Dating back to 1987 when the Commodore 64 ruled the world and the Test Drive franchise was under the Accolade banner, I have had some sort of relationship with a Test Drive title. So I was pretty excited when I loaded up Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2) for the first time and felt like I was getting a visit from an old friend. The game itself is a direct sequel to the original TDU released in September 2006, which I thought was one of the most underrated titles on the Xbox 360 that year. Unfortunately, that version also happened to release between annual Madden and Call of Duty titles and was lost in the shuffle for the majority of gamers. This time around, TDU2 didn’t have to face that kind of competition and also brought along a slug of new and interesting updates to the game.
There have been several major changes from the original TDU to TDU2. Chief among them is that the game is simply bigger and has more to do, including two islands (Ibiza and Oahu of Hawaii) to explore, 3,200 kilometers of roads (TDU only had 1,600k) and 300 more challenges (650+ to only 350+ in TDU.) A handful of other changes include a narrative over the single player campaign, decals shops (to customize your ride), damage to the vehicles, dirt roads and more. All of these together add up to enough change from the original title that TDU2 feels fresh and new despite sticking to the core principals of TDU. One big disappointment for me was that the bikes were not brought back. Once you knew how to handle one, they were some of best vehicles in the original TDU for competing in challenges due to their quick acceleration and maneuverability.
Once you get into the game, the first thing you encounter is some hot chick (Tess Wintory) who’s daddy happens to be filthy rich and owns a racing outfit called Solar Crown. She chastises your valet character for dreaming of being a race car driver and then asks you to join the Solar Crown circuit. Welcome to your racing career kid. This gentle push into the storyline also unwittingly provides you with the path (forced tutorial, but in a fun way) to follow in order to access all aspects of the game. As you complete this initial phase you get your first house w/garage, purchase your initial used car and you can start doing whatever you want. It is probably best to go to the asphalt driving school to get your basic license so you can start competing in events and make some money, but you can take your car and start exploring too.
Regardless of how you choose to play the game (free ride, campaign, online racing, etc), the core of your advancement depends on building up your Global level. This is composed of four skills including Discovery, Collection, Competition and Social. Each is unique and has about a dozen ways to improve it as you progress through the game. The most logical way to level up quickly is to do a little of each as you progress through the game, but again, you can do whatever you want based on how you like to play. Out of the four, my favorite is the Discovery skill because I enjoy sandbox style free play games and you are rewarded just for driving around the islands and finding points of interest, shops, wrecked cars and places to take photos. You also get credit for every mile of road you find and drive, so don’t be shy about hitting any road that you haven’t been on before; you never know what might be found on it. While this may seem like the easy way out to advance in the game, it is critical to find these spots as you can ear additional cars from wrecks, cash from photos and the shops provide the ability to buy cars, clothes and updates your character and vehicle.
Collection is simply going out and winning, buying or finding items. Much like discovery, you stumble onto some of these and have to earn others. The Competition is obvious, as you race and win events this increases and unlocks more challenges and Solar Crown events. The Social piece was basically broken when I received the review copy, as Atari had to shut down this aspect of the game due to exploits and other technical issues until a patch was put in place (see more on this later.) However, like the other skills, this is equally important to raising your global level. Finding and joining a club is especially important, as this is the key to multiplayer racing within the game. Sure you can wing it alone and jump in and out of multiplayer challenges with unknown players, but a club of buddies can make all the difference in the world when doing these challenges. Also, you have the ability to just hang out and walk around your club area to chill (ala Sony’s Home), but I think this aspect is highly overrated (just like Sony’s Home.)Eden did make some logical improvements to the game, especially with how you acquire money. With the original TDU, you had to grind away (basically farm) the single player races in order to accumulate money to buy houses, cars and more. In TDU 2, they have added a slick little wrinkle that allows you to earn or “bank” money. During your everyday driving, as you can perform drifts, explore areas and drive recklessly without actually hitting anything a counter that accumulates cash begins. It starts at $100 and climbs from there as you string together more money making moves. This can be a chore, but there are ways (and locations) on the islands where you can build this up this quickly and add to your bankroll. It is a nice change of pace from the traditional farming, but it fills your bank account more slowly. Because of this you will still have to “farm” like in traditional MMOs, as even in this Massively Open Online Racing (MOOR) title you need to just grind away at races, challenges and in multiplayer events to earn enough cash to buy that next car or house. It isn’t a bad experience, but if you need something right away (like a specific car or car class for a photo or a Solar Crown race) you have to be a bit patient until you have the garage space and vehicle in your possession.
Another new addition is the TDU Casino online, which was initially a pre-order timed-exclusive from GameStop. It is available to everyone as DLC for 800 MS Pts and provided another outlet to win cars and prizes and an exclusive race track to test your new cars at. All cars and prizes do carry over into TDU despite this being a stand-alone piece. One last new item is a police chase mode that allows you and other players in your area to get souped up squad cars and try and track down a fugitive and hit him with an EMP pulse to knock out his engine. This is kind of cool, as essentially you and seven strangers are all after one crack pot, and it beats the heck out of the police chasing YOU down with their cars and helicopters. If successful you can earn money and raise your skill level.
While I really do enjoy the TDU2 experience, there are a couple of things that irritate me about the game and they both go back to required parts of the game in order to move on. The first is at the driving schools, where you have to grind your way through the set tests in order to get a car class license and get farther in the Solar Crown competition. While they don’t seem that hard at first, the better the class of vehicles license you are trying to get, the more tests you have to pass. Unfortunately, I found myself having to take different parts of the driving tests four, five or six times to pass it. This is just plain annoying to me because the tests expect near-perfect driving in order to meet the requirement to pass. Anyone that has played the TDU franchise knows that the actual races contain anything but “perfect” driving. This also leads to another annoyance in the time trials portion of the Solar Crown races. In this mode, you race against the best individual time set by the other seven competitors while also getting penalized for getting off the road or hitting things. In the other race modes for each Solar Crown event when you are on the course with them, the AI racers aren’t nearly as good as the inflated times that they get when you aren’t on the road with them. As a result, you end of having to replay if you get a poor time in order to have any chance at winning the entire Solar Crown event and getting the full bonus money that goes with it.
While I am on things about the game that are negative, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the state of game when it shipped. Unfortunately, it had some issues with exploits, corrupt save files and problems in the club system that forced Atari to pull the plug on these pieces of the game until a patch could be crafted. I personally didn’t experience the problems, as the pieces in question were already off-limits by the time our review copy arrived. Regardless, it is generally viewed as a “no-no” in the gaming industry to release a seriously flawed title, but Atari was able to patch all versions within a month or so. Unfortunately, the multiplayer and social sides of the game appear to have taken a substantial hit. While I have seen a continual increase of players since the patch for the Xbox 360 version was released, it doesn’t appear to be anywhere the level of what I saw in the original TDU title. This may change as people revisit the game during lags in the game release schedule, but it is hard for a title to build momentum when two of its largest components have to be taken offline to patch them up. There are other quirks in the game (such as how the cars respond in specific driving modes and the seemingly random crash damage results), but the pure fun of the game overrides most of this.
One thing that can’t be denied is how beautiful the game is, as on the surface looks very, very good. How could you mess it up with scenery from Ibiza and Hawaii? The folks at Eden have done a marvelous job of creating a beautiful and lush environment and adding in the wrinkles of day to night transition, weather, character models that are outstanding and of course, beautiful cars. The cut-scenes always look outstanding, but there were several times when I was just sitting by the side of the road and the grass looked….flat, without any depth. To me, the devil is in the details and a lot of the environment looks just ‘ok’ up close. The game definitely looks its best when viewed while speeding along or scenery in the distance. With all of the things to do and find in the game, I wonder if maybe a focus on being a simpler game with an emphasis on graphics and physics would have been better.
Because TDU2 allows you to play it your way (whether you like to free roam, complete single-player challenges or race against your friends and enemies), there is a little something for everyone and something new and fun pops up on just about every mile of roadway. Although the fun factor is off the charts, there are some finer details (graphics, more balanced AI, more realistic vehicle handling) that could have been paid some more attention. However, the game is priced at $10 less than normal full retail titles, so I think the developer did a fine job of balancing the look and feel with the overall playability so you do get a lot of bang for your buck. I would have given the game a straight ‘B’, but shipping the title with as many flaws as it had and the subsequent delay to rectify them is inexcusable and cost it a half a letter grade.