed is that if you buy a Stage 1 tuning kit, and then later go back to buy the Stage 3 tuning kit, it costs exactly the same as it would have done if you’d bought it without the Stage 1 kit installed. Considering that the Stage 3 tuning kit improves the car to it’s maximum level, and having lower Stage kits installed makes no difference, I would expect it to cost less if you’ve already bought earlier tuning kits. Alas this isn’t the case, so it’s almost always worth saving up that little bit more and just going straight to the Stage 3 kit, you’ll save money that way. You can also take your car to one of the paint shops to get it sprayed. You can’t go all Need For Speed and put decals and vinyl on your car, but you’ll have plenty of choices colour-wise should you not be very keen on any of the shades your car can be bought in.
"Go offroad if you think you'll get there faster"
Graphically the game looks nice. The cars all look the part, shining in the sun and are instantly recognisable to any car enthusiast. The interiors are modelled as well, though until I get to test drive all of the cars in the game for real, I can’t tell you have realistic they actually are. Still, it’s nice that they’re in there. The island looks lovely too, to the point where you’d consider going there for a scenic holiday (though you’ll have seen most of the island by the time you’re finished), though it does lack detail in places, such as with the other cars that are on the road. It’s almost as if everyone on the island is barred from buying the cars you have available and have to go to one specific car dealer, who has a very limited range of cars for sale. The fact that you can smash them up leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth as well, for try as you might, you can’t put a single dent or scratch in your baby. Of course you probably won’t want to, but damage modelling is becoming more of a fan favourite in games lately, so it’s something that some people will no doubt miss.
The soundtrack for the game is one of the better ones in driving games lately. As a genre driving games often get fairly generic rock tunes, but the soundtrack in TDU has some notable bands in it, including Queens of the Stone Age and the James Gang. However, while the soundtrack is good, it’s also small, containing 30 or so songs. On some of the longer races (some of which can last nearly an hour) you’ll probably start to find the soundtrack repetitive and eventually move on to your own custom soundtrack. The engine sounds in the game are okay as well, though they’re not up to the same standard as games like Project Gotham Racing. They’re certainly not annoying though, it’s probably only the real car aficionados who would have a problem with it.
"That'd leave a scratch if there were damage modelling"
The achievements for the game are nicely laid out, with a good range which will force you to get the most out of the game. The majority revolve around the single player side of things, for such things as winning a certain amount of races, or completely a number of activities. There are also collection type achievements, gained for owning a certain number of cars, house or clothes, as well as certain makes of car (Ferrari, Aston Martin etc). As is pretty much standard in driving games now, there are also achievements based on the multiplayer side, for winning a certain number of races etc. Overall they’re well organised and designed to help you play through the game’s various sections, rather than focussing on one particular race type.
Test Drive: Unlimited is a title that seeks to create a new style of driving game. It seamlessly brings together single and multiplayer and blurs the lines between the two, so you have trouble knowing where one stops and the other starts. Just being able to drive around an island like Oahu is wonderful in itself, but being able to see other players driving around as well, and being able to challenge them with a flash of your headlights, is a great gamesplaying experience. It’s not perfect by any means - the handling could do with more work, the tuning is overly simple, and the bikes seem to be tacked on – but it’s one of the best driving games on the Xbox 360 today. Any driving fan would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t pick this up for a try.
The car sounds are lacking somewhat when compared to games like Project Gotham and Forza 2, but they’re not bad. The music is more than passable. It’s a sign of a decent soundtrack to a driving game when I’m not instantly reaching for my own custom playlist. However, there are simply not enough songs in the soundtrack to prevent them from repeating themselves too often.
The cars are all modelled accurately and look great, but you’ll soon notice the limited number of cars driven by the general public and the lack of detail in everything from other cars on the road, to the buildings in town and even the foliage. The island itself also looks lovely, but a bit more variety there wouldn’t go amiss either.
The variety in the races, from the speed challenges to the car delivery missions, will keep you entertained for some time, and that’s not even mentioning the multiplayer side of things. It’ll just take you a while to get to grips with the handling of each car.
The game is delivered expertly, with single player and multiplayer sides of the game working together in tandem. The excellent map always makes sure you know where you are, and the ability to filter the map to show you what’s left to beat makes it easy to keep track of what’s left to do.
A good mix of quick fix achievements, alongside some time consuming ones. The majority of the achievements are based on the single player side, as well as collection goals, which means that even if you don’t play online at all, you’ll be able to get a good amount of points from the game.
The sometimes flaky handling stops the game from being a classic, but it’s certainly one of the more enjoyable driving games around. The integration of the multiplayer game alongside the single player section makes it accessible to all players, and the variety of things to do will keep you going for some time.