Reviewed: March 24, 2011
Released: February 8, 2011
The Test Drive racing series has had a presence in console gaming for over twenty years, beginning with the original release for sports publisher Accolade way back in 1987. Two follow-up releases came and went without much fanfare, but with the release of Test Drive 4 in 1997 on the then-new PlayStation console the Test Drive series became a household name amongst gamers for letting gamers race high-power muscle cars and high-priced exotics side-by-side through dream racing locales like the hills of San Francisco, The snow-capped Swiss Alps, and the highways of Japan. |
The Test Drive series, helmed by UK developer Pitbull Syndicate, was put in a head-to-head battle with EA’s fledgling Need for Speed series with near one-for-one releases over the subsequent three years – ultimately succumbing to EA’s series after a lackluster revisiting of the series in 2002 could not steal the critic’s attention away from the seminal Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. Pitbull Syndicate moved onto arguably greener pastures and the Test Drive street racing series was put on hiatus in 2002.
During those cold war years for PlayStation racing, the two series attempted to branch out into new territory with Test Drive taking on the Off-road 4x4 Racing, and Need for Speed delving into the world of European Rally racing with the excellent V-Rally series. The V-Rally series was developed by a French outfit called Eden Studios, which was an in-house developer for the classic French publisher Infogrames. Prior to their work in with racing games, the folks at Eden were developing games that centered around the Smurfs – but with V-Rally (V-Rally 2 specifically) Eden proved that they knew how to make a great racing game. As a result EA handed Eden the reins to the 2000 release Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed, and the follow-up release of V-Rally 3. When the popularity of WRC rally racing faded, Eden found itself working on action-adventure and survival horror titles to mixed results – garnering moderate attention with Kya: Dark Lineage, and then failing miserably with their substandard remake of the classic Alone In The Dark title.
It all gets a bit confusing, but around about 2005 Test Drive publisher Accolade was then consumed by Infogrames who subsequently gobbled up he Atari brand and changed their name to Atari S.A. This put the Test Drive franchise under the control of the folks who were once in charge of the folks at Eden Studios – now called Eden Games. The Test Drive franchise was handed over to Eden Games, resulting in the online-heavy Test Drive Unlimited in 2006.
Test Drive Unlimited plopped gamers on a near picture-perfect representation of the island of Oahu and simply let the roam about and explore. Certain intersections and areas would offer racing trials of one form or another, which upon completion allowed gamers to level-up and improve their vehicle collections. And when the single-player gaming became stale, there was always the persistent online world going on about the gamer that allowed racers to interact on the fly – whether simply to show off their vehicles, or to stage instantaneous racing challenges. It was all so simple, and aside from a handful of sketchy technical issues, it was an excellent racing title that really added something new to the racing genre.
Four year later, and Eden has released the first follow-up with Test Drive Unlimited 2; and while the gameplay is nowhere near as impressive as the original title (especially following the release of Burnout Paradise), and the technical glitches actually seem to be worse this time around, it is still a title worthy of the old-school Test Drive lineage and is ultimately one heck of a good time. So what is different this time around?
For starters, the location has changed – with the story now taking place on the trendy party isle of Ibiza, which like Oahu of the first title has been accurately portrayed in size and scale. What’s that mean? We are not talking about the Grand Theft Auto series and its kinda-sorta miniaturized versions of real-world locations, we’re talking an island that takes nearly an hour or more to drive from tip to tip that contains over 2000 miles of roadway. Yes, the island is absolutely huge – and while gamers can transport from place to place amongst the roads that have already been explored, everything has to be driven at least once to be accessible. That is a ton of driving.
The second major change comes in the form of a full-fledged single player story mode. Basically the gamer takes the role of a down-and-out valet driver (as selected from a handful of male and female character models and predefined named) who dreams of racing in the famed Solar Crown racing series. For some odd reason, a bad-tempered television host – slash – race car driver offers our hero a chance to race in the Solar Crown (against her) in trade for you driving her in her own car to the studio in time for her taping. Exactly why she (a race car driver) would hand the keys of her Ferrari over to a valet expecting him (or her) to be able to drive her faster than she can herself is beyond me, but TDU2’s story starts out just that silly and stays that way until the bitter end. Racing games have attempted to interject stories into racing games ever since Codemasters Pro Race Driver series and the results have been mixed – in the case of Test Drive Unlimited 2 the story is atrocious.
TDU2 maintains the street racing theme, breaking the action up between “Classic” and “Asphalt” cars. In addition, as a nod to Eden’s V-Rally days, they have added “Dirt” racing to the mix. In all, I was most impressed with the mechanics of the Dirt racing which seemed a bit more forgiving than the extremely cramped street action. I am a sucker for license challenges, and Test Drive Unlimited does a killer job with the license testing in the three schools of driving mentioned earlier. I actually could have stayed all day working through my licenses if the game did not force a particular progression of the story.
And that is really the downfall of the game is the forced progression which is not always clear. In more than one instance I have been well into one wild goose chase, only to be called by another character and sent on a different wild goose chase that seems to take priority, then finding out that I should have stuck with my original plan. There are a lot of wild goose chases in TDU2. And while we’re talking about the bad points, I have to talk about the terrible voice acting and laughable storyline cutscenes. If the story were not corny enough, the people Eden hired to deliver it do it no favors. I typically like to feel some emotional connection to my characters, and with TDU2 it took all I could muster to not absolutely hate my valet character and the rest of the cast.
On the technical end, the game has some serious problems. For starters, the visuals seem to chug when the action gets at all intense, and even in single player mode there is lag-like bouncing around of opponent’s cars, horrible draw distances and pop-in, and even tears and rips in the scenery. This is most likely a result of the “seamless” integration of online and offline play the game attempts to deliver – but unlike the original TDU, the online component is incredibly buggy. Word has it that there are problems with the servers, but when a game relies so heavily on online interaction in an offline world, it affects the entire game.
I was also a bit thrown off by the physics, which are inconsistent to say the least. Sure, driving on an asphalt course feels like driving on asphalt, and driving on a dirt course feels like dirt – but go off-course on either and into the beautifully rendered countryside and I’ll be damned of the vehicles do not seem to speed up and drive without any sensation of being off-road. In fact, it was often more convenient to simply cut across fields in my street car rather than deal with the traffic, with the only obstacle being the thin plank-rail fences that are magically impenetrable even to a car hitting them at 120mph. This lack of reality was really distracting considering most games have addressed these issues long ago.
On the sound front, the game is really lacking compared to a Grand Theft Auto. The sounds of the car lack that certain uniqueness, and the fact that we only have two radio stations to choose from is unacceptable. Add to that the previously mentioned voice acting, and it’s pretty obvious that the sound was either not the focus of the quality testers, or it has been lost in translation. Bleeeagh…
But you do have to give it to the folks at Eden for the amazing presentation of the islands (Oahu is available later in the game) with the birds-eye-view satellite mapping. Eden also delivers a neat leveling system that incorporates elements they call Competition (Racing Results), Collection (Amassing goods), Social (Amassing and interacting with friends), Discovery (Discovering all roads). Nearly every challenge will add to one or more of these items, leveling gamers up to buy and tweak more vehicles.
I am a bit torn when it comes to Test Drive Unlimited 2. It is definitely not the worst racing game I have played, but it is marred with technical problems that really do affect the gameplay. I would be willing to overlook these issues if the storyline was either better or nonexistent, but as it stands the story is not even enjoyable in an ironic sort of corny way – it is just frustrating to not give a damn about the characters, especially your own. Add to that the fact that the online component is in need of some serious attention, and this game has a number of issues that combine together to create a seuqel that is not nearly as good as its predecessor, yet still has its moments of greatness. I did have a fun exploring the streets tight streets of Ibiza, and the license testing was implemented fantastically, but there are a lot better racing games out there.