Let me start out with a confession: Iâ€™m not a passionate fan of driving and racing games. First, Iâ€™m not one of those gearhead gamers with a bolt-on, solid steel gaming wheel and weighted pedals, who knows the serial number off of every Ford engine block from 1962, who gives a rat's ass about the handling of a Maserati with tires at 33 psi vs. 35 psi, or who drinks engine oil like it was milk. I enjoy the pure arcade racers more, but I have neither the time nor reflexes required to be an ace racer.
These caveats aside, Iâ€™ve really enjoyed my time with Atari's Test Drive: Unlimited for the xBox 360. While it comes up a bit short on graphical brilliance, and the single player game isnâ€™t going to bury the needle on anyone's fun meter, playing multiplayer Test Drive: Unlimited is a little like cruising on a warm summer Saturday night. There are some races and challenges to be had if you want them, or you can just spend hours driving around in some cool machines, enjoying the lovely scenery and the companionship of like-minded enthusiasts.
In both single and multiplayer modes, TDU really feels like a giant playground. In this case, the playground is the entire island of Oahu, lovingly rendered in incredible detail. If youâ€™ve been there, youâ€™ll recognize the landmarks and the roads and feel right at home; if youâ€™ve never been to Oahu, this game might just give you the urge to see it for real.
The Single Player Game
After the tutorial, the single player game presents the player with a wide-open set of options and goals, without any particular push or pressure to rush through them. Basically, you'll want to complete the "missions" (races, time circuits, escort missions, errands and deliveries) so that you can earn money to buy better cars, aftermarket gear, better houses, toys, and stylin' new clothes. The single player game, a little like the Grand Theft Auto series and its many clones, really encourages leisurely exploration and discovery. Most of these races and missions are pretty short, and they can be played in just about any sequence, so you can dip in and out and not have to commit a huge block of time.
Unfortunately, the tasks themselves are not always particularly engaging and some of the delivery missions are pretty mundane, no matter how pretty the scenery or bitchin' your wheels are. The single-player races are not extremely exciting either, as the AI opponents seem to be hard-wired to very specific and predictable patterns. In other words, run the same race more than once, and you'll notice that your computer opponents make the same mistakes the second or third time around.
In addition to races, other missions usually involve getting from point A to point B while facing a ticking timer and negotiating road hazards, weather, and traffic. These can be tricky to complete, given Oahu's winding roadpaths and sometimes heavy congestion. One great thing about the single player game is that you'll never run out of things to do. There are always new cars to shop for in the auto showrooms, clothes and houses to covet and earn, and there's always another pretty vista around the next corner.
There's real incentive to run the races and complete the missions because you'll want cash to buy new cars that you can carry into the multiplayer mode, which is really the heart and soul of this title, and there are really quite a few cool little touches and interesting ideas in this aspect of the game.
In multiplayer mode, players can freely explore the island, moving seamlessly from a Google Earth-like satellite view to a right-behind-the-bumper camera. Players can challenge one another (by flashing their headlights) in player-created circuit races, join with one another in car clubs (the TD:U version of a guild) and of course, engage in some high-speed competition. The club concept is very cool. Clubs can challenge each other, hang out at their clubhouse and exchange gear and cars, and of course, keep track of stats, rankings, and bragging rights.
In order to create circuit races, players have to achieve the Pro ranking in the single-player game, which opens up the easy-to-use editor tool. Players meet at drive-ins to share maps and take on challenges. All in all, the multiplayer mode more than makes up for the somewhat pedestrian single-player goals and missions.
Graphics, Controls, Sound, and Interface
There are approximately 90 licensed cars and other vehicles in the game, a small number compared to the hundreds available in Gran Turismo, but I found the variety more than adequate. There is comparatively minimal tweaking one can do to the cars, and handling is pretty simple. Though it takes a while to get used to each vehicle's responsiveness, even a digitally challenged driver can get the feel pretty quickly. I've heard some pretty negative comments about motorcycle handling in the game, though I admitedly didn't try them myself. Of course, there are a huge number of tricks and secrets to learn that make handling the cars into a winning proposition.
Off-road handling doesnâ€™t seem to be influenced much by the terrain; grass, dirt, and wet surfaces all feel the same. There are some issues with collision detection and damage (there basically isn't any). Running into a wall feels the same as plowing into a bush, for example. And the realism of the environment now and then displays some strange omissions. Take a spill into the water, for example, and there is nary a splash, just a reset back to the road. Overall, the cars handle more like an arcade game than a hardcore racer.
The cars look very good, but perhaps not as photorealistic as one might hope for given the graphical muscle of the 360. Human figure models, on the other hand, look pretty bland by most next-gen game standards and animations aren't particularly smooth. On the plus side, the environment is rendered beautifully and convincingly and it really is a pleasure just driving around, seeing the sites.
The cars sound muscular and loud though honestly, I'm not enough of an expert to know the difference in engine sounds between a Pontiac GTO and a Mustang so I'll have to leave those distinctions to other, more refined ears. The music on the in-game radio is varied but extremely limited. There are only about 30 tracks, and few are from name artists (you can import your own tracks, however). Ambient sounds are well done. Human character voice acting is a relatively small aspect of the game, and adequate but unremarkable. Character customization is limited, but you have a large number of in-game character types to choose from.
I play console games rarely enough that when a control scheme and interface are easy to pick up and manage, I really appreciate it. Controls are logical and consistent with other racing titles. The circuit editor, once unlocked, is easy to use.
TDU will appeal most to casual racers who enjoy the freedom of GTA-like gameplay and want to create courses and drive online with (and against) their friends. In some ways, multiplayer TD:U is really a very elaborate, beautiful and action-filled chatroom/playground. The single player experience isn't terribly bad, just not very interesting, though it is easy to dip in for a few minutes and play a mission which I appreciated. If you're looking for a pure racer, or like to tinker under the hood, look elsewhere. But if all you want is to feel the tropical breezes as you cruise in the island sunset, Test Drive: Unlimited will be a gas.
Graphics: the environment is great; cars good; figure models not so great
Sound: limited in-game music selection; vehicle and ambient sounds are well done
Gameplay (Single player): missions are sometimes dull and races predictable
Multiplayer: the heart of the title and a great reason to pick this one up