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Test Drive Unlimited
Developer: Eden Games & Melbourne House
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: September 2006 (XBOX 360 version played), March 2007 (PS2, PC, PSP)
Genre Keywords: Sandbox, Driving Arcade, Driving Simulation, CaRPG
Tagline: 1,000 miles of satellite-mapped roads of Oahu, by yourself or online with others

There have been a few attempts at non-trackbased racing games. The first ever Test Drive gave you large, realistic road environments where the endpoint was reachable through any combination of backroads, intersections, train crossings and even offroad (not very efficient though). Midtown Madness gave you a living city to mess about in, with variable races defined by merely the starting and the ending point. More recently, Need For Speed: Most Wanted allowed free riding through its fictional city, in search of races, rivals or places to shop. Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown took the opposite approach by providing a living world to inhabit and play in, with one of the potential playmodes being racing. Still, so far no one has modeled a full-blown island based on real map data that you were completely free to seamlessly ride, end-to-end, or instantly (well, nearly) warp to any spot and setup an impromptu race from. That is, until now.

On top of this there's the tantalizing lure of persistent, MMO-like features, including the ability to gain more cash for cars, locations and clothing for your driver. More importantly, there is the ability to encounter other players on the Live network while driving around in your game, and instantly challenge them to an impromptu race or one of the many predefined challenges. The meshing of single player and multiplayer is so seamless that it's really hard to define where one ends and the other begins - no navigating menus, no selecting of modes, simply get in your car and drive, and both types of challenges await. You have a realtime display of drivers in your vicinity as you drive; in an interesting parallel to real life, driving around in the desert has a far lower incidence rate of other drivers than driving in urban areas.

The career mode itself consist of completing races that dot the map - you start out with a small selection and discover more as you drive around Oahu. Some will require you to have a more, or less powerful car; some will require that it be a 2-seater, and some will require a motorcycle. In order to acquire all these things you will have to win races for cash, and explore the roads of Oahu to unlock more races, car dealerships and other locations. Races can be point-to-point, laps, or time attacks. There are a few special modes as well, including speed tests (reach a certain speed on twisty, winding roads), speed average tests (go past several cameras in an area within a time limit, obtaining a certain average speed) and delivery races (deliver a car in good condition with no time limit, but on trafficked roads). These last ones are particularly challenging, as delivering the car completely unharmed gives you a solid cash bonus - but you're typically driving a high-end car that you're not familiar with against the traffic. Expect many instances of controller-hurling rage with this one.

There are also side events that you can attempt to obtain coupons - a separate currency used to deck out your ingame avatar in new and fancy threads. These events typically consist of a timed delivery mission in a designated vehicle class, ideally without too much damage to the car. Damage is not reflected visually nor does it affect performance - it is simply a measure of your ability to not run into things or drive off the road.

The car line-up is decent (if weighed heavily towards the high-end vehicles), but contains several puzzling gaps where Porsche, BMW, and the entire automotive output of Japan should be. Despite this lack, there is a definite feeling that a lot of solid work was put into making the cars as distinct and interesting to drive as possible, with interactive cockpits rendered for each and every car and driving dynamics and sounds sufficiently variable to feel authentic, although most dedicated sims will do better in these last two aspects. Still, with an increasing number of racing games going for vehicle quantity and dismissing in-cockpit view, TDU's decision to go with fewer models is more than acceptable. Finally, there are downloadable car packs on the XBox 360 that further flesh out the automotive line-up, although Japan remains conspicuously absent.

Since I've avoided a list up until now and I'm feeling the lack, I'll go ahead and wrap this up with two of them!

Pros:

  • Oahu, in digital form
  • Organic-feeling races, and a ton of them
  • In-cockpit views for every car in game
  • Seamless multiplayer
  • Several extra racing modes
  • Motorcycles!
  • Tweaks to customize your racing experience - ranges from full arcade to an arcade/sim balance

Cons:

  • Some gaps in car line-up
  • Physics a little iffy on hilly roads; cars a bit too prone to flight
  • Oahu decor consists mostly of two types of generic forest, desert, loose urban and crowded urban
  • AI civilian traffic is dumber than bricks
On a personal note, TDU hits all my weak spots by offering a sandbox play world with seamlessly integrated (but optional) online components and a racing model that's a well-balanced representation of the arcade/simulation range. The optional challenges spice up the variety, and no two races are the same due to all the Oahu roads available to you. The only improvement I would wish for is a bit more visual variety but then again, I suspect Oahu was chosen on purpose since it is a rather uniform environment. Perhaps for the sequel we can go to Great Britain.

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