Just for the sake of argument, let's stipulate that there are 240 working days in the year, and that the typical working day is eight hours long. Now given that on each and every one of those days I will spend a minimum of one hour driving to and from work, and assuming that my math is correct, that means I spend 240 hours each year driving the unfriendly highways and byways of my city. Using the same eight hour work day, that equates to 30 working days each year, which means an additional six work weeks every year. Now anyone that has had the (mis)fortune of enduring a ride in a car with me knows that I am not the most patient of drivers. It's not that I'm in any kind of hurry to get to work, it's just that I don't think driving is a particularly difficult task to master, and I have little patience for drivers that aren't willing to put forth any kind of effort at all in doing it correctly. And, of course, the dimwits that insist on parking themselves out in the far left lane (aka the 'fast lane') going 5 mph below the speed limit (and you must note that I consider 'speed limit' to be synonymous with 'drive no slower than') are a source of nearly endless frustration to me. When you also consider the fact that I believe the standard mark-up on highway speeds to be posted limit + 15 mph and that I am therefore constantly on the lookout for officers of the law waiting in ambush for drivers such as myself, you will begin to appreciate why I find the latest version of Atari's Test Drive series, Test Drive Unlimited, to be the coolest thing since German autobahns: while there are police officers driving the streets of Hawaii in TDU, they are completely uninterested in enforcing speed restrictions. Blow by them at 160 mph, nary a glance. But hit another car, even if it's just a scratch in the Clearcoat, and they get very interested. Compound the damage by hitting a few more while you try to get away from them, and they will set up a roadblock. These are rules that I can live with!
I've played around with previous versions of the Test Drive series, and while I found them to be entertaining in a console-ish sort of way, I never considered them to be all that great for much other than quick diversions to fill the time between when the wife says she's “almost ready to go” and the actual time when she truly is ready to go, which is often as long as half an hour. It was easy to jump right into a Test Drive session because the races were canned and short which was great in those situations, but for any serious length of play time the whole thing felt somewhat disjointed and unsatisfying. With TDU, however, a complete paradigm shift has occurred, and what is essentially a hybrid combination of the old Test Drive races and the free-form autonomy to do what you please, when you please ala the Grand Theft Auto games (albeit without the hookers and guns) makes for an absolutely addictive driving game. In TDU, you can drive real-world cars on real-world roads. You can literally map a route on MapQuest or Google maps and drive the exact same route in the game. Granted, that wouldn't be much of a benefit of the map you were using was, say, Topeka, Kansas or Altus, Oklahoma, but the TDU designers made an incredibly smart selection of the world to map: the entire island of Oahu! If you want a nice mix of city streets, wide highways, and windy mountainous roads, I don't think you could find a better place than Hawaii, and of course, the scenery is simply fantastic.
It's always a difficult thing to get a good balance between overly rigid structure and totally autonomous gameplay while retaining sufficient incentives to keep the player interested long enough to finish the game. I've complained in the past about racing games that require the player to jump through numerous flaming hoops to gain access to anything but the most basic cars, and the process of having to go out and earn money to “buy” cars that I thought I had already paid for at Best Buy always rubbed me the wrong way. Conversely, I don't think I ever finished more any more than the first few missions of a Grand Theft Auto game, preferring to just drive around town creating random mayhem. With Test Drive Unlimited, though, I think the perfect mix has been achieved. For example, to get to any of the races on the island for the first time, you have to drive there. After the first time driving in a location on the island, though, you can always go back just by left clicking on the map. This compromise ensures that you at least have the opportunity to lose some of your dollars to traffic fines rather than just transporting yourself around the island gathering gravy with no risk whatsoever. I didn't find it to be burdensome at all, and actually enjoyed seeing the scenery and weaving through traffic. Oddly enough, I often found myself reaching for the turn signals before making a turn!
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